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I have been reading about potential impacts of ChatGPT on education, and one thing that came up time and time again is something referred to as "college essay" or "undergraduate essay". Nobody ever explained the term and what exactly it refers to, so I have to assume it is a ubiquitous type of task at American universities. I have heard it talked about as if it is one of the defining features of American college experience.

What is it? Is it a common exercise? What is its purpose? If I understand correctly, it is a short written thesis that is supposed to make an argument for or against something, so is it a written exercise in rhetoric? Do all majors have them? As a chemical engineering graduate, I had nothing similar during my education, though it may have also been due to the differences in the education systems... The closest thing I had is a written report on a certain topic, such as "rhodium plating for jewelry" or "self healing coatings". That is different from an typical college essay, right?

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Essay writing is not limited to the US, or to humanities subjects. Both my education (Nature Science and Computer Science in the UK) and the course I currently teach on (Biology, also in the UK) made extensive use of the essay form in both formative and summative assessment. It does appear to be a more common form in Anglo-Saxon derived cultures, although it originated in France. Its also more common in less quantitative subjects: while the Computer Science part of my degree did require at least one essay to be assessed at some point, most assessments weren't essay based, the opposite is true of the Natural Science part, which had many essays and a small number of problem based exams. Humanities subjects are generally entirely essay based.

Your definition: "a short written thesis that is supposed to make an argument for or against something" is not too far off, although I'd say that it's not strictly speaking necessary for it to be for or against something. Generally an essay takes some topic, position, or statement, and examines it from as many different angles as possible, before coming to to some sort of conclusion on the topic. The structure thesis-antithesis-synthesis is common, that is, when asked a direct question, or to pass judgement on a statement, the most common conclusion is that the answer is neither yes nor no.

It has come to mean, more or less, any medium length (say 1000 words to 10,000 words) piece of writing on a coherent topic that is not a report of new research.

It is used often because a good essay demonstrates many things we would want from university graduates: they must have a good grasp of the underlying facts of the topic; they must understand the context in which those facts sit; a good essay requires the student to show good, fact based judgement; they must be able to write well; and its open-ended nature offers an optional opportunity to demonstrate mastery of material and argument beyond that taught in class or on the syllabus, including the ability to invent new arguments and theories.

Critics of the essay form argue that either it's bad because it requires all these things, rather than testing each one separately, or that most essay questions really only demand a recitation of the basic facts, along with a cookie cutter structure that makes it sound like an argument.

An example of an essay in Chemical Engineering (not a very good one as I'm not a Chemical Engineer) might be:

"'Click chemistry has revolutionized Synthetic Chemistry'. Discuss"

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    (+1) I don't know how common it is now, but in the U.S. a movement called "writing across the curriculum" was fairly wide-spread in the late 1980s through the 1990s. Of course, essays (in-class on tests and at-home assignments) have always been a large part of most non-science courses, at least in the U.S., and even math and CS students will have them in their non-science elective courses. To me, these were the "humanities equivalent" of math and physics problem sets one has to write up and turn in every week or two. Apr 12, 2023 at 13:33
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    I also find it surprising that anyone gets through a whole undergraduate degree without encountering an essay question, even in the physical sciences. A classic from my own undergraduate days was "What is the chemical potential?" Apr 12, 2023 at 16:06
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    @DanielHatton A little reading around suggests that the essay is a particularly Anglo-Saxon form. We regularly encounter this with overseas Master's students, who have rarely come across the idea of an essay before. Apr 12, 2023 at 16:09
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    @DaveLRenfro The notion of "writing across the curriculum" (WAC) still exists, though I think it is being supplanted by something more akin to "writing in the discipline" (WIN). One of the criticisms of WAC is that it encouraged an inauthentic style of writing assignment, which was often divorced from how professionals in a field actually write. WIN assignments ask students to write in the style of a practitioner, e.g. a writing assignment in a mathematics class may involve a "definition -> theorem -> proof" kind of structure. Apr 12, 2023 at 21:17
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    @DanielHatton If an essay is different from a report (and it appears that it is), the they are practically unheard of here in Russia...at least in natural science classes. I have no idea if they exist in humanitarian classes, but since I have only heard of them from the English speaking internet, I doubt they are particularly common. Apr 13, 2023 at 9:17
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This likely refers to essays written as part of an undergraduate application. From Wikipedia:

... intended as a chance to describe "things that are unique, interesting and informative about yourself".

It can also refer to any essay written during undergraduate studies. In the humanities, marked essays are standard and very common.

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  • I am asking about the latter. Apr 12, 2023 at 12:01
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    In that case: yes, they are common. The main purpose is to demonstrate that the writer is informed in the subject and can reason about it while making more or less original arguments which are supported by literature. It's to show the author has done the background reading and can synthesize strong and defensible arguments.
    – dubious
    Apr 12, 2023 at 12:06

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