What makes a strong thesis in a college essay?
- A strong thesis is non-obvious. High school teachers needed to make sure that you and all your classmates mastered the basic form of the academic essay. Thus, they were mostly concerned that you had a clear and consistent thesis, even if it was something obvious such as “sustainability is important.” A thesis statement like that has a wide-enough scope to incorporate several supporting points and concurring evidence, enabling the writer to demonstrate his or her mastery of a basic essay format. College instructors, though, fully expect you to produce something more developed.
- A strong thesis is arguable. In everyday life, “arguable” is often used as a synonym for “doubtful.” For a thesis, though, “arguable” means that it’s worth arguing: it’s something with which a reasonable person might disagree. This arguability criterion dovetails with the non-obvious one: it shows that the author has deeply explored a problem and arrived at an argument that legitimately needs 3, 5, 10, or 20 pages to explain and justify. In that way, a good thesis sets an ambitious agenda for an essay. A thesis such as “sustainability is important” isn’t at all difficult to argue for, and the reader would have little intrinsic motivation to read the rest of the paper. However, an arguable thesis such as “sustainability policies will inevitably fail if they do not incorporate social justice,” brings up some healthy skepticism. Thus, the arguable thesis makes the reader want to keep reading.
- A strong thesis is well specified. Some student writers fear that they’re being too obvious if they specify their thesis early in the essay; they think that a purposefully vague thesis might be more intriguing to the reader. However, consider movie trailers: they always include the most exciting and poignant moments from the film to attract an audience. In academic essays, too, a well specified thesis indicates that the author has thought rigorously about an issue and done thorough research, which makes the reader want to keep reading. Don’t just say that a particular policy is effective or fair; say what makes it is so. If you want to argue that a particular claim is dubious or incomplete, say why in your thesis.
- A strong thesis is supportable. The angle in your thesis should be able to be supported with examples, details, facts, observations, and other types of evidence, including research as appropriate.
- A strong thesis includes implications. Suppose your assignment is to write an essay about some aspect of the history of linen production and trade, a topic that may seem exceedingly arcane. And suppose you have constructed a well supported and creative argument that linen was so widely traded in the ancient Mediterranean that it actually served as a kind of currency. That’s a strong, insightful, arguable, well specified thesis. But which of these thesis statements do you find more engaging?
Linen served as a form of currency in the ancient Mediterranean world, connecting rival empires through circuits of trade.
Linen served as a form of currency in the ancient Mediterranean world, connecting rival empires through circuits of trade. The economic role of linen raises important questions about how shifting environmental conditions can influence economic relationships and, by extension, political conflicts.
Strong thesis sentences have angles that are arguable, well-specified, and supportable. Not all topics and angles lend themselves to implications. However, if you’ve chosen a topic and created an angle that allows you to put your claims into a broader context, that additional context and its implications can create additional interest in an essay.
How do you produce a good, strong thesis? And how do you know when you’ve gotten there? Many instructors and writers find useful a metaphor based on this passage by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.:
There are one-story intellects, two-story intellects, and three-story intellects with skylights. All fact collectors who have no aim beyond their facts are one-story men. Two-story men compare, reason, generalize using the labor of fact collectors as their own. Three-story men idealize, imagine, predict—their best illumination comes from above the skylight.
One-story theses state inarguable facts. Two-story theses bring in an arguable (interpretive or analytical) point. Three-story theses nest that point within its larger, compelling implications.
The biggest benefit of the three-story metaphor is that it describes a process for building a thesis. To build the first story, you first have to get familiar with the complex, relevant facts surrounding the problem or question. You have to be able to describe the situation thoroughly and accurately. Then, with that first story built, you can layer on the second story by formulating the insightful, arguable point that animates the analysis. That’s often the most effortful part: brainstorming, elaborating and comparing alternative ideas, finalizing your point. With that specified, you can frame the third story by articulating why the point you make matters beyond its particular topic or case.
For example, imagine you have been assigned an essay about the impact of online learning in higher education. You would first construct an account of the origins and multiple forms of online learning and assess research findings about its use and effectiveness. If you’ve done that well, you’ll probably come up with a well considered opinion that wouldn’t be obvious to readers who haven’t looked at the issue in depth. Maybe you’ll want to argue that online learning is a threat to the academic community. Or perhaps you’ll want to make the case that online learning opens up pathways to college degrees that traditional campus-based learning does not. In the course of developing your central, argumentative point, you’ll come to recognize its larger context; in this example, you may claim that online learning can serve to better integrate higher education with the rest of society, as online learners bring their educational and career experiences together.
To outline this example:
- Basic Thesis/1st Story: Online learning is becoming more prevalent and takes many different forms. (has a topic and angle, and is supportable, but the angle is broad. The angle would be more interesting if it offered an argument about an issue related to online learning.)
- Strong Thesis/2nd Story: Strong thesis: While most observers see it as a transformation of higher education, online learning is better thought of an extension of higher education in that it reaches learners who aren’t disposed to participate in traditional campus-based education.(has a topic and angle, angle is arguable, supportable, and well-specified)
- Stronger Thesis/3rd Story: Online learning appears to be a promising way to better integrate higher education with other institutions in society, as online learners integrate their educational experiences with the other realms of their life, promoting the freer flow of ideas between the academy and the rest of society. (has a topic and angle, angle is arguable, supportable, and well-specified, angle contains implications that set the argument within a broader context)
Here’s one more example:
- Basic Thesis/1st Story: Scientists disagree about the likely impact in the U.S. of the light brown apple moth (LBAM), an agricultural pest native to Australia. (has a topic and an angle, and the angle is supportable, but the angle is broad. The angle would be more interesting if it offered an argument about an issue related to the light brown apple moth.)
- Strong Thesis/2nd Story: Research findings to date suggest that the decision to spray pheromones over the skies of several southern Californian counties to combat the light brown apple moth was poorly thought out. (has a topic and angle, angle is arguable, supportable, and well-specified)
- Stronger Thesis/3rd Story: Together, the scientific ambiguities and the controversial response strengthen the claim that industrial-style approaches to pest management are inherently unsustainable. (has a topic and angle, angle is arguable, supportable, and well-specified, angle contains implications that set the argument within a broader context)
A thesis statement that stops at the first story isn’t usually considered a thesis. A two-story thesis is usually considered competent, though some two-story theses are more intriguing and ambitious than others. A thoughtfully crafted and well informed three-story thesis, which sets the angle in a broader context, puts the author on a smooth path toward an interesting and insightful essay. As a beginning writer, know that you need to “build” at least two stories into your thesis; the third is something to attempt and strive for.
Here’s more information on how to write a strong thesis sentence, offering your specific assertion that is feasible to support, and setting that assertion within a broader context.
- For more see Fabio Lopez-Lazaro “Linen.” In Encyclopedia of World Trade from Ancient Times to the Present. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2005. ↵
- Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., The Poet at the Breakfast Table (New York: Houghton & Mifflin, 1892) ↵
- The metaphor is extraordinarily useful even though the passage is annoying. Beyond the sexist language of the time, it displays condescension toward “fact-collectors” which reflects a general modernist tendency to elevate the abstract and denigrate the concrete. In reality, data-collection is a creative and demanding craft, arguably more important than theorizing. ↵