It is important to remember that all academic papers are persuasive in some way, if only because you must persuade your readers of your believability; more generally, you are convincing others that you have an interesting, logical point of view on the subject you are writing about. Your thesis is usually the place where you articulate exactly what your argument is. Academic persuasion and argumentation are generally centered on a thesis, or an argumentative statement of usually one or two sentences that answers a significant question about a particular topic.
A thesis statement will almost always occur in the first paragraph or two of a paper, with only a few exceptions (usually for rhetorical effect). Especially in shorter papers, the thesis must be one of the first things your reader can clearly identify. Often, but not always, it will be one or two of the last sentences in your introduction because this provides an easy way to move straight into your argument. However, these are guidelines, not rules, and you should do whatever makes your point most persuasively.
To determine if you have a strong thesis, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Do I answer a question? Because in college you are often answering a question posed by the instructor, this may be more directly posed as “am I answering the question?” Sometimes it is easy to get distracted and go off on a tangent that does not answer the question directly. Make sure you either get approval from your instructor that this is acceptable, or you redirect your thesis back towards a specific answer to the question. Even when given the option to pursue whatever topic or idea you want, think of your thesis as an answer to a serious question, or one without a clear, obvious answer.
2. Could someone legitimately argue with my thesis? If your thesis is factual, no one can argue with your position—and thus you do not have an argumentative thesis. Also, if your thesis is too vague, it might be difficult to argue with it. If your thesis contains words like “good,” “interesting,” or “successful,” see if you could be more specific: Why is something good? What makes something successful? Why is it interesting?
3. Do I address the “So What” question? The “So What?” question is what happens when you have not justified your question or your answer to it. We need to know why the question and your particular answer to it is important. (Nota Bene: the “so what” factor doesn’t have to be explicitly in your thesis all the time, but it is crucial to the argument and should probably appear either in your introduction more generally or at the very least appear in your conclusion.)
4. Does my thesis pass the how or why test? If a reader’s isn’t clear “how” or “why” your answer works, your thesis may be too open-ended. Be clear about your methodology.
However, if you can’t answer all these questions when you first start writing your paper, don’t worry. A working thesis tends to be a little more vague than the thesis in a final paper. As you write, you may find you answer more and more of these questions; you should go back and revise your thesis to reflect those answers. Essentially, when you reach the end of your paper, you need to compare what your thesis says with what your paper says. That is, you need to ask yourself, “Does every word, sentence, and paragraph advance my thesis?” If they don’t, you need to either change your paper, or your thesis.