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The Four Main Types of Essay | Quick Guide with Examples

Published on September 4, 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on December 6, 2021.

An essay is a focused piece of writing designed to inform or persuade. There are many different types of essay, but they are often defined in four categories: argumentative, expository, narrative, and descriptive essays.

Argumentative and expository essays are focused on conveying information and making clear points, while narrative and descriptive essays are about exercising creativity and writing in an interesting way. At university level, argumentative essays are the most common type. 

In high school and college, you will also often have to write textual analysis essays, which test your skills in close reading and interpretation.

Table of contents

Argumentative essays, expository essays, narrative essays, descriptive essays, textual analysis essays, frequently asked questions about types of essays.

An argumentative essay presents an extended, evidence-based argument. It requires a strong thesis statement —a clearly defined stance on your topic. Your aim is to convince the reader of your thesis using evidence (such as quotations ) and analysis.

Argumentative essays test your ability to research and present your own position on a topic. This is the most common type of essay at college level—most papers you write will involve some kind of argumentation.

The essay is divided into an introduction, body, and conclusion:

The example below is a paragraph from the body of an argumentative essay about the effects of the internet on education. Mouse over it to learn more.

A common frustration for teachers is students’ use of Wikipedia as a source in their writing. Its prevalence among students is not exaggerated; a survey found that the vast majority of the students surveyed used Wikipedia (Head & Eisenberg, 2010). An article in The Guardian stresses a common objection to its use: “a reliance on Wikipedia can discourage students from engaging with genuine academic writing” (Coomer, 2013). Teachers are clearly not mistaken in viewing Wikipedia usage as ubiquitous among their students; but the claim that it discourages engagement with academic sources requires further investigation. This point is treated as self-evident by many teachers, but Wikipedia itself explicitly encourages students to look into other sources. Its articles often provide references to academic publications and include warning notes where citations are missing; the site’s own guidelines for research make clear that it should be used as a starting point, emphasizing that users should always “read the references and check whether they really do support what the article says” (“Wikipedia:Researching with Wikipedia,” 2020). Indeed, for many students, Wikipedia is their first encounter with the concepts of citation and referencing. The use of Wikipedia therefore has a positive side that merits deeper consideration than it often receives.

An expository essay provides a clear, focused explanation of a topic. It doesn’t require an original argument, just a balanced and well-organized view of the topic.

Expository essays test your familiarity with a topic and your ability to organize and convey information. They are commonly assigned at high school or in exam questions at college level.

The introduction of an expository essay states your topic and provides some general background, the body presents the details, and the conclusion summarizes the information presented.

A typical body paragraph from an expository essay about the invention of the printing press is shown below. Mouse over it to learn more.

The invention of the printing press in 1440 changed this situation dramatically. Johannes Gutenberg, who had worked as a goldsmith, used his knowledge of metals in the design of the press. He made his type from an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony, whose durability allowed for the reliable production of high-quality books. This new technology allowed texts to be reproduced and disseminated on a much larger scale than was previously possible. The Gutenberg Bible appeared in the 1450s, and a large number of printing presses sprang up across the continent in the following decades. Gutenberg’s invention rapidly transformed cultural production in Europe; among other things, it would lead to the Protestant Reformation.

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A narrative essay is one that tells a story. This is usually a story about a personal experience you had, but it may also be an imaginative exploration of something you have not experienced.

Narrative essays test your ability to build up a narrative in an engaging, well-structured way. They are much more personal and creative than other kinds of academic writing . Writing a personal statement for an application requires the same skills as a narrative essay.

A narrative essay isn’t strictly divided into introduction, body, and conclusion, but it should still begin by setting up the narrative and finish by expressing the point of the story—what you learned from your experience, or why it made an impression on you.

Mouse over the example below, a short narrative essay responding to the prompt “Write about an experience where you learned something about yourself,” to explore its structure.

Since elementary school, I have always favored subjects like science and math over the humanities. My instinct was always to think of these subjects as more solid and serious than classes like English. If there was no right answer, I thought, why bother? But recently I had an experience that taught me my academic interests are more flexible than I had thought: I took my first philosophy class.

Before I entered the classroom, I was skeptical. I waited outside with the other students and wondered what exactly philosophy would involve—I really had no idea. I imagined something pretty abstract: long, stilted conversations pondering the meaning of life. But what I got was something quite different.

A young man in jeans, Mr. Jones—“but you can call me Rob”—was far from the white-haired, buttoned-up old man I had half-expected. And rather than pulling us into pedantic arguments about obscure philosophical points, Rob engaged us on our level. To talk free will, we looked at our own choices. To talk ethics, we looked at dilemmas we had faced ourselves. By the end of class, I’d discovered that questions with no right answer can turn out to be the most interesting ones.

