A thesis is a sentence that expresses the main claim of the entire essay. This means that every paragraph, every major point, every supporting detail, and every source must somehow relate to and support the thesis.

Essentially, when readers want to know what your point is, what they want to know is your thesis. And all college writing assignments expect you to make a point of some kind or another. This means that every one of your college essays should have a thesis. Some assignments emphasize argumentation more than others, so this need for a thesis might be less obvious to you in an essay that focuses more on reporting information, but it’s still there: your audience always expects you to make a point. An essay that has a good thesis has a good chance of succeeding. An essay that has a bad thesis, no matter what other strengths it may display, has a very poor chance of succeeding.

A good thesis is capable of being expressed in a single sentence. Much more information will be added to it in later sentences and paragraphs as support, but the primary idea itself will be focused and decisive enough to be stated in one sentence.

A good thesis takes the form of a declarative sentence. This means that a good thesis is never a question. A question cannot state a point directly, but a thesis is a directly stated point, which means it won’t be a question but instead a possible answer to a question.


Three Characteristics of a Good Thesis

A good thesis statement has three characteristics:

  • It is specific.
    • This means that it focuses on clearly defined ideas, often narrow enough to be discussed in a single essay. Within a thesis, referring to “sports” is not specific, but referring to “combat sports during the COVID-19 pandemic” is.
  • It is arguable.
    • This means that equally reasonable, intelligent, and educated readers could hold differing positions on the matter, and that the issues in the thesis can’t be answered with any kind of general certainty. “Bullying is bad” is not arguable for academic audiences, but what schools should do about bullying is. Keep in mind that arguable does not necessarily mean controversial. Academic arguments can be claims of analysis, observation, or other typically non-controversial modes. For example, a thesis claiming that “horror stories function through four primary motifs” is not controversial, but academically it is arguable. See more in the section Rhetoric and Argumentation.
  • It is significant.
    • This means that it has some meaningful bearing on others and/or society. “I think Disney movies are terrible” is not significant, but exploring how “Disney movies have negatively affected the unrealistic worldview of children” is.


Common Errors: Bad Thesis Statements

It is possible for a thesis to be a single, declarative sentence yet still be bad. Often, this is because the thesis fails to display the three characteristics explained above. Here are some examples of bad thesis statements, along with brief explanations:


Bad Example 1: “Drugs have harmful effects on the community.”

Bad Example 1 is bad because it is not specific. It does not indicate what drugs, what specific effects, what communities, or any other useful information.


Bad Example 2: “Racism should not be tolerated in school because it makes students feel alienated and harms the learning environment.”

Although Bad Example 2 is specific and has good intentions, it is a bad thesis statement because it is not arguable. No one in a modern, rationally-minded audience would really disagree and say that racism should in fact be promoted in school. Therefore this thesis tells its readers what they already know, which makes it useless.


Bad Example 3: “Blue ink pens are better than black ink pens.”

Although Bad Example 3 is specific and arguable, it is a bad thesis because it is not significant. Nobody really cares, or at least it has no important effect on people’s lives or in society.



Good Thesis Statements

Now here are some good thesis statements with brief explanations. (Note: Don’t use these as your own.)

“We should stop experimenting on animals and start experimenting on prisoners because the findings would be more accurate for humans and because prisoners aren’t innocent like animals are.”

This is highly arguable (you might disagree with it already), and that is a good thing: it is arguable while still being rationally able to defend itself (by offering at least two reasons as support). It is also good because it is very specific and because it is significant—it would matter whether America incorporates this idea.


“Divisions in America are getting worse because social media amplifies the voice of a minority of radicals, whom the majority of reasonable people are afraid to speak out against.”

This is a special type of thesis called a “causal analysis.” It argues why something is the way it is, and it is specific (it says exactly what and why), significant (it obviously matters to many), and arguable (this might not be the reason, or at least not a main one—or it might be).


“The original iPhone was the most important invention in the past 20 years.”

Although this may be a bit challenging to support (because of the words “the most”), it is still a good thesis because it is definitely arguable, it is specific (although the word “important” will have to be explained), and it would be significant if it proves to be a viable claim.



How to Build a Thesis

The way you build a thesis is to do the following in the order listed, making sure to use pre-writing strategies (whichever you prefer) to log your ideas each step of the way.

  1. Pick a broad subject that interests you.
  2. Pick some issue or controversy within that subject that interests you.
  3. Develop a guiding question about that issue or controversy, a question that is difficult or impossible for anyone to ever answer for certain.

(Warning: This is where lesser writers stop. They think this guiding question is what their essay is about—its thesis—but they are wrong because questions do not state points and cannot be argued. Do not stop here. Keep going until you have an actual thesis.)

