Better Thesis Statements
What is a thesis statement?
A thesis statement is the central claim that the author promises to defend in his or her paper.
Why do I need a thesis statement?
A thesis statement tells the reader where the paper is headed and why s/he should bother going there. It serves to engage the reader’s interest and motivate her or him to read on. From the writer’s perspective, a thesis statement brings her central claim into focus so that it becomes obvious how to build the rest of the paper. A thesis statement, if it is a good one, helps the writer decide what arguments and evidence are necessary to make her point. In a sense, the thesis statement functions as the conscience of a paper; it helps the writer recognize what belongs in the paper and what does not, depending upon the specific promise it makes to the reader.
How do I come up with a thesis statement?
All formal papers and essays have a point. You can have some ideas on a topic, or about an issue, but until you distill what you have drawn a conclusion from your research and reflection and captured in it your thesis statement, your formal writing will lack direction and focus. To arrive at a working thesis statement, try to state out loud or write in a single sentence the most important conclusion you have come to from your research. Here are some examples of simple claims you could make after reading and reflecting in preparation for writing your paper:
- Politicians should use language responsibly if they wish to govern after the campaign.
- The face plays an important role in human communication.
- Migrating Atlantic seabirds need more protection along their migration paths.
Sentences like these, each of which makes a claim, are adequate as “working thesis statements”. As you write, research, arrange, and think through other supporting ideas in your paper, you should be moved to refine your working thesis statement to 1) narrow it, 2) make it more consequential or controversial, or 3) put it in a specific context. With more research and thought, we might revise A.-C. above as follows:
- The speed, reach, and permanence of mass media today can threaten a candidate’s ability to govern once elected.
- Although poets have always noted the role of the face in human communication, facial expression has lately become the subject of intense scientific scrutiny, with the potential for profound social consequences.
- Offshore wind farms, chemical pollution from industrialized livestock facilities, new coastal housing developments pose a triple threat to millions of migrating seabirds who have made their way along the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. for millennia.
These revised thesis statements make specific promises to the reader. Can you predict what kinds of evidence or support a writer might include in his or her essay based on one of these thesis statements?
A good thesis statement gives you room to develop your ideas as you wish, but within the boundaries imposed by your knowledge, time, and page limits. We use the word “narrow” to describe a good thesis statement but we don’t mean “narrow-minded” or “stingy”. Instead, a narrow thesis statement is focused and fits the size and scope of your paper. When everything in your paper is selected to support or explore your thesis statement, then you are enjoying the benefits of a good thesis statement.
Here is a worksheet to help you come up with and refine a good thesis statement.
Thesis Statement Worksheet
What is your topic (the area of study for this paper)?
What background information does the reader need to know before you state your thesis?
What is your working thesis statement?
Test your thesis statement. Does your thesis statement:
- Make a claim that a reader can agree or disagree with?
- Reflect knowledge of the source material?
- Pick out an idea that can be defended in the space allowed?
- Limit the kinds of evidence you can use to defend it?
What evidence, examples, or arguments will you use to support the working thesis?
Now that you have thought ahead about your evidence, can you refine your thesis statement to focus on a particular problem and context? (This is where the originality of your claim comes in.)
Strong and Weak Thesis Statements Illustrated
Shakespeare was the world’s greatest playwright.
trite, not defensible
The last scene in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” showcases Shakespeare’s ability to manipulate subtle linguistic differences among his characters for comic effect.
intriguing, has an edge
This essay will show that the North American Free Trade agreement was a disaster.
Neither neo-protectionism nor post-industrial theory explains the downswing of the Canadian furniture industry in 1988-1994. Data on productivity and profits, however, can be closely correlated with provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement that took effect in the same period.
gives context, reflects research, shows intent
In the Netherlands, euthanasia is legal. This paper will describe the history of euthanasia and give case studies.
doesn’t reveal a central claim or focus
Recent cases show that Dutch law on euthanasia has encountered difficulty with issues involving technological interventions and unconscious patients.
focused, promisesfacts and analysis
The occurrence of measles in medical settings is higher than nosocomial infections, rubella, pertussis, influenza, and nosocomial hepatitis B according to a survey of hospital records.
distracting detail, hard to follow, no context
In recent years, transmission of measles in hospitals has been described only rarely. New data suggest that the spread of measles in hospitals is more frequent than previously recognized.
shows purpose andcontext, promises new information of consequence
Myths about thesis statements
- A thesis statement is the topic of a paper or what the paper is ‘about.’
If a reader knows that your paper is about migrating birds, she still doesn’t know what your point is. Only a thesis statement can tell the reader that. A topic merely names the field or subject area of your paper; it doesn’t propose anything. Topics are identified in other sentences that give background information that usually lead up to the thesis statement. Compare the topic sentence below with the thesis statement that follows it:
Topic sentence: There are few people totally unfamiliar with bingo—that game of chance in which numbers, called at random, are plotted on cards to form patterns and to win prizes.
Thesis statement: In order to understand bingo as a cultural phenomenon it should be studied not as a cultural ‘thing’ but as behavior compatible with a patterned way of life.
- Some writers put their thesis statement at the end of their paper.
This myth confuses the concluding section of a paper with the intellectual conclusion a writer must reach in order to begin writing a paper in earnest. Since a good thesis statement is the result of research, reflection, and, sometimes, a draft or two of the entire paper, it might seem that it ought to come at the end of one’s essay. But, in academic writing, what is the outcome of thinking and writing for the writer is best presented as the starting point for the reader. Many writers restate their thesis statement/hypothesis in the concluding section of their papers but few choose to delay revealing their central claim until after they have argued in favor of it
- There are strict rules about the form of a thesis statement.
