Below is another of my posts on college writing. This post originally ran on the Grantham Blog in 2015.
Here’s a quick quiz.
Let’s say you are writing a paper for one of your college courses on whether or not colleges and universities should change their grading systems.
Which of the following would make the best thesis statement?
A. This essay will discuss whether or not colleges and universities should abolish grades.
B. In my opinion, colleges and universities should do away with grades altogether.
C. The traditional grading system of A-F does not adequately measure student achievement inside and outside of the classroom.
D. Should colleges and universities change their grading systems?
Before you select an answer, let’s get a clear understanding of what a thesis statement is and what it is not.
Get to the Point
A thesis statement is the most important part of an essay. It is the central idea of the paper—the “thing” you most want to get across. In a persuasive essay, it is the idea you want your readers to accept.
In other words, it is the point of your paper distilled down to one sentence or two—at most.
A thesis statement must be specific. It does not leave room for readers to guess what you mean or for you to weasel out of a position by saying, “Well, it’s just my opinion.”
This can be a challenge because, in writing an essay, you commit yourself to a position. A position in writing is like a position in baseball: you must be standing in the right place (or on the right base) to get home. If you are in the wrong place or too slow in getting to the next base, you will be “out.”
Unlike baseball, there are rarely winners and losers in writing. Writers try to express some universal truth that their readers can agree on. If you can get your readers to agree, we are all “winners.”
But in order to find that truth, you have to take a position.
Don’t Argue with Me (Well, Yes You Can)
A thesis statement must also be arguable, which means someone can, in fact, disagree with you. This, too, is a challenge because most people feel uncomfortable when others disagree with them. Who wants to be told we’re wrong?
However, a good writer prepares to take that risk. He/she does this by showing confidence in the position and welcomes the opportunity to address others who hold different views.
Don’t Just Lie There. Get Up and Move!
A thesis statement should propel the reader forward. It should make the reader curious about how the writer arrived at this conclusion.
These statements are active, not passive (“This paper will discuss …”). They engage the reader in dialogue, making the reader feel he or she has a stake in the issue.
Last, a thesis statement is never a question. It is by definition a statement. It ends in a period. Think of a thesis statement as the answer to a question.
It should be obvious that the correct answer is C. It is the only answer that meets all of the above criteria: It is specific and arguable. It propels the reader forward, and it is not a question.
Does this mean that the thesis statement has all the answers? Absolutely not.
One can easily argue the opposite position—that grades provide students with easily identifiable goals and employers with a quick measure of an applicant’s academic record, for example.
Because this counterargument exists, the writer now has a clear job: to convince the reader(s) to take his/her side.
And the best part of a thesis statement? If you distill your entire paper down to one sentence, you now know where you're going and so does your reader.