The experience has taught me to look at things a little more “philosophically”—and not just because it was a philosophy class! I learned that if I let go of my preconceptions, I can actually get a lot out of subjects I was previously dismissive of. The class taught me—in more ways than one—to look at things with an open mind.

A descriptive essay provides a detailed sensory description of something. Like narrative essays, they allow you to be more creative than most academic writing, but they are more tightly focused than narrative essays. You might describe a specific place or object, rather than telling a whole story.

Descriptive essays test your ability to use language creatively, making striking word choices to convey a memorable picture of what you’re describing.

A descriptive essay can be quite loosely structured, though it should usually begin by introducing the object of your description and end by drawing an overall picture of it. The important thing is to use careful word choices and figurative language to create an original description of your object.

Mouse over the example below, a response to the prompt “Describe a place you love to spend time in,” to learn more about descriptive essays.

On Sunday afternoons I like to spend my time in the garden behind my house. The garden is narrow but long, a corridor of green extending from the back of the house, and I sit on a lawn chair at the far end to read and relax. I am in my small peaceful paradise: the shade of the tree, the feel of the grass on my feet, the gentle activity of the fish in the pond beside me.

My cat crosses the garden nimbly and leaps onto the fence to survey it from above. From his perch he can watch over his little kingdom and keep an eye on the neighbours. He does this until the barking of next door’s dog scares him from his post and he bolts for the cat flap to govern from the safety of the kitchen.

With that, I am left alone with the fish, whose whole world is the pond by my feet. The fish explore the pond every day as if for the first time, prodding and inspecting every stone. I sometimes feel the same about sitting here in the garden; I know the place better than anyone, but whenever I return I still feel compelled to pay attention to all its details and novelties—a new bird perched in the tree, the growth of the grass, and the movement of the insects it shelters…

Sitting out in the garden, I feel serene. I feel at home. And yet I always feel there is more to discover. The bounds of my garden may be small, but there is a whole world contained within it, and it is one I will never get tired of inhabiting.

Though every essay type tests your writing skills, some essays also test your ability to read carefully and critically. In a textual analysis essay, you don’t just present information on a topic, but closely analyze a text to explain how it achieves certain effects.

Rhetorical analysis

A rhetorical analysis looks at a persuasive text (e.g. a speech, an essay, a political cartoon) in terms of the rhetorical devices it uses, and evaluates their effectiveness.

The goal is not to state whether you agree with the author’s argument but to look at how they have constructed it.

The introduction of a rhetorical analysis presents the text, some background information, and your thesis statement; the body comprises the analysis itself; and the conclusion wraps up your analysis of the text, emphasizing its relevance to broader concerns.

The example below is from a rhetorical analysis of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech . Mouse over it to learn more.

King’s speech is infused with prophetic language throughout. Even before the famous “dream” part of the speech, King’s language consistently strikes a prophetic tone. He refers to the Lincoln Memorial as a “hallowed spot” and speaks of rising “from the dark and desolate valley of segregation” to “make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” The assumption of this prophetic voice constitutes the text’s strongest ethical appeal; after linking himself with political figures like Lincoln and the Founding Fathers, King’s ethos adopts a distinctly religious tone, recalling Biblical prophets and preachers of change from across history. This adds significant force to his words; standing before an audience of hundreds of thousands, he states not just what the future should be, but what it will be: “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” This warning is almost apocalyptic in tone, though it concludes with the positive image of the “bright day of justice.” The power of King’s rhetoric thus stems not only from the pathos of his vision of a brighter future, but from the ethos of the prophetic voice he adopts in expressing this vision.

Literary analysis

A literary analysis essay presents a close reading of a work of literature—e.g. a poem or novel—to explore the choices made by the author and how they help to convey the text’s theme. It is not simply a book report or a review, but an in-depth interpretation of the text.

Literary analysis looks at things like setting, characters, themes, and figurative language. The goal is to closely analyze what the author conveys and how.

The introduction of a literary analysis essay presents the text and background, and provides your thesis statement; the body consists of close readings of the text with quotations and analysis in support of your argument; and the conclusion emphasizes what your approach tells us about the text.

