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Added: June 17, 2022
An academic essay is a nonfiction essay
The word “essay” is sometimes misleading because in Russian it means “an essay treating literary, philosophical, social and other problems not in a systematic scientific form, but in a free form.” An academic essay does not have a “free form,” but rather a rather rigorous structure.
The academic essay is not philosophical essayism
The notion of “grademiners” is associated with those texts that “emphasize an individual view of the phenomenon, subject, or event being experienced and described.” This is a genre you will probably master in due course, too, but don’t start mastering it when your professor is expecting an academic essay from you (much less when you submit an academic essay in an application packet for a grant, an exchange program, etc.). Your feelings about a given topic have no place in an academic text (although no one is stopping you from expressing your individuality through a clear articulation of your own opinion).
An academic essay is a short research statement
An academic essay is a text in which you justify a thesis, usually of a polemical nature.
Your task is to prove a claim from some perspective, to convince the reader of something. Or at least show that you know the methods of proof and persuasion accepted in your field of knowledge (and for that you need to know at least the basic literature).
Your primary audience is the instructor or reviewer; choose your arguments with that in mind. Don’t pretend that you are writing for “a wide range of interested readers.” Remember that an academic essay, like any scholarly text, is always a dialogue with your peers or with those researchers who have dealt with the issue before you. If you have no idea of the academic field at all, you probably won’t be able to write an essay.
Nevertheless, in an essay you demonstrate not readiness, but the capacity for autonomous judgment: you have a thought or idea for which you can give sufficient reason to be considered by any rational reader. Sapere aude, “dare to know”-or, as Immanuel Kant interpreted the maxim, “have the courage to use your own mind!”
Thus, an academic essay is a small research paper that differs from a term paper in volume (focus): while in a term paper you usually face 2-3 interrelated questions (the goal and the tasks necessary to achieve the goal) that you answer in 2-3 chapters, an essay is usually an answer to one specific question.