How to Write the Conclusion of an Essay
“So, what is purpose of a conclusion?” The young faces of my seventh grade students stare back at me with a look of vague emptiness in their eyes, squinting slightly in reluctant concentration. As I search for some sign of life, I am reminded of a conversation with my college thesis advisor in which he described to me the very same expression on the faces of his undergraduate students when he spoke of writing.
Finally, a dim light emerges from the darkness, her voice hesitant, “Um…for summarizing what you said in the essay?”
“Yes. Good. That’s what many of you have been taught, and there is a reason for that. However,” I say with a coy smile, “how many of you have been in this situation: you are in the middle of struggling to find new words to re-say what you just said in your essay and you find yourself thinking, ‘This is stupid. I just said this. Why am I saying it again?” A sea of hands rise along with a hushed laughter. I smile at them, “Your instincts are right.”
“But I don’t understand,” a student questions. “If we’re not supposed to summarize in a conclusion, then what are we supposed to do?”
This article answers this question by explaining the true purpose of an essay conclusion and how to write one. The approach the article presents is purposefully designed to apply to any essay topic and to be useful for anyone learning how to write a good essay, ranging from middle school and high school students through college students and adults.
Welcome. Let’s get started!
The "Wrong Way" to Write an Essay Conclusion
In elementary school, most of us were taught to write a conclusion by summarizing what we said in the essay. This is effective at the beginning levels of writing because organizing our thinking in writing is new. Writing conclusions this way gives beginning writers a chance to check the logic of their thinking and provides an easy way for teachers to check for understanding.
While effective as a teaching tool, it is not effective writing. In real writing, summarizing in a conclusion is, at best, redundant and boring. At worst it can be insulting for your reader. Summarizing in a conclusion communicates one of two things:
- I think my writing was confusing the first time, so I’m going to go over it again.
- You (the reader) are not smart enough to remember what I just said, so I’m going to say it again.
Suffice it to say, neither of these things is likely to work very well.
An Essay Conclusion Sample: The "Wrong Way"
To make this discussion clear, here is a sample conclusion written the “wrong way.” This is written at the level one might expect from a student in late middle school or early high school. These points are just as relevant to college students and adults, however, because, while the points they make might be more nuanced and detailed, many still write conclusions that follow the same basic pattern.
Describe the major accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln during his presidency.
Prompt Response (conclusion only):
As you can see, Abraham Lincoln accomplished many great things during his time as president of the United States. He saw the United States through the Civil War, helping to keep the country from falling apart. Over the course of the war, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all the African Americans in the United States from slavery. When things got tough, he encouraged the citizens and the troops through speeches like “The Gettysburg Address.” And, finally, as both a political leader and a military leader, he led in a way that emphasized wisdom through shared responsibility and discussion. Abraham Lincoln was, without a doubt, one of the greatest presidents of the United States.
The conclusion above lists a great many accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, so it appears to be a reasonably sound conclusion. Unfortunately, this would simply be a listing of points already made in more detail earlier in the essay, robbing it of any chance it might have had to add value to the essay.
The "Right Way" to Write an Essay Conclusion
Helping your reader understand why your subject matters…
So if summarizing in a conclusion is the wrong approach, what is the right approach? The answer lies in clearly understanding the real purpose of a conclusion. The main arguments and details of whatever subject you have written about have already been covered in the introduction and body of the essay. The conclusion is your opportunity to show the reader why it matters by answering the question, “So what?”
Approaching a conclusion in this way is sometimes difficult for students because, since they rarely choose the topic they are writing about, they may not especially care why it matters. For them, it is simply a required task to pass the class. The challenge before any good writer, however, is to take the subject they are given, regardless of their own personal interest in it, and dig for the deeper meaning it holds—to answer the question, “So what?”
Answering the question, “So what?”