Mouse over the example below, the introduction to a literary analysis essay on Frankenstein , to learn more.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often read as a crude cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific advancement unrestrained by ethical considerations. In this reading, protagonist Victor Frankenstein is a stable representation of the callous ambition of modern science throughout the novel. This essay, however, argues that far from providing a stable image of the character, Shelley uses shifting narrative perspectives to portray Frankenstein in an increasingly negative light as the novel goes on. While he initially appears to be a naive but sympathetic idealist, after the creature’s narrative Frankenstein begins to resemble—even in his own telling—the thoughtlessly cruel figure the creature represents him as. This essay begins by exploring the positive portrayal of Frankenstein in the first volume, then moves on to the creature’s perception of him, and finally discusses the third volume’s narrative shift toward viewing Frankenstein as the creature views him.

At high school and in composition classes at university, you’ll often be told to write a specific type of essay , but you might also just be given prompts.

Look for keywords in these prompts that suggest a certain approach: The word “explain” suggests you should write an expository essay , while the word “describe” implies a descriptive essay . An argumentative essay might be prompted with the word “assess” or “argue.”

The vast majority of essays written at university are some sort of argumentative essay . Almost all academic writing involves building up an argument, though other types of essay might be assigned in composition classes.

Essays can present arguments about all kinds of different topics. For example:

An argumentative essay tends to be a longer essay involving independent research, and aims to make an original argument about a topic. Its thesis statement makes a contentious claim that must be supported in an objective, evidence-based way.

An expository essay also aims to be objective, but it doesn’t have to make an original argument. Rather, it aims to explain something (e.g., a process or idea) in a clear, concise way. Expository essays are often shorter assignments and rely less on research.

The key difference is that a narrative essay is designed to tell a complete story, while a descriptive essay is meant to convey an intense description of a particular place, object, or concept.

Narrative and descriptive essays both allow you to write more personally and creatively than other kinds of essays , and similar writing skills can apply to both.

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The 7 Types of Essays Every Student Needs to Know

Lindsay Kramer

Throughout your academic career, you’ll write a lot of essays . And you’ll probably write a lot of different types of essays, such as analytical and argumentative essays. Different kinds of essays require different skills, like infusing figurative language into a personal essay to help it come alive or critically thinking through a multifaceted problem in an analytical essay to reach a solution. Essays vary in length and structure , too, with some spanning pages and others fitting neatly into just a few paragraphs.  

Get to know these seven types of essays before you’re assigned to write them. Understanding how they’re different—and how they’re the same—will turn you into an expert essayist.

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The four main types of writing

In many of the online resources you’ll find about the types of essays, you’ll find references to the four main types of writing :

These aren’t four specific types of essays, but four distinct methods of communicating an essay’s theme. They are the four most commonly used of the nine traditional rhetorical modes , which also include methods like classification and process analysis. 

When you’re assigned an essay, using one of these rhetorical modes might be part of the assignment. For example, you might be asked to write an argumentative essay about a new proposed campus policy and whether it should or should not be enacted. In your essay, you’d use persuasive writing techniques, like expressing your point of view about the proposed policy and its likely repercussions, to communicate your position. 

Understanding the four main types of writing can help you understand the texts you work with better. When you’re reading an essay, try to identify which type of writing the author is using by examining the essay’s structure , tone, words used, and how the author presents their theme. By doing this, you can analyze an essay on a deeper level and write a stronger essay of your own based on those insights. 

Personal essays

In a personal essay, your focus is on something that has impacted you personally. It could be an event from your past, a situation you’re currently facing, or a broader look at how different experiences and circumstances shaped you into who you are today. 

Often, personal essays employ narrative writing techniques. However, they can also rely on expository or descriptive techniques, depending on the essay’s content and theme. Personal essays can overlap with other types of essays, like argumentative, humorous, and college application essays. 

Personal essay example: The Death of a Moth by Virginia Woolf. In this essay, Woolf explores the fleeting nature of life by juxtaposing it against inevitable death by describing a moth’s final moments. 

Political essays

You may recognize some of the most well-known political essays from what you read in history class. These essays are pieces by famous historical and contemporary thinkers that discuss society and how it should be governed. A few famous political essayists you’ve likely read in class include Thomas Hobbes, John Rawls, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In a political essay, the author comments on present circumstances and proposes solutions to them, sometimes pulling examples of similar circumstances or solutions from history. Generally, political essays fall into the expository or persuasive writing categories. 

Political essay example: The Era of Easier Voting for Disabled People Is Over by Sarah Katz. In this essay, Katz discusses how pandemic-related changes to the voting system made voting easier for individuals with disabilities and how new bills that aim to curb voter fraud can have a negative impact on this voter population. 