  1. Make some sort of claim, comment, or point about that issue or controversy. This is your thesis.



  1. nursing
  2. communicating with patients
  3. What is the best way to teach nursing students to effectively communicate with patients?
  4. The best way to teach nursing students to effectively communicate with patients is to use live role-playing training.


  1. global warming
  2. car exhaust and its effects on global warming
  3. What should be done to stop the effects of car exhaust on global warming?
  4. Gas-burning cars should be made illegal in order to better protect the environment from global warming.


  1. vampires
  2. vampires being the objects of romantic fantasies
  3. Why have vampires changed from truly feared monsters into popular objects of romantic desire?
  4. Vampires have ceased scaring people and are now the objects of romantic fantasy because modern science has destroyed the fear of the supernatural while still leaving people with the desires of power and eternal life, both represented by vampires.



Common Errors

Although constructing a thesis according to the above characteristics and steps will help you avoid the biggest problems, it’s still possible to run into a few common errors.

One such error is confusing an essay’s subject with a thesis, which is a claim or position about that subject. This is particularly problematic when students focus on arguing for the existence of what they believe to be facts. Some are easy enough to identify and revise, such as “America still allows the death penalty in some places.” This does not yet take a position on that subject, but a student could easily enough reach one once this error is noticed. Others create more complicated problems. Consider these examples: “Aliens exist.” Or: “Ghosts are real.” These might seem to fit the characteristics of good thesis statements above, but they do not. That is because these are merely subjects for the writer. The writer who has asserted these as facts in the world has, by doing so, not yet made a claim about them and has failed to take a position on them. Such a position might be what the writer thinks universities or research institutions should do with their budgets based on evidence of the existence of aliens, or of ghosts. But taking such positions and supporting them often becomes quite complex and shaky, especially when directed toward academic audiences, which is why these kinds of “secret facts about the universe” subjects are too problematic for student writers to handle successfully. Some professors simply ban them to help students avoid inevitable trouble.

Another such error is confusing an self-referential announcement with a thesis. This kind of announcement often looks something like, “My essay will be about…,” or, “In my opinion, I think that…,” or, “For this assignment, I will tell you about…,” or something in the essay that similarly refers to itself as an essay. Sometimes the revision is simple: eliminate the needless phrase. Consider this example: “I think that the teaching of Shakespeare should be banned in American schools.” As it stands, it is not a thesis because it is a simple announcement about the writer, but simply removing “I think that” makes it a thesis, for it then makes an arguable, specific, and significant claim that would need to be supported. In other cases, the needless self-referential announcements such as “my essay will be about” hide the fact that the student has actually just confused the subject with a thesis, as noted above. So, “My essay will be about the death penalty” is only a subject, not yet a thesis.

Another common error is confusing the role of personal opinion in a thesis. Some students come to believe that personal opinions are banned in English class essays, or in college writing in general, but this is self-evidently wrong. The only way to make a thesis arguable is to take some opinion-based position on a matter. Opinions are therefore required in constructing a good thesis. But the simple statement of a personal opinion is rarely sufficient for a thesis; instead, it often becomes a mere statement of taste, which is neither arguable nor significant. “I love pineapple on pizza, no matter what anyone else says,” is just a statement of personal opinion, which means it can’t be arguable, nor is it significant. “I hate that Americans only get two options when voting for president” is just a personal opinion as it stands, but this one has the potential for a good thesis with just a little more revision.

One of the most difficult errors to face is confusing personal beliefs or convictions with claims. It is not necessary in college for student writers to personally believe all the ideas they explore in their essays, but this is hard for some students to comprehend or accept. Many students come to college having worked only on figuring out what they personally believe to be right and wrong, true and false, good and bad. That is fine up to a point, but it places the student in the prison of singular perspective. One great aim of a true college educations is, as Oscar Wilde put it, the ability to “play gracefully with ideas” rather than being stuck in “the violence of opinion merely.” So essays can serve as an opportunity to work through ideas that you have not necessarily given your heart, mind, and soul over to. This kind of serious play enriches you, makes you more perceptive, adaptable, and confident, and is indeed one main reason to bother writing at all. So avoid the temptation to write only about your convictions, or to fear any challenge to them. Instead, “play gracefully with ideas.”


Exercise 1

Using the above instruction work through the steps to create a thesis of your own.

  1. Name a broad subject that interests you.
  2. Name some issue or controversy within that subject that interests you.
  3. Develop a guiding question about that issue or controversy, a question that is difficult or impossible for anyone to ever answer for certain.
  4. State some sort of claim, comment, or point about that issue or controversy, or state some sort of answer to that guiding question. This is your thesis. Make sure your thesis is arguable, specific, and significant.




Work Cited

Wilde, Oscar. ‘Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis’, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, vol.II, De Profundis, ‘Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis’, ed. Ian Small (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.39.


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