For a Word version of this module, click



Learning Module

English Online

CSM Homepage

The Writing Center

The College Thesis
(1 hour)


To complete this module, read the explanation; take notes as directed; and complete the exercises. Submit them as directed by your classroom or Writing Center instructor.




What is a thesis?

College writers often feel like they have to make many different points to write a long paper. Yes, you do: but all these points are explanations for one big idea. Whether it's a paragraph or a 900-page book, all expository writing ultimately can be captured in a single statement. That statement, the assertion that constitutes the whole point of your paper, is your thesis. The difference between a book and a paragraph lies in the development. Here are some typical thesis statements:

Arranged marriages are often more successful than love-matches.
Medieval parents did not love their children the way we do.
States should be permitted to make their own decisions about same-sex marriage.
The home environment does not influence how children turn out.
Planting a garden is difficult, but rewarding.

Where does the thesis appear in your paper?

Writers typically put the thesis at the beginning of the paper, and most conventionally in the closing lines of the introduction:

Example: In America, almost every boy's dream is to become a professional athlete: to be among the elite, to feel the thrill of catching the winning touchdown in the Superbowl, or to hit the winning home run in the last game of the World Series. Unfortunately, this idealism is a thing of the past. Granted there are a few dreamers left, but there is a new incentive in going pro: money - lots of it. Today in professional sports, athletes are paid in the millions. Even the lesser players in pro sports can expect annual salaries in the millions of dollars. As salaries have risen, we have seen more unsportsmanlike behavior, drug use, and cheating. If we want to restore the good name of professional sports, we need to begin by rethinking the gross overpayment of athletes.

But note -- as with any convention, you can play with this. There are many ways to use the introduction. Some writers offer a long preliminary discussion and produce their main point half-way through; some lay out the evidence then make their thesis statement at the end. Some writers leave out the thesis statement altogether, implying it rather than stating it aloud (though even when a writer doesn't actually state his point aloud, he must know precisely what it is or the paper loses shape). You can decide where your thesis works best. However, don't be afraid to stick to convention and put it towards the end of the introduction. This does not make your paper unoriginal or boring. It just makes it easier to follow.

What does a thesis sound like?

It sounds assertive. It makes a claim, puts forward an opinion, proposes an explanation. Compare the thesis to the kinds of statements that often take its place in essays, and you can hear the difference:

It is NOT a vague statement of the topic. The topic is what you are writing about: the thesis is what you are saying about it. A thesis is a complete sentence, never a phrase. It needs to be justified.

A TOPIC STATEMENT: Arranged marriage
A THESIS STATEMENT: Arranged marriages are often more successful than "love"-matches.
A TOPIC STATEMENT: Medieval childhood
A THESIS STATEMENT: Medieval parents did not love their children the way we do.
A THESIS STATEMENT: States should be permitted to make their own decisions about same-sex marriage.

It is NOT a note to yourself about what you plan to think about (signaled often by the unnecessary phrase "In this paper, I will discuss..." or "In this paper, I will show that...").

NOTE TO SELF: In this paper, I'm going to talk about three aspects of arranged marriages.
THESIS: Arranged marriages are often more successful than "love"-matches.
NOTE TO SELF: In this paper, I will explore how medieval parents felt about their children.
THESIS: Medieval parents did not love their children the way we do.
NOTE TO SELF: Let's look at the pros and cons of gay marriage and what it all means.
THESIS: States should be permitted to make their own decisions about same-sex marriage.

The college-level thesis

In high school, it's acceptable to write papers with a bland, general thesis. But in college, your paper should represent more than just a review of assigned reading or digested facts: it should show your ability to review evidence, and to draw conclusions from it to make a point. Thus, your thesis should present an opinion or argument, not just a general statement. Ideally, it should narrow down your opinion to something more specific -- some reason, or cause, or insight.

Remember: a college thesis is something you come up with after a lot of thinking, talking, writing and reading. Developing a college-level thesis requires a complex writing process. Quite often, it only takes shape after you've written a fairly complete draft and reviewed it with others.

HIGH-SCHOOL STYLE THESIS: Arranged marriage is a complex issue.
COLLEGE-LEVEL THESIS: (more specific: an insight has been achieved and is argued) Arranged marriages are no less "love" matches than modern Western marriages: the love is simply different.
HIGH-SCHOOL STYLE THESIS: Medieval childhood was very different from modern childhood.
COLLEGE-LEVEL THESIS: What we call "mother love" does not necessarily reflect timeless natural impulses - it is made possible by our culture and technology.
HIGH SCHOOL STYLE THESIS: Gay marriage has a lot of pros and cons.
COLLEGE-LEVEL THESIS: Gay marriage is a civil right, and should be decided on a federal level by the Supreme Court.

Writing the college-level thesis

There is no mystery to coming up with a college-level thesis. But it is a lot of work! The following steps should take you there, even when you are bored or completely stuck.

  • Get informed: Read all assigned material very carefully, taking notes, and making every effort to inform yourself thoroughly. It may not be enough -- you will probably have to do some more reading when you have a thesis in mind -- but it will be enough to get you started.
  • Come up with a the working thesis. Start out with something general: "Obesity is a serious issue." Then see what happens as you write. You might find yourself explaining a lot about what causes obesity; your thesis might develop into "Obesity is primarily caused by XYZ." Or you might find yourself spending a lot of time dealing with myths about obesity, and the thesis might become "We need to dispel some of the false beliefs about obesity."
  • Review the draft with peers. When it is complete, review your first draft and ask yourself: What IS my point? Is it clearly expressed in my introduction? Do I go down some blind alleys? Should I develop other points? With the first draft, you discover your destination - now it's your job to tidy up the loose ends and the wrong signposting, so that the paper presents the main idea, then supports it relevantly.
  • Look at the conclusion. Tip: When reviewing your first draft, look at your conclusion. Does it appear to bring all the ideas together into a single, neatly phrased insight? Is this perhaps your thesis? This is often where you find it.

(More about this when you look at developing your writing process).




Take notes on the following:

1. Write down the important points in this module for future reference.
2. Think of the last long piece of writing you did, either for school, college, work or personal reasons (but for a reader: not in a journal or diary). What was the thesis? Sum it up in a sentence.
3. Think of two non-fiction pieces of writing (books, articles, web sites) that you've read recently, and that you responded to. Can you write down the thesis of each, in one sentence?
4. Do you find it difficult to come up with a thesis? What do you do when you are stuck?




Which of these statements could be a college-level thesis?

1. The debate over same-sex marriage is really a debate over states' rights.
2. Marriage has a lot of benefits and drawbacks.
3. Torture is a difficult issue.
4. However tempting, the use of torture can never be justified.
5. In limited cases, torture may be the only sensible option.
6. The problem with TV violence is that it is not violent enough.
7. TV violence is a big problem.
8. We must all think about nutrition these days.
9. Nutrition is a widely misunderstood topic.
10. Much of the advice we get about "healty eating" is misunderstood, questionable, or false.



Back to Top