You can learn to write better thesis statements by practicing with specific forms, e.g. one where a premise (“If term limits were adopted in today…”) precedes a conclusion (“we would lose valuable legislative experience.”). Yet if you grasp the function of a thesis statement, many forms are possible. It may take the form of a supported assertion as in “I agree with the author because…” or it can direct the reader’s attention to a scientific or philosophical issue as in “Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences has applications in the kindergarten classroom for..” or “The relationship between body and soul remains a central issue in…” Short pithy thesis statements are also possible as in “Television kills”—a claim, to be sure, but one which needs elaboration in nearby sentences to correctly direct the reader’s focus.
- A thesis statement is just your opinion.
While a thesis statement does present the reader with a claim, it should go well beyond a simple assertion that anyone can make without detailed information about the topic. Statements such as People are too lazy to solve the environmental crisis we face or Today’s educators need to know how to deal with students who don’t speak English don’t convey that the writer has researched his topic and come away with something new or non-obvious to say. A thesis statement offers an informed opinion that the writer is prepared to support with facts, arguments, analysis, and research-based evidence. It might be helpful to remember that a thesis statement takes a ‘point of view’ which the paper develops so that the reader can decide for himself on the issue.
Resources for Learning
Rarely, but occasionally, while working with a student on a personal essay, I can’t help but wince. It’s a concerned, gut response to the student taking an unnecessary and unwise risk. The most ready example I recall is the day that one of my students spent an entire paragraph discussing a suicide attempt. And this student was no dummy—in fact, held a 3.9 GPA. What I’m sure happened was that the student misconstrued the context for the personal essay and interpreted it almost as a confessional opportunity. I’ve witnessed other students use the personal statement to stumble sloppily through discussions of the death of a pet, a protest rally that turned into a small riot, a bad case of lactose intolerance, a religious conversion, and ten years away from school “bumming around with a rock band.”
Writers who do this are often focusing on one small part of their application (such as a poor semester of grades) or something they view as so self-defining (such as a political cause) that they feel almost obliged to discuss the topic. But despite the writer’s personal agenda, audience and context are key here, with the astute writer only taking chances when the risk is clearly worth it. At the same time, as the following discussion makes clear, there are times when the uniqueness of your experience is indeed worth showcasing.
As reported in the book How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School, the Stern School of Business at New York University does something a bit unusual in its application questions to applicants. As many programs do, the school uses a series of questions rather than just one, but the third question asks students to describe themselves to their classmates, allowing for some creative elbow room. The answers to this third question, says the Director of Admissions and Aid, are her favorite. Though most applicants simply write creative essays, others send in poems, games, puzzles—even cassette recordings or videotapes. Obviously, in most graduate applications, students don’t have such options when it comes to delivering the material. However, those with particularly interesting personal tales or educational paths should always look for ways to highlight them in writing.
Many schools pride themselves not only on their programs but on something flexible or specialized about the education they offer. My alma mater, Juniata College, has students build a “program of emphasis” rather than declare a major, allowing students to customize their program of study. St. John’s College engages all its students in a classics-grounded course of study “based in the great books of the Western tradition,” which includes four years of math and one year of music for all students. Mount Holyoke, an all-women’s college, has a program in speaking, writing, and arguing, and sponsors an annual intercollegiate poetry competition. Not all readers will know the details about these programs, and the personal statement provides a perfect opportunity for graduates of such programs to take advantage of interesting experiences built right into their education. Writers who flesh out such detail in their personal statements both educate their readers about their background and affiliate themselves with programs of earned reputation.
Other educational background worthy of consideration for your personal statement includes:
- Participation in a first-year or senior seminar, assuming the seminar was academic and required you to produce meaningful work and some deliverable product.
- Past academic scholarships and the criteria by which you won them, especially if they are competitive national awards.
- Any co-op or work experiences directly relevant to graduate study, especially if the work you did was integrated into senior thesis research.
- Study at more than one school or study abroad, in particular if you are fluent in multiple languages.
- Honors education classes or an honors thesis.
- The completion of an integrated bachelor’s/master’s program, with discussion of program particulars.
- Completion of a senior thesis, especially if some facet of the thesis research can be continued at graduate school.
- Educational training through the military or professional certification programs, with an emphasis on relevance to graduate study.
- A transfer of schools or a return to school after time away, emphasizing positive lessons learned from the experience and giving evidence of accomplishments and motivation.
Finally, sometimes writers have such interesting personal stories that they capture their audience just by sharing something meaningful about their lives. Interesting stories I’ve read about in personal statements include a man who grew up in four different countries while his parents worked for the Peace Corps, a blind student from South Korea who was adopted into an American family and completed an internship involving service to disabled high school students, a woman who left an international modeling career to return to school full-time, a student who completed a bachelor’s degree over an eight-year period while battling multiple sclerosis, a student whose father went to jail for the duration of the student's high school years, and a student who had placed a novel with a major publishing house at the age of 19. Such personal stories and accomplishments are too interesting, and in some cases too moving, not to share. As you compose your personal statement, mine your educational and personal experiences to be sure you’re not overlooking something of interest that will both define and uplift you in the eyes of your readers.