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Subsection 4.2.5 Writing Conclusions

Conclusions should give your reader the same sense of finality and progress that hearing your GPS say, “You have arrived at your destination” gives you. This is a tall order, and writing conclusions can produce the “I want to tear my hair out” sensation that college students know (and love?). While introductions need to convince your reader to take the journey that is reading your paper and give them a good idea of what they’ll learn if they do so, conclusions need to give your reader a sense of closure after they finish their journey. In this section, you’ll learn why you need a conclusion, what to put in your conclusion, and how to go about writing a conclusion that will give your reader the “looking-back-fondly-on-a-great-trip” feeling that a photo album can create.

Subsubsection Role of the Conclusion

The Photo Album.

When it's 1:59 a.m. in Collins Memorial Library and you're nearing the end of your paper, it may be tempting for you to throw up your hands in desperation and exclaim, “I don't need a conclusion! I've said everything I need to say!” While we've all been in that position, it's definitely worth it to stay up a little later or get up a little earlier to write a strong conclusion. An effective conclusion restates the argument to remind the audience where they have been, and offers some greater implications or applications of your proposed resolution.

A black and white cartoon of a camera.

Just as the introduction is the first thing your audience will read, the conclusion will be the last thing they remember before they put your paper down. In this way, the conclusion can be conceptualized as the photo scrapbook or Facebook album containing all the images from the reader's journey, with a few new trip ideas or future destinations thrown in. For this reason, the conclusion can be a great opportunity for you to reach beyond the scope of the prompt and make connections to greater issues or concepts that were not discussed in your paper.

Subsubsection Anatomy of the Conclusion

Restatement of Thesis.

When you reach your conclusion, it's useful to remind the audience where they have been: What was the main argument of your paper and how did the evidence support it? However, don't just restate your thesis as it appeared in your introduction; use different language and boil down your argument into main points to make it clear to the audience exactly what you expected them to learn from reading your paper. It may even be helpful to use sequential sentences to summarize your argument: “First, I showed you this. Then, I compared it to this. Finally, I used this knowledge to draw this conclusion.” Then, synthesize these points to show how they form a cohesive argument: “Based on these points, one may conclude . . . [argument].” Restating your thesis will consolidate your argument in the reader's mind; this way, even if they didn't read through the rest of your paper, they should be able to identify your primary argument based on your conclusion.

Greater Implications.

Strong conclusions don't merely restate your thesis statement but also offer some sense of the greater implications or applications of your argument. For instance, you could examine an influence your topic had on another issue, identify its historical significance, or pose practical applications or potential resolutions to your stated problem or question. The conclusion gives you space to briefly explore your topic beyond the prompt or scope of the paper, so use it! Be creative! Make a statement! When considering the greater implications of your argument, it may be helpful to ask yourself the following questions:

Helpful Questions 4.2.18. Understanding Implications.
  • So what? Why is my argument significant or important? Why did I write about it in the first place?

  • What do I want the audience to take away from my paper?

  • What implications does it have for current academic understanding? Does it offer a different perspective on a topic or source?

  • How does my argument contribute to the greater scholarly conversation? Does it support or refute the findings of other scholars in the field?

  • What other questions arise in light of my findings?

  • What will be my paper's legacy? How do I want it to be used by future scholars writing about my same topic?

Subsubsection Writing Effective Conclusions

Now that you know the basic parts of a conclusion, here are some tips and strategies to make yours as effective as it can be.

List 4.2.19. Strategies for Writing Effective Conclusions
  • Try articulating your entire argument in three to four sentences.

    When crafting your conclusion, it can be tempting to rewrite as much as you can about your argument, because it's all important, right? Where do you stop? How much is too much? You may even feel tempted to just copy and paste your topic sentences into the conclusion to avoid having to re-articulate your entire argument. Try to resist these temptations to be lazy. The purpose of the conclusion is to consolidate only the most important points of your paper to demonstrate how they fit together to form your overall argument. Your audience has already read your paper, so what are the points you want them to remember? To avoid simply rewriting your paper in the conclusion, try expressing your entire argument in three to four sentences, thinking only about the critical organs that keep your paper alive. Your conclusion should represent a sharper condensation of your argument.