To answer this question, connect what you’ve written about to something bigger than itself. At the collegiate level, this is often done by tying what has been written to the work of others who have done similar work in the field, explaining how it supports or challenges the ideas of other writers and thinkers. Middle school and high school students—along with college students and adults who are writing outside of their specific fields of knowledge—often don’t have enough background in the subjects they are writing about to do this; they need an alternative.
The strongest, most universal way to approach this question is to tie what you have written about to bigger, more universal ideas. Relate what you have written to the universal human experience.
The Universal Human Experience
When I bring up the idea of the universal human experience in my classes, the most common response is, “Huh? What’s that?” Put simply, the universal human experience is those experiences common to the entire human race throughout time. To make this more clear, here is a list of different aspects of the universal human experience. The list is meant to provide examples and is by no means comprehensive, but it should give you the idea:
Sample Elements of the Universal Human Experience
Other Big Ideas
war & peace
So, with these concepts in mind, frame your conclusion like this: What does what I have written about have to say about __________ ? Fill in this blank with any one of the elements of the human experience listed above, or any other one you can come up with that seems fitting.
Since the elements of the universal human experience are, by definition, universal to all human beings, you are guaranteed to land on a big idea that will make sense to your reader by taking this approach, demonstrating your ability to connect what you have to say to a larger world. This is precisely what teachers and general readers are looking for in a good writer: can you show me why what you wrote matters?
Student Conclusion Worksheets!
I have now developed the concepts of this essay into easy-to-follow student worksheets that turn the theories of this article into practical tools. This includes:
- Student Conclusion-Development Worksheets (4 pages)
- Model Conclusion Samples and the “Universal Human Experience” Anchor Words (2 pages)
- Detailed Teaching Instructions (7 pages)
- Instructional PowerPoint Presentation (37 slides including annotations with teaching tips)
- A Reproducible Copy of this Instructional Article
- Links to “Google Docs” Versions of the Student Worksheets & “Universal Human Experience” Anchor Words for Online Implementation (located at the end of the teaching instructions)
You can find these at Newfangled Notions.
Practical Pointers for Writing a Strong Conclusion
The basic structure of a strong conclusion is quite simple. To clarify its form, I will go over the layout of a single-paragraph conclusion. This would be appropriate for shorter papers of say one to five pages. Longer papers may well require more than a one-paragraph conclusion to cover all the material there is to be discussed, but the basic structure should remain the same.
The first sentence of your conclusion (or the first paragraph, in the case of long papers) should acknowledge what you have written about in the paper thus far. Essentially, summarize what the essay was about in one sentence. Do not summarize it point by point. The rest of the paragraph should then work to connect the ideas presented thus far to the big ideas of the universal human experience that are more directly relevant to the reader.
By writing your conclusion paragraph in this way, your readers will begin to see that you have the ability to take your opinion or what you have learned and connect it. Readers of all kinds will notice a significant improvement in the quality of your writing, and they will begin to value your thoughts and feelings—they will see not only why your essay matters, but why you matter as well.
An Essay Conclusion Sample: The "Right Way"
Once again, to make this discussion clear, here is a sample conclusion that focuses on answering the question, “So what?” This conclusion is also written from the perspective of a late middle school or early high school student. More advanced writers should follow the same approach using deeper and more nuanced language.
Describe the major accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln during his presidency.
Prompt Response (conclusion only):
As you can see, Abraham Lincoln accomplished a great many things during his presidency of the United States. Woven through each of his accomplishments, however, was a single theme—the theme of unity. He sought always, through his speeches and his leadership style, to strengthen the sense of unity among those around him. He worked not only for the preservation of a divided country but for the preservation of the divided human spirit. As we struggle today with an increasingly global society, it might serve us well to remember the actions and decisions and life of this simple, humble man. Perhaps we should listen with a new kind of seriousness to those words that he honored not only within his most famous speech, but also by the way he lived his life: that “…all men are created equal.”
Learn to craft conclusions that connect your ideas to what matters in the world, and people will start to listen.
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