Compare-and-contrast essays

Compare-and-contrast essays are likely one of the types of essays students write most frequently. In this kind of essay, the author exposes key differences and similarities between two subjects by comparing them to each other and contrasting them against each other. 

You might be asked to compare two novels you read for class, two historical figures from the period you’re studying, two processes used to achieve the same result, or two concepts your instructor covered. In some cases, you may be asked to compare three or even more subjects. But generally, compare-and-contrast essays involve two subjects. 

Usually, compare-and-contrast essays are pieces of expository writing, as the essay’s theme is exposed through the comparisons the author makes. They can also be pieces of persuasive writing when the comparisons are made to persuade the reader to take a specific position.

Compare-and-contrast essay example: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven . This compare-and-contrast essay explores how an individual can become unaware of and trapped by their own suffering by comparing how both authors create this dilemma for their characters in these works. 

College (application) essays

Not all essays you write in college count as college essays . In fact, unless you apply to graduate school or another kind of specific academic program once you’re in college, you’ll write all your college essays before you become a college student. 

A college application essay, also known as a personal statement , is a brief personal essay that highlights the personality traits and experiences that make you an ideal fit for the college to which you’re applying. These essays are evaluated alongside high school transcripts for one’s admission to college. 

Usually, college essays are written in response to specific prompts, like the prompts provided by the Common App . These prompts are crafted to help applicants write engaging, compelling personal essays by asking them to respond to multiple related points. 

College application essay examples: You can read great examples of successful college essays on websites like collegeessayguy.com . Your school might even have a collection of successful essays for applicants to read, as this page on Johns Hopkins’ website does. In one essay, Switching Shoes , by a recently accepted Johns Hopkins applicant, the writer discusses how getting out of his comfort zone by trying a new sport reshaped his perspective. It pushed him to accept feedback more readily, speak up when he has questions, and appreciate his chosen sport in a broader way. 

Analytical essays

Analytical essays are essays that drill down to the core components of the subject at hand and reach conclusions by thoroughly working through these components. You might be asked to write an analytical essay about the themes in a novel or about the ideas presented in a political essay. Analytical essays are pieces of expository writing; the goal with these is to present facts by interpreting content.

In an analytical essay, the author does not try to persuade the reader to take a certain position. Rather, the author presents a work, such as a movie or a short story, and analyzes its theme by discussing ways the work communicates its theme. For example, you might write an analytical essay about how the film Up communicated its theme of love being an action fueled by fulfilling promises. In illustrating this, you might bring up Russell’s dedication to earning his merit badge and Carl’s never giving up on Ellie’s goal of reaching Paradise Falls. 

In some analytical essays, the author analyzes two or more works. When this is done to compare the works, the essay can be considered both a compare-and-contrast essay and an analytical one. 

Analytical essay example: Island of Fear by Moses Martinez. In this high school–level literary analysis essay, the author explains how William Golding uses three characters in Lord of the Flies to demonstrate how differently people react to threats and trauma, even when those people are in the same environment. 

Argumentative essays

In an argumentative essay , you . . . well . . . argue. 

Specifically, you argue for or against a particular position. For example, your assignment might be to take a position about your school’s policy of not allowing a student to take more than two AP courses per year and support your position with data. To support your position that it’s a good policy, you might point to the correlation between how many AP courses a student takes and their average AP test scores or the hours of homework required for each AP course. 

Well-written argumentative essays don’t rely on emotional appeal. Rather, they convince readers of their positions’ merits through statistics, facts, and logic. In most cases, argumentative essays are pieces of persuasive writing . 

Argumentative essay example: Does Truth Matter? Science, Pseudoscience, and Civilization by Carl Sagan. In this essay, Sagan argues that rather than being in opposition to spirituality, science should be considered a source—perhaps the most valid source—of the kind of fulfillment people usually take from spiritual practices.  

Humorous essays

Another kind of essay you might find yourself reading or writing is the humorous essay. As the name implies, this kind of essay is meant to elicit laughs and entertain the reader. A humorous essay could be a personal essay that recounts a funny event in the author’s life, but it can also be a political essay that uses satire to comment on current events. As long as it’s funny and an essay, it counts as a humorous essay. 

Humorous essays generally use the same techniques that other essays use, often leaning more into the techniques found in narrative writing like descriptive language and metaphors. Often, humorous essays are pieces of descriptive writing, using hyperbolic, irreverent, or whimsical language to express a funny take on the subject covered. 

Humorous essay example: The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris. In this essay, Sedaris writes from the perspective of a man playing an elf at a mall Santa setup. Through this point of view, he satirizes this American holiday ritual through ironic anecdotes. 

