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Learning Skills

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a 5-paragraph essay acceptable at UCLA?

No. Three body paragraphs do not usually explore the complexity of university assignments. However, most essays still follow a similar framework: 1) introduction paragraph, 2) body paragraphs, 3) conclusion paragraph.

Do I have to make an outline?

Yes. In high school, it was easy to keep 3-5 main ideas in your head. At the university, however, ideas are complex. As the computer changes screens, it is difficult to keep track of ideas. Students who do not begin with outlines often have poorly organized papers. Their paragraphs seem to float rather than build logically from the previous paragraph. 

Outlines do not need to be fancy. Roman numerals and letters are not necessary. Realize, however, that detailed outlines with topic sentences and quotes provide instructors and tutors with a clearer vision of your preliminary work. Thus, they could provide you with specific responses. Yet, one word lists of ideas also help you keep track of what you have said and what you need to say.

Do I have to have a thesis statement before I start writing?

No. You do not need a concrete thesis statement to begin your pre-writing. However, be sure you have a focus for your paper, a direction of argument. As you continue writing, a more specific and complex thesis will emerge and you should narrow your focus, your working thesis accordingly. You may even notice as you continue writing and brainstorming that you've lost your original thesis. This is normal. Remember that writing is a continual process that takes many revisions.

Can I restate the essay question in my thesis?

Yes, but don't make that your argument/thesis. Of course, you need to address essay prompts in your thesis statement but you also want a complex, exploratory, and original thesis statement. Just answering the essay question limits your creativity and intellectual capacity as a writer by channeling your thoughts a certain way. Essay prompts are meant to probe your mind and get you thinking. The direction you take with it is entirely within your limits. Most of the time there is no right or wrong answer but the difference between a good and great essay is determined by your level of insightful analysis.

Does the thesis statement need to present an argument?

Yes. There are some exceptions, but there are few assignments at UCLA that ask students to regurgitate or describe. Also, keep in mind that there exists many accepted truths and stating them does not count as an argument. The following sentence exemplifies this point: Universities cannot admit all applicants. A more successful thesis states, How a university should decide who it admits, Why are these guidelines successful? What are the potential problems with this set of guidelines? Who will create these guidelines? Why? These questions explore the same topic in a more creative and critical manner.

Does the thesis have to be one sentence?

No. A one sentence thesis statement worked in high school where five paragraph essays were common. At the university, however, arguments must be more sophisticated. For example, in high school, an acceptable argument may have been, Communism does not work. You then listed three reasons why communism does not work. 

At the university, however, you must extend, or complicate, this argument. First, focus your argument. In what country does communism not work? What factors define your idea of failure and success? Why has communism failed? Are there examples of countries where communism worked? Why was communism successful in these countries? What other form(s) of government work better? Why? After you have considered these questions you construct a clear thesis which highlights the arguments you intend to explore in your body paragraphs.

Does the thesis have to appear at the end of an introduction paragraph?

No. Many composition instructors find it acceptable for the thesis statement to appear in the introduction's first sentence or somewhere in the body of the opening paragraph. It is important, however, that your argument appears somewhere in the introduction paragraph. 

There are exceptions to this convention. For instance, research papers are very long and explore and address multiple issues. Here, theses statements may appear in the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th paragraphs following other necessary information such as critical definitions or historical contexts. For most essays, however, we suggest that the argument appear at the end of the introduction paragraph. This format allows you to set up background and supporting information that serve as a spring board for your argument.

What is the appropriate length of an introductory paragraph?

There is no set standard. An introductory paragraph must introduce all of the ideas that appear in the body of your essay in the order that they appear. The introduction should also include your argument. If your introduction satisfies these requirements, it meets the appropriate length for your essay. For term papers, introductions may be longer than one paragraph.

What are some ways to write an introductory paragraph?

This really depends on your personal style and whatever comes naturally to you. But remember that your introduction should grab the attention of your reader and sets the tone of your essay (eg. formal, amusing etc.) so chose an appropriate "hook." Also, you must relate the ideas/examples/quotes you present in your introduction to the thesis statement. Some things to consider are outrageous and interesting quotes, dramatic facts/statistics, related anecdotes/stories, personal experiences, popular misconceptions, probing questions.

