Essays and Expository Writing

Why are we doing this?

  • Most of the writing we will do in our lives - workplace and academic - is expository writing.
  • Academic writing usually involves essays.
  • A five-paragraph essay is a good basic type of essay to become proficient in - it's a excellent way to organize your thinking.

Learning Targets

  • I know the definition of expository - "to explain or inform."
  • I know that an essay is usually a hybrid - part expository, part personal, and part persuasive writing.
  • I can describe and write the main types of essays - process, definition, classification, compare & contrast, cause & effect, and problem & solution.
  • I can write a five-paragraph essay with an introductory paragraph containing "hook" and thesis (main point); three body paragraphs, each containing a distinct main point with supporting details and examples; and concluding paragraph.


Types of Expository Essays
Key Words
Definition, or “Illustrative”
Explains a thing or a concept.

Traditional classroom reports, reflections on a certain value (what is friendship? What is honor?)
Organizes the subject into categories, and examines the characteristics of those categories.
Types, Kinds
Breeds of horses, trees suitable for planting in Southern California
Process, or “How-To”
Explains, step-by-step, how something happens, works or is done.
First, Second, Next, Finally
Instructions for assembling a machine, recipes, driving directions, how-to books, explaining scientific processes, “The South Beach Diet”
Compare and Contrast
Contrasts the similarities and differences between two things.
On the Other Hand
Compare dogs & cats, contrast Mexican and Italian cuisine, “Which College Should I Attend?”
Cause and Effect
Explains either the multiple causes of a single effect, or the single cause of multiple effects.
Report analyzing why an accident happened, analyzing probably effects of a certain course of action, Environmental Impact Reports
Problem and solution
Analyzes a problem and possible solutions.

Newspaper editorials, advice columns
Explains your beliefs or something unique and interesting about yourself.

College admissions essay, "This I Believe" and "My Turn" series

"Pick, List and Choose" - how to plan your essay

  • Pick - your topic
  • List - all the details you can think of
  • Choose - categories that your details seem to fall into - these will be your main ideas / paragraphs

Main ideas (topic sentences) of an essay:

  • Main ideas must be specific, not vague. If almost any detail would fit under a main idea, it is too vague. Words like “fun” and “interesting” are too vague to be main ideas.
  • Main ideas must be distinct, not overlapping. If a detail would fit under more than one main idea, the main ideas overlap.
  • Main ideas are “introductions” to the rest of the paragraph that follows. They lead into or summarize the details, rather than being a detail in themselves. They introduce a category of information, rather than being a detail in that category.
  • Main idea sentences should be interesting, not boring or all starting out the same way. Refer to the list of "sentence starters" for main ideas that you were given for some good ideas, or come up with your own.

Writing Help

College Admission Essays

  • PennGroup Click on "Sample Admission Essays" and "Admission Essay Writing" (under "Features," on the left)
  • Recommended articles: Honesty, Choosing a Topic, Originality, Adventures of an Eavesdropper, How I Survived and Thrived, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's), Interview with the President of thhe Penn Group, Organization

  • Teen Ink Best college essay selection! I recommend clicking on the box that says "View articles printed in MAG only" so that you only see the essays that have made it into the print version of Teen Ink magazine, because they are the best ones.

  • EssayEdge Click on "Essay Writing Course" (under "College") to sign up for this free course.
  • Essay Course Link to course after you've signed up.

Character Matters Essay Contest

Personal Essays

  • This I Believe - Persoal essays broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR)
  • My Turn - Personal essays published in Newsweek Magazine

Essay Prompts


  • An anecdote is a very short "story within a story." They should be funny or interesting, and illustrate the point you are trying to make. An anecdote can add that perfect personal example to your essay.
  • Anecdotes Anecdotes written by college students - some good, some stupid, and some, well, you can't quite figure out the point!