Writing a Political Science Essay© Copyright 1997, Charles King, Georgetown University
|Essay questions, term papers, “take-home” finals, research
papers, and project reports are standard components of most political science
courses. Professors may ask students to write an essay as part of a mid-term
of final exam, or to hand in extended papers completed outside class that
have required substantial research in the library or elsewhere. These kinds
of assignments not only give professors a chance to evaluate your skills
as a writer and as a critical thinker – two skills that you should take
away from any university course – but they also provide the opportunity
for you to reflect seriously on particular issues and to use your creative
powers to address fundamental conceptual questions in the study of politics.
In other words, essays, term papers and other written assignments give
you the chance to “get your hands dirty” by grappling with the same broad
questions that inform the work of professional political scientists. Writing
essays and papers allows you to think long and hard about such critical
issues as: What is democracy? What makes people vote for Party A and not
for Party B? Do ideas affect the way people behave politically? Why do
revolutions occur? How do states interact in the international arena? What
determines the shape of a state’s foreign policy? Why do countries go to
In tackling essay-writing, especially in the “essay question” section
of exams, students often face three problems:
Start at the BeginningWhen you first read an essay question on an exam (or begin to think about an assigned topic for a term paper or take-home final), you should ask yourself two sets of questions:
1. What does the essay question really say? What kinds of issues is it asking me to address? What assumptions underlie the question itself?
Professors ask essay questions for a reason. They use essays as a way of getting you to go beyond the material presented in class and in the required readings for the course. They intend for you to reflect critically on the information you have read, assess its validity, think about its implications, and use it creatively in order to answer the question that has been posed. So, when you encounter an essay question, spend a few minutes thinking about what the question really asks, and make sure that you have a clear idea of the kinds of issues and concepts that the question is trying to get you to address.
2. What are the most useful sources of information on which I can draw in order to answer the question? What kinds of data will best support my argument?
During any semester-long course, you will encounter a huge amount of information, both factual and conceptual. Many students treat essay questions as “dumping grounds” for the information that they acquired in the days and weeks preceding the exam. They pile on fact after fact, concept after concept, date after date, name after name, with little thought about whether all this information helps them answer the question. “If I throw in enough stuff,” a student may say, “at least the professor will know that I’ve been paying attention.”
Wrong. The professor will know that you have managed to cram a great
deal of irrelevant information into your short-term memory. But whether
you have really thought about the issues at hand and used the knowledge
you have gained in order to reflect critically on an important question
will remain a mystery. So, after you feel that you understand the kind
of response that the essay question is trying to elicit, ask yourself about
which bits of information will be the most relevant to your response. Don’t
try to throw everything into the pot. Be selective. Use those facts and
ideas that are most helpful in supporting your overall argument. After
doing the reading and attending the lectures, you do have enough information
to answer the question effectively. What is crucial, though, is to organize
the information and to present it in a way that buttresses the main theme
of your essay.
Organization Is EverythingBecause they have not stopped to ask themselves the questions above, many students plunge right into an essay without thinking about how to organize their thoughts. “If I just get enough stuff down on paper,” a student might argue, “then the professor will at least know that I’ve tried to answer the question.” Wrong again. The professor will know that you are a wind-bag – not that you have thought seriously about the question.
Once you are sure that you know what the question is asking and have
spent a few minutes reflecting on the kinds of information that you want
to use in attempting to answer it, spend a further few minutes sketching
out the form that your answer will take. Here are a few ideas on how to
Make an OutlineSketch out how you plan to structure the essay. You can even use the exam booklet or the back of the exam in order to write a brief outline, flow chart, diagram, or whatever form you find the most helpful in organizing your thoughts. The important thing is to have a clear idea of what you want to say and how you are going to say it – before you begin writing the essay itself.
There is an additional advantage to writing an outline or essay plan:
It may turn out that you simply budgeted your time poorly and did not have
time to complete the entire essay as you had planned. But if the professor
sees that you had a clear idea of what you wanted to argue, you are likely
to receive at least some credit for what you have written. On the other
hand, if you have managed to fill up a dozen pages without making a coherent
argument, chances are that the professor will remain relatively unimpressed.
Keep It SimpleThink back to eighth grade composition class. Remember the “three-point enumeration” essays you probably had to write? They consisted of an opening paragraph, three further substantive paragraphs and a conclusion. The opening paragraph set out the general ideas you were going to explore, the three following paragraphs expanded on each of those ideas, and the final paragraph wrapped up what you had said.
The same format – with perhaps some modifications – can be used to write
responses to essay questions.
Your Opinion Is More Than “Just Your Opinion”Essay questions are not extended short-answer questions, and they are not exercises in penmanship. A professor puts essay questions on exams not in order to see if you can repeat verbatim what he/she said in class, but in order to solicit your informed views on a particular subject that you should have mastered in the course. In this sense, essay questions do ask for your “opinion,” but it is an opinion that should be intelligent, informed and well-structured. No conceptual questions in political science have “once-and-for-all” answers. Essay questions ask you to address important issues by using your brain – constructing a coherent, logical and informed view on a given topic. After sitting in a course of lectures and doing the required reading, you are more than capable of completing such a task. Your “opinions” should have evolved and become more sophisticated, and you should have developed a reasonable level of expertise in the main issues addressed during the course itself. Your “opinions” matter, for they were what your professor was trying to get you to develop all along.
Again, essays are not simply receptacles for regurgitated factual information. Your knowledge of facts can be assessed using multiple-choice questions, true/false, identify, define, short-answer and a range of other examination formats, most of which you probably experienced in grade school. At the college level, however, you are expected to think. And thinking requires creatively using the knowledge you have acquired to take a clear position on a contentious issue.
How do you do all that? Here a few guidelines: