Conclusions are hard. Not impossible, of course, but hard. After spending hours pouring blood, sweat, and tears into your paper, you might be tempted to throw together a quick summary and slap it on the end of the essay. After all, didn’t you just spend eight whole pages explaining your topic? What’s left to be said?
Imagine, if only for a moment, being a professor. Your student hands you an eight-page paper titled “American Exceptionalism: A Political Analysis of the Greatest Nation on Earth.” Oh boy. Grimacing, you brace yourself for an onslaught of shallowly-researched über-patriotism. To your surprise, the student’s work is quite compelling. The thesis is unique and supported by several well-considered arguments, each in turn backed by a myriad of primary sources. This student’s paper impresses you, especially when you think back to his writing earlier in the semester.
Then, you get to the conclusion—or at least, you assume it to be the conclusion, since it is the last “paragraph” of the essay. This “conclusion” consists of two vague sentences, one of which essentially reads “And yup, that’s why America is the greatest country on Earth.”
Unfortunately, too many students fall into the trap of undermining their hard work with a vague or poorly-thought-out conclusion. What makes a conclusion “bad,” though? What should you avoid?
1: AVOID summarizing.
Despite what a thesaurus might say, conclusions are not synonymous with summaries. Summaries are repetitive and boring, but conclusions are thought-provoking. Try to concisely reiterate your main ideas, but don’t dwell on them—extend your ideas to the bigger picture and answer the question “so what?”
2: AVOID repeating your thesis or intro material verbatim.
While many successful conclusions briefly reiterate the main points of the paper or use similar language, it is always obvious when a student has copied and pasted his or her thesis from the introduction because it sounds repetitive. There is a fine line between using consistent language and key words throughout a paper, and simply copying. Try to find ways to reword your ideas, using varied vocabulary and sentence structures.
3: AVOID bringing up minor points.
In short, minor points are best left in the body of the essay. If the main point of your essay is that chocolate is the greatest invention ever because it tastes amazing, then talking about its country of origin, for example, might not be the best choice for your conclusion because it’s largely irrelevant to the “big picture” that you want to emphasize. Think about it this way: what do you want readers to take away from your paper? Bringing up minor points in the conclusion will only distract readers from your main ideas.
4: AVOID introducing new information.
Similarly to how minor points can distract readers from your main ideas, introducing last-minute information can confuse readers, leaving them wondering what your paper was really about. Not only can this confuse readers, but it can also give them the impression that you have poor organizational skills. A reader might wonder why you didn’t simply include the information further up in the bulk of your argument, rather than as an afterthought.
5: AVOID selling yourself short.
Conclusions often go beyond the original scope of the paper, thus tempting us to use language that suggests that we are not experts. Since you’ve just spent 5 pages acting like an expert on your topic, however, don’t undermine your hard work by ending your essay with a phrase like “I’m not an expert, but….” Your professor already knows that you are a student, not a professional. Similarly, try to avoid phrases like “I think” and “I feel,” especially in analytical papers. Again, your professor understands that everything in your paper is a product of your own ideas; even the information in objective papers has been filtered by what you view is important. Don’t weaken or hedge your arguments with language that is less than confident.
6: AVOID the phrases “in summary” and “in conclusion.”
As easy-to-use as they may be, phrases such as these come across as cliché. Your reader can see that he or she has reached the end of your paper because it is the last paragraph of the last page. Thus, beginning your conclusion with a phrase like “in conclusion” is a bit redundant.
Conclusions may seem like the hardest part of writing a paper, but they do not have to be. Have confidence in your knowledge and express it creatively. Look for unique ways to give your reader something to think about and, if need be, encourage him or her to act. Above all, don’t sell your conclusion short. Instead of thinking of your conclusion as a short summary tagged on to the end of your paper, try to view it as the opportunity to leave a lasting impression on your reader. These are the final words that your reader will see—what will he or she remember?
For additional assistance with conclusions, check out our handout or make an appointment with the Klooster Center by going online, by calling (616) 395-7025, or by stopping by the reception desk. We’re on the first floor of Van Wylen Library.
More Complete photo attributions:
“Why Can’t I See Clearly,” by “auntjojo” [CC BY-ND 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/)] via Flickr
“Chocolate,” By André Karwath aka Aka (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
“STOP Sign,” by Bidgee (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons