A conclusion offers the final word on a paper: the insight you hope to have imparted to your reader, your paper's moral or lesson.
As such, it is important that your conclusion do more than merely summarize the contents of your paper. Too often, a student begins the last paragraph of a paper with the words, "In conclusion...," then re-caps the contents of the entire essay, point for point, and simply leaves it at that.
A real conclusion, however, does more. Revisiting the main points of your paper in your final paragraph is a good idea, yes. But then, take things to the next level. Remember the question or claim you articulated in your thesis, whose resolution has been the main objective of your paper? That question now needs to be re-invoked and, this time, definitively answered. More still, you need to leave your reader with a higher level of insight into your topic, and an understanding of how your specific topic illuminates larger issues in history. If you can articulate what it is that has made you topic worthy of historical inquiry in the first place, and what its larger lessons are - then you have a strong conclusion indeed.
For an example, click here.
How can a conclusion do more than just summarize the contents of a paper's main body, or re-iterate its thesis? How can a conclusion illuminate, in closing, that its paper's topic is relevant to larger issues in history? An example:
Recall the central issue of our sample topic on "The Austrian Catholic Church and the Anschluss," as we articulated it in our thesis:
The story of Austrian Catholics under Nazi rule from 1938 - 1945, though marked by considerable heroism among the lower-ranking clergy and laypeople, is ultimately one of failed leadership. By reviewing the Anschluss and the years that followed, and by contrasting local acts of Catholic resistance with repeated acts of official collaboration at the highest level, this paper will show how Austria's Catholic Church, as an institution, lost not only its dominant social position during the years 1938 - 1945, but also much of its claim to moral authority.
Now consider our conclusion:
While rural Catholic priests suffered punishment, incarceration, and even death for local acts of resistance, the collaborating leadership remained largely silent. Yet it is evident that [Austrian Cardinal] Innitzer too was capable of an individual act of courage; it is as the guardian of an institution, whose preservation was more important to him than its moral integrity, that he ultimately failed. The Austrian experience during the years of the Anschluss reminds us once again that ordinary men and women can display enormous courage even when confronted by heinous authoritarian regimes, but that without dedicated leadership, such local acts of resistance remain doomed.
What do you think? Has the final sentence given the conclusion a dimension that helps it transcend the immediate scope of the paper's topic, makes it a useful question to apply to other events and issues in history, whether they be national liberation movements, civil rights movements, gender equality movements, or the like?
- The conclusion needs to 1. restate the paper’s main points 2. answer the question, “Who cares?”, and 3. finish the paper with something punchy.
You have written a beautiful introduction and body, and now you have to finish the draft off by writing the conclusion! You want to finish strong and leave the reader with an interesting closing thought.
That being said, your concluding paragraph has to 1. briefly summarize your work (without sounding redundant), 2. illustrate why your paper is significant, and 3. end with a punch.
The conclusion should be formatted like an upside-down introduction–from the most specific to the most general. Therefore, the first sentence of your conclusion paragraph should describe the main points of your paper:
“Although there were a variety of lesser factors, the ultimate demise of the Roman Empire was a result of three main ones: poor leadership, outside pressure from barbarian forces, and weakening cultural unity.”
“Although Microsoft, Google, and Apple have similar company roots–nerdy college-aged kids tinkering around in garages–they have developed into very different companies. Apple has developed around the personality of a single person, while Microsoft and Google–while heavily influenced by their founders–have taken a less centralized approach.”
The trick with this sentence (or two) is to reiterate your paper’s main idea without sounding redundant. Copying and pasting your thesis is not a good idea. Another bad idea is to start out with a hollow-sounding phrase like “In conclusion,” “In summary,” or “As a whole.” These not-so-subtle phrases are sure to bore your reader.
Next, your conclusion has to relate your issue to a broader idea or question. Let’s say you’re writing a paper on symbolism and social overtones in The Crucible (a play by Arthur Miller about the Salem Witch Trials). In your conclusion, you should explain why your paper is significant.
Who cares? Who cares about Miller’s use of symbolism?
Your conclusion should make a link between the contents of your paper and a larger issue. A larger issue could be something like
- How the social overtones in the book have influenced how people view the Salem Witch Trials in hindsight
- How Miller’s style has influenced other playwrights or authors
- How Miller’s use of symbolism was seen by his contemporaries
Now is not the time to make a wild, unsupported claim. A small connection will suffice.
[Sentence restating paper’s main points about symbols in Miller’s play.] Miller’s use of symbolism in The Crucible dramatizes the hypothetical Salem described in his play. Such dramatization calls into question how much the theoretical Salem in Miller’s play differed from the historical Salem, which is a key question that makes the play so controversial and enduring.
The ‘larger issue’ here is how Miller’s use of symbolism helps underscore the difference between the Salem described in the play and the historical Salem. The difference between the two is a key question.
Another technique you might use for your conclusion is to describe where additional study needs to be done–where your essay stops and another essay could start.
At the end of your conclusion, you should have a punchy sentence that leaves your reader with an interesting thought. One way of doing this is to reconnect your ending sentence with your title:
Say you’re writing a paper on the similarities of Zeus and his son Hercules:
Title: Like Father, Like Son: Exploring Paternal Relationships in Greek Mythology
Concluding sentences: Hercules’ demeanor, athleticism, and attitude are similar to that of his father, Zeus. Both gods exemplify Greek ideals of masculinity. Greek mythological texts, then, reinforce the idea that fathers should pass Greek cultural values onto their sons. The story of Hercules reinforces the colloquial phrase, “like father, like son.”
Here the ‘larger issue’ is how Greek cultural values are shaped by Greek mythology. The ending is punchy. It contains a nice, memorable phrase and circles back to the interesting title.