In countries like the United States, essays have become a major part of a formal education. Secondary students in these countries are taught structured essay formats to improve their writing skills, and essays are often used by universities in these countries in selecting applicants (see admissions essay). In both secondary and tertiary education, essays are used to judge the mastery and comprehension of material. Students are asked to explain, comment on, or assess a topic of study in the form of an essay. During some courses, university students will often be required to complete one or more essays that are prepared over several weeks or months. In addition, in fields such as the humanities and social sciences, mid-term and end of term examinations often require students to write a short essay in two or three hours.
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Longer essays may also contain an introductory page in which words and phrases from the title are tightly defined. Most academic institutions will require that all substantial facts, quotations, and other porting material used in an essay be referenced in a bibliography or works cited page at the end of the text. This scholarly convention allows others (whether teachers or fellow scholars) to understand the basis of the facts and quotations used to support the essay's argument, and thereby help to evaluate to what extent the argument is supported by evidence, and to evaluate the quality of that evidence. The academic essay tests the student's ability to present their thoughts in an organized way and is designed to test their intellectual capabilities.
One essay guide of a US university makes the distinction between research papers and discussion papers. The guide states that a "research paper is intended to uncover a wide variety of sources on a given topic". As such, research papers "tend to be longer and more inclusive in their scope and with the amount of information they deal with." While discussion papers "also include research, ...they tend to be shorter and more selective in their approach...and more analytical and critical". Whereas a research paper would typically quote "a wide variety of sources", a discussion paper aims to integrate the material in a broader fashion.
One of the challenges facing US universities is that in some cases, students may submit essays which have been purchased from an essay mill (or "paper mill") as their own work. An "essay mill" is aghostwriting service that sells pre-written essays to university and college students. Since plagiarism is a form of academic dishonesty or academic fraud, universities and colleges may investigate papers suspected to be from an essay mill by using Internet plagiarism detection software, which compares essays against a database of known mill essays and by orally testing students on the contents of their papers.