In most parts, the conclusion is a mirror image of the introduction. Before you read this blogpost, you should therefore have read its sibling, Introduction – a formula that almost always works.
Length and Purpose of the Conclusion
Like the introduction, your conclusion should be up to about 10% of the overall length of the essay, and no longer than this ballpark figure. For markers, it’s a fairly common occurrence to see overly long conclusions in student essays, and often it is quite obvious that the author was struggling to get up to the word count of the essay, and was then using (abusing?) the conclusion to add as many words as they thought reasonable. Overly short conclusions are less common, but also happen. The typical mistake here is that there isn’t much, or any, summary of the different points of the essay.
The purpose of a conclusion is to make sure your imaginary reader leaves the essay with a sense of clarity, and in a way, a sense of purpose, an understanding of what this all means in the bigger scheme of things. For the first point, you reiterate the main points you made in the essay. This makes sure your reader is on the same page with you and understands the importance of the different points you are summarising, and their relevance to the way you’ve discussed the topic. Then, secondly, you round off by basically explaining what this all means. This last point is usually nested in the argument of your essay (see part 1 on introductions), and can be broadened out by contextualising it with the wider scholarly debate on the issue your essay has discussed.
At a minimum, a conclusion needs to include two elements. It needs to summarise the different points, and it needs to explicitly relate them to the essay question. Using the example from Part 1, this could look something like this:
“Whose account of the emergence of capitalism, then, is more convincing? This essay has looked at, first, Marx’ analysis of how capitalism emerged out of feudalism, and how the bourgeoisie developed new means of production and was thus able to control not just the economy, but also the superstructure of society, its politics, philosophies, religion, and ideas more generally. Secondly, I examined Weber’s thesis of how capitalism first emerged in Protestant countries, and New England especially, and how this was due to a specific protestant ethic that evolved into the spirit of capitalism.”
Note that this is the mirror image of the two foundational elements of the introduction, introducing the essay question, and laying out your essay plan, before the fact in the intro, after the fact in the conclusion.
The opening sentence is a little cheeky, and you might want to consider being a little more formal (‘This essay has examined the question…’ or similar), but if your marker is okay with it, it can add a little life to the conclusion.
This conclusion does a good job of summarising the argument, but reading it, you will probably have felt a sense of it missing something. There’s not much of a round-off, and not much context. This is where you argument, again extended from the introduction, comes in.
Summarising the Argument & Rounding off the Essay
The above is more of a descriptive summary of the different points covered. The summary of the argument, on the other hand, aims at more than just describing the points, and at establishing their meaning, and your interpretation of them. In our example:
“Whose account of the emergence of capitalism, then, is more convincing? This essay has looked at, first, Marx’ analysis of how capitalism emerged out of feudalism, and how the bourgeoisie developed new means of production and was thus able to control not just the economy, but also the superstructure of society, its politics, philosophies, religion, and ideas more generally. Secondly, I examined Weber’s thesis of how capitalism first emerged in Protestant countries, and New England especially, and how this was due to a specific protestant ethic that evolved into the spirit of capitalism. As I have highlighted in the above discussion, Marx is particularly convincing at explaining X, but there are limitations when it comes to Y. Weber, on the other hand, is very insightful when it comes to Z, but his interpretation of Q is limited. Neither of the two thus provide a fully effective account of the emergence of capitalism, but both have contributed valuable insights. It is entirely merited, then, that their theories have served as starting points for subsequent students of capitalism ever since.”
You can see that the narrator’s voice here changes. It moves from someone merely describing the different points of the essay in the green bit, to someone analysing it, interpreting it, giving their own views, highlighting what they found important and noteworthy, in the purple section. These are the hallmarks of critical engagement, a topic I have covered elsewhere (What does critical mean, and how can I be critical in my essay writing?).
The last sentence of the above example, in particular, broadens out the topic, and positions the essay topic in the wider debate in the social sciences. By adding a few words here at the end, you can further demonstrate your understanding of the topic’s more general meaning and significance. This is a nice touch if you can add it, but even without this last sentence, this is now an excellent conclusion. This is, indeed, the formula I recommend you follow.
Common Mistakes in Conclusions
In addition to the mistakes discussed above in relation to length of the conclusion (too much detail or too little detail), there are three further common mistakes that you should avoid: First, do not introduce new material. Anything you think is worth discussing should be discussed in the main part of the essay. Second, do not introduce overly moralistic evaluations. This is a complicated matter, I know, and we could debate whether such a thing as neutrality is even possible or desirable. But for sure you do not want to go overboard with moralistic statements, claiming that something is negative without explaining why and for whom it is negative, or calling for certain measures to ‘eradicate’ certain social problems. The main purpose of a university-level social or political science essay is to understand and explain a social or political problem, not to evaluate it from a moral perspective. This is also the case when the essay question asks you to ‘evaluate’ a statement or problem. This is not asking for moral evaluation, but to evaluate whether something is the case or not, to what extent etc.
The last common mistake to avoid is to call for further research. This only makes sense if your paper is actually a research paper, ie it builds on original research, such as interviews or questionnaires, conducted by the author(s). When you read this kind of statement in a journal article, it is usually a way for the author(s) to point out the limitations of the research they’ve done, and reflecting on how they or others could take it a step further. It is not the appropriate ending for a standard university essay. Admittedly, this last point is a little subjective, though, and it makes sense to check with your marker what they think of the issue.
The importance of introductions and conclusions for the overall success of essay writing cannot be overestimated. They are the first impression and the final sending-off anyone reading your essay will experience. I hope the advice and tips in these two blogposts make for an easy-to-use, almost-always-applicable formula that will improve your essay writing in the long term. Do let me know in the comments or via email if you think anything is missing, or indeed if you’ve found these tips helpful.