Grammarly helps polish any type of essay

No matter what you’re writing about, grammar and spelling mistakes in your essay undermine the point you’re making. Don’t let it happen to you—use Grammarly to catch every mistake before you click “submit.”

Sometimes the issue isn’t your grammar, but your tone. Grammarly can help with that, too. Whether you’re writing a serious political think piece or a silly narrative of the last time you attempted to do Black Friday shopping, our tone detector can pick up on your intended tone and help you rein in your writing appropriately.

types of essays in college

Purdue Online Writing Lab College of Liberal Arts

types of essays in college

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Copyright ©1995-2018 by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, reproduced, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our terms and conditions of fair use.

These OWL resources will help you with the types of writing you may encounter while in college. The OWL resources range from rhetorical approaches for writing, to document organization, to sentence level work, such as clarity. For specific examples of writing assignments, please see our Common Writing Assignments area.

The Rhetorical Situation

This presentation is designed to introduce your students to a variety of factors that contribute to strong, well-organized writing. This presentation is suitable for the beginning of a composition course or the assignment of a writing project in any class.

Establishing Arguments

These OWL resources will help you develop and refine the arguments in your writing.

Logic in Argumentative Writing

This resource covers using logic within writing—logical vocabulary, logical fallacies, and other types of logos-based reasoning.

Paragraphs and Paragraphing

The purpose of this handout is to give some basic instruction and advice regarding the creation of understandable and coherent paragraphs.

Essay Writing

The Modes of Discourse—Exposition, Description, Narration, Argumentation (EDNA)—are common paper assignments you may encounter in your writing classes. Although these genres have been criticized by some composition scholars, the Purdue OWL recognizes the wide spread use of these approaches and students’ need to understand and produce them.


This resource will help you write clearly by eliminating unnecessary words and rearranging your phrases.

Paramedic Method: A Lesson in Writing Concisely

This handout provides steps and exercises to eliminate wordiness at the sentence level.

Reverse Paramedic Method

This resource will help you write clear, concise sentences while remaining in the passive voice. Passive voice is used quite often in scientific writing.

Adding Emphasis

This handout provides information on visual and textual devices for adding emphasis to your writing including textual formatting, punctuation, sentence structure, and the arrangement of words.

Sentence Variety

This resource presents methods for adding sentence variety and complexity to writing that may sound repetitive or boring. Sections are divided into general tips for varying structure, a discussion of sentence types, and specific parts of speech which can aid in sentence variety.

Using Appropriate Language

This handout will cover some of the major issues with appropriate language use: levels of language formality, deceitful language and euphemisms, slang and idiomatic expressions; using group-specific jargon; and biased/stereotypical language.

Active and Passive Voice

This handout will explain the difference between active and passive voice in writing. It gives examples of both, and shows how to turn a passive sentence into an active one. Also, it explains how to decide when to choose passive voice instead of active.

Email Etiquette

Although instant and text/SMS messaging is beginning to supplant email for some groups' primary means of Internet communication, effective and appropriate email etiquette is still important. This resource will help you to become an effective writer and reader/manager of email.

Email Etiquette for Students

This presentation was designed in response to the growing popularity of email and the subsequent need for information on how to craft appropriate email messages. This presentation will help you send resumes and cover letters via email, and it will help you communicate with teachers / professors.

Using Foreign Languages in Academic Writing in English

This resource provides information on strategies that the students can use when incorporating languages other than English in their academic texts.


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  1. The four main types of essay

    At university level, argumentative essays are the most common type. In high school and college, you will also often have to write textual analysis essays, which test your skills in close reading and interpretation. Table of contents Argumentative essays Expository essays Narrative essays Descriptive essays Textual analysis essays

  2. The 7 Types of Essays Every Student Needs to Know

    In many of the online resources you’ll find about the types of essays, you’ll find references to the four main types of writing: Persuasive Descriptive Narrative Expository These aren’t four specific types of essays, but four distinct methods of communicating an essay’s theme.


    THE COLLEGE STUDENT’S GUIDE TO WRITING . FIVE TYPES OF ESSAYS (Information obtained from Successful College Writing 2nd ed. by Kathleen T. McWhorter) Narrative Essay . What is it? A narrative essay achieves a certain purpose through telling a story, which makes it interesting to the reader and also results in getting some point across.

  4. Academic Writing Introduction

    Academic Writing. These OWL resources will help you with the types of writing you may encounter while in college. The OWL resources range from rhetorical approaches for writing, to document organization, to sentence level work, such as clarity. For specific examples of writing assignments, please see our Common Writing Assignments area.