Although essays have different topics and purposes, they all share a similar structure. When we refer to essay structure, we mean the way the essay looks on the page and the specific paragraphs used to create that look.
If you look at an essay, you will see that it is made up of several paragraphs. It is easy to tell where a new paragraph begins because they are indented. In Word, we create an indentation by pressing the “Tab” button. In APA, the indentation should be 0.5”, which is the default in MS Word. If your indentation looks too large or small, it can be helpful to check this default.
The paragraphs that make up any essay fall into three categories: introduction, body, and conclusion. See details on what should be included in these parts of an academic essay below and/or within our Basic Essay Structure Infographic.
The introduction is the first paragraph of an academic paper. Its purpose is to introduce a reader to the topic and to present the main point or argument. In long assignments, the introduction may be more than one paragraph in length, but for most of your academic coursework, the introduction will be one paragraph in length.
Even discussion posts and reflective assignments benefit from having an introductory paragraph. Your reader needs an introduction to the topic no matter the length or formality of the assignment.
To see an example and more information on how to develop an academic introduction, see the Introductions guide.
Body paragraphs are what make up most of an academic paper. It may have three body paragraphs or have ten. The number of body paragraphs depends on the purpose and required length of each assignment.
All academic body paragraphs, however, do have a few things in common:
- Each body paragraph focuses on one main idea. Paragraphs can be seen as pieces of the overall essay. Each piece is one part of the larger work.
- Each body paragraph is organized in a logical way. If you are writing a paper about a historical event, it makes sense to have each paragraph appear in chronological order. If you are writing a plan to improve a law, it makes sense to have paragraphs appear in the order of steps one would have to take.
- Each body paragraph connects to the thesis, or main idea/topic, of the paper. It is important that all body paragraphs work to develop the main idea of the essay and that none of them go off topic.
See an example body paragraph and learn more about developing strong body paragraphs in the Body Paragraphs guide.
The conclusion is the last paragraph of the paper. This is the place where you end the discussion by summarizing the overall focus of the paper and providing the significance of that focus. Just like with introductions, even reflective assignments and discussion posts benefit from having a conclusion at the end.
To see an example and more information on how to develop an academic conclusion, see the Conclusions guide.