Do my body paragraphs need topic sentences?

Yes. Just like your essay needs a thesis to argue a point your body paragraph needs a topic sentence to argue a point. Essentially, a body paragraph is a mini-essay. You are trying to prove, show, describe, or explain something to your audience in this paragraph. Thus, the topic sentence should assert this and should, most of the time, be the first sentence in your body paragraph. Only very well-organized and cohesive body paragraphs can have topic sentences at the end of the paragraphs.

When do I start a new body paragraph?

Basically, a paragraph should convey one message, one point; this point should be argued in the topic sentence. Thus, paragraph breaks should occur every time a new topic sentence is written. Finally, as a general rule, a paragraph should be no more than one page. If you notice 1 or 2 page paragraphs that's a clue that you must revise. There's bound to be more than one idea conveyed in the paragraph and you should break up those arguments into separate body paragraphs.

How many examples/analogies/quotes do I need to prove my point in my body paragraphs?

There is no magic number. The key is not your number of examples but rather the effectiveness of these examples which is determined by your level of analysis. You can discuss only one example but provide a thorough and detailed, insightful analysis of it and prove your point. On the other hand, you may offer 3 or 4 different examples but provide no deep understanding or observation of it. Worry less about quantity and more about quality.

What should I discuss in my conclusion paragraph?

Conclusions should summarize your essay's main points. For shorter papers (< 4 pps.) avoid restating all your points as this is redundant; for longer papers this is acceptable. Remember that your conclusion is the last paragraph your audience reads. Like your introduction, your conclusion should grab their attention. You want them to feel as if you have taught them something important. 

You can end your essay with an important observation, suggestions for future research, social implications, warnings about your problem etc. Conclusions are very difficult to write because you are attempting to make these final observations while not introducing a totally new topic (because your audience will wonder why you did not discuss this important point in your essay).Take your time with it and explore your creativity.

Do my essays need titles?

Yes. Just like the titles of a novel or film help to interest consumers, the title of an essay also captures your reader's attention. Your title should parallel the tone of your essay (e.g., funny, serious, etc.) and should be original and informative. Avoid boring titles as they serve no purpose: Economic Problems for Vietnamese. Better title: A Vietnamese Struggle for Intra-Social Status: Recent Immigrants Marginalized by First Generation Seek Employment Outside Ethnic Enclave.

Do I have to analyze every quotation?

Yes. Every quotation needs analysis. While you can assume that the reader has read what you have read, you cannot assume the reader has understood the material in the same way. Moreover, it is the writer's job to convince the reader of his/ her argument. You do so through the explication of your evidence. 

If a quote's meaning appears "obvious," we suggest you use another quotation. Remember, quotations support an argument; they do not create one. Simply put, do not use a quotation to replace your own words or ideas.

Is it okay to use profanity in an essay?

No. Avoid profanity in a formal essay. Profanity often makes the writer appear irrational; readers are likely to dismiss irrational thoughts. Example: Many people praise author Richard Rodriguez's novels, but I think he's a fucking sellout. This sentence fails to critique Rodriguez's work and makes a personal attack at his character. Moreover, the description, "fucking sellout," makes the writer appear hostile. A more effective statement is, Richard Rodriguez's novels embrace assimilation and perpetuate racist ideologies. 

Yes. Profanity is acceptable in creative pieces or when quoting someone else.

Is it acceptable to use "I" in an essay?

Yes, however, try to avoid it. Words like: I, me, my, and personally often undermine your argument. In this sentence, It is my opinion that Affirmative Action works, the words "my opinion" weaken the statement. The reader dismisses the statement. He thinks, "That's just the writer's opinion. It's not a fact." Thus, your statement does not convince the reader. A more confident writer asserts, Affirmative Action works.

When do I use "i.e." and "e.g."?

i.e., = Same as. Example: Marijuana (i.e., Mary Jane, pot, weed) is a hallucinogenic drug derived from the hemp plant. 

e.g., = For example. Example: Marijuana, known by many names, (e.g., Mary Jane, pot, weed) causes hallucinations.

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