UPDATE: We have revised this article since we first published it in 2016. If you are from a Singapore University (e.g. SUSS, SIM, NTU), the content here are aligned with what is being taught in these schools. As a general guide, you can use the essay checklist here to help you with it as well.
If you are currently enrolled in a degree course, it is likely that your professor has given or will give the class an intimidating sounding assignment called a “synthesis essay”.
If it is your first time encountering such a thing, then you are probably mystified about how to write one and are looking for a helpful online tutorial on synthesis essays. Or, if you have written one before and wish to sharpen your writing skills, then you are probably searching for a how-to article that will help you improve. Either way, you needn’t look any further, as you’ve come to the right place!
This post will take you through the motions of writing a synthesis essay, and will arm you with useful tips along the way. Hopefully, the information contained here will be of great help to you.
What is a synthesis essay?
When you are asked to synthesise something, you are being tasked to combine different elements to form a connected, unified whole. So, in a synthesis essay, you are to take a unique stand or opinion on a topic or issue, and support it with evidence from a collection of hand-picked sources.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? When reading the above description, you may be reminded of an argumentative essay. Yes, the two pieces of writing are indeed similar, but for synthesis essays, your tutor usually provides you with the sources you are to use, or at least part of it.
This may sound like he or she is taking the research work off of your plate, and you might conclude that this synthesis essay will be easier to write.
This isn’t exactly true, because your tutor is testing a different kind of skill, a different kind of thinking—one that requires you to come up with a persuasive argument, which will be supported by information from the sources given to you.
Your tutor hands you the clues, and you have to form connections between them. This task can be difficult if you don’t know where to start or how to go about it. This post will give you that first push in the right direction.
1. Cliche, but do read and understand the requirements thoroughly!
This may seem like an obvious but we received far too many synthesis essays proofreading job to know that this is not always apparent.
First, take all the time you need to go over the requirements and readings so you fully understand it. As you do, highlight the keywords and major concepts. This will give you a concrete idea of what to expect and search for while you read your sources.
Also, you might be able to formulate one or more initial thesis statements based on the prompt alone. Of course, you may change your mind after reading what the authors have to say, and this is perfectly fine.
Some of the common mistakes that some students may make includes misinterpreting the question.
Case in point: a recent synthesis essay set by SUSS asked students to discuss about the new Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme. What many students did however, is to discuss about the original DSA scheme.
While this may seem obvious to you, many students still make silly mistakes like this.
2. Do read your sources thoroughly. Don’t read thoughtlessly.
This step is vital! It is an absolute must that you go through your sources with care and a critical mind.
As you read, take note of compelling and significant points the authors make, pinpoint any common details, and connect the dots.
You must also evaluate! Question the claims the authors put forth. Be on the lookout for gaps and any inconsistencies. A critical thinker does not simply take something as it is without questioning it.
Should you forget to do this, your essay might end up presenting a one-sided argument and a biased view of the main topic—and of course, you don’t want that.
A healthy dose of criticism will do you a lot of good in this situation.
You can also highlight, underline, or mark the important information so that it will be easy to find when you go back to your sources. It could also help to write notes that briefly summarise each source.
3. Do decide on your position. Stand firm on it and don’t waver.
After thoroughly reading the sources, you can now choose what position to take. Pick content that supports your stand, and address that which goes against it.
It’s important that you pay attention to the contradictory arguments, because by doing so, you prove that you can defend your position. This will strengthen your synthesis essay all the more.
Make sure that you stand firm on your position. It would not do you or your essay any good to waver! Select points made by the authors that support your stance, and you will come up with a powerful argument.
4. Do draft an outline. Don’t be disorganised.
The key to an awesome essay is planning and organisation. You have to map out your argument in a methodical, systematic manner so that you can get your point across effectively—and the best way to do this is with an outline.
Outline your main points: start with the introduction, then the body paragraphs, and end with a conclusion. Next, list all of your arguments as sub-points of each body paragraph. Then, under each argument, provide supporting evidence from one or two sources, or more if you think it is appropriate. An outline for a synthesis essay could look something like this:
- 1. Introduction
- 2. Body Paragraph 1 (Argument number 1)
- 3. Body Paragraph 2 (Argument number 2)
- 4. Body Paragraph 3(Argument number 3)
- 5. Conclusion
Remember that there should only be ONE argument per paragraph.
Also, you should not do is build your argument around your sources and what they are saying. This would defeat the whole purpose of writing the synthesis essay!
Your lecturer wants to read your thoughts, wants to see how well you can defend your stand. The sources are supposed to provide evidence to help you drive your own point home. They should not speak for you, as you are more than capable of doing that yourself. If you stick to the above outline, you will avoid making this mistake.
5. Do defend your argument persuasively. Don’t simply summarise your sources.
Now is the time to write. As you do, you have two guides to help you out: your thesis statement and your outline. They will keep you on track and provide direction if you suddenly come down with a bad case of writer’s block.
Remember, you are formulating a persuasive argument that is based on your own viewpoint. Again, this entails using your sources properly.
Don’t just summarise what one author says and leave it at that. The information that you include in your paragraphs has to add something to your argument.
Tell your reader how this finding proves your point, or how a contradiction to your line of reasoning is invalid or incorrect.
And there you have it!
These are the most valuable tips I have, and I am glad to share with you. I hope they will help you out as you write your synthesis essay. Good luck!
Do you have your own tips on writing synthesis essays that you would like to post? Would you like to leave a small thank you note? Comment down below!