  • Restate your thesis . . . without looking at your thesis.

    Don't just copy and paste your thesis from the introduction, hoping that your audience won't notice. They will notice, because the introduction and conclusion fulfill very different functions, and you introduction should emphasize different parts of your argument than your conclusion does. Your argument likely will have evolved or grown somewhat over the course of writing your paper; while you may have to revise your thesis to reflect this, the way you present your argument in your conclusion will likely be slightly different from how you wrote it in the introduction. To avoid simply restating your thesis using the same language, try writing your conclusion without looking at your thesis at all. As you should now be intimately acquainted with your topic (having just written several pages on it), doing so will likely enable you to restate your thesis to reflect a more evolved and sophisticated understanding of your argument.

  • Play the “But, why?” game with a friend.

    If you've ever spent time around young children, you are likely familiar with the “But, why?” game. It starts with an innocuous question like “Why is the sky blue?” You might answer, “Because of the way molecules scatter blue light from the sun.” But far from satisfying the inquisitive youth, your answer simply prompts another question: “But, why?” After a few rounds you likely give up and say, “Just because.” While it can be an irritating game to play with children, the “But, why?” game can actually be incredibly useful if you are having difficulty coming up with the greater implications or applications of your argument. Have your friend or a Writing Advisor read over the first part of your conclusion (the summary of your argument), and then have them drill you with “But, why?”s. Eventually, you will get to a point where you have to think about the greater significance or future implications of your paper in order to answer their questions (needless to say, answering a question with “Just because” is not allowed).

Three speech bubbles read "but, why?", "BUT… WHY?", and "because." They are on a blue background with a cartoon sun.

If you want some more ideas for writing effective conclusions, take a look at the following examples from student papers:

Example 4.2.20. Conclusion: Women in the Odyssey.

Athena's relationships with Odysseus and Telemachus are clear examples of the strengthening of the gender divide, as it is these two men who win the day and the heart of Penelope. Athena stands out as the only venerable woman in the Odyssey, yet it is this very contrast that reminds us of the alleged lower standing of women.

Before jumping to grandiose conclusions surrounding the role of women in ancient works, we must first take into consideration their actions and the ways in which they are described. Their mere presence does not represent a victory for feminism, for it often means that they are being shown in a negative light. Only by reevaluating the discourse used in such works and determining whether it is empowering or problematic can we be objective in the way we view not only a specific work, but also an entire gender.

Example 4.2.21. Conclusion: Male Suffrage.

John C. Calhoun effectively summarized the essential political theme of American politics in the early nineteenth-century when he wrote “When once formed, the community will be divided into two great parties—a major and minor—between which there will be incessant struggles on the one side to retain and on the other to obtain the majority, and thereby control of the government and the advantages it confers . . .”. Political struggles between the evolving majority and the politically and economically established minority were carried out on the battlefield of universal male suffrage. The two debates are related through their specific answers to the question over which group should possess more political control. This relationship between the issues and the tension it highlights allow historians to better understand the relationship between politics and economics in this period of American history. More specifically, one can see how much economic issues of class, property, and wealth were linked to the political concerns of the American people. Understanding this relationship and its implications is invaluable for further examination of American society; it lays the basis for a more in-depth study on understanding America's class structure and how its development was shaped, economically and politically, throughout the rest of the nineteenth-century.

Example 4.2.22. Conclusion: Immigration Act.

After interviewing my dad, I think it can be safely stated that his personal experience with immigration, as well as that of his family, was a pleasant one. His family suffered no great hardship in the process of moving from Glasgow, Scotland, to Greenville, South Carolina. Through the assistance of the Immigration Act, with its separate economic and family classifications, his family members were ensured that they would be able to immigrate together. Since the passage of this act in 1965, it has successfully worked to restructure the immigration policies of the United States so that no major or minor ethnic or national group is singled out. By not drawing special attention to any one group, chances for discrimination and preferential treatment are greatly reduced. This shows that the policies allowing for foreign immigration to the United States have been equalized, and have proven to be fairer than any policy set in place before 1965.