Writing serves as a useful skill for anyone in the field of public health — students and professionals alike. Public health students must enroll in writing-intensive courses that require essays and research papers. Once students graduate, they put their skills to use writing reports on community health. They may compose presentations, research studies, or press releases, depending on their jobs. Those who stay in academia continue to write research papers throughout their careers.
Students should begin cultivating a clear and concise writing style long before they graduate.
They should also learn how to use standardized citations. Understanding how to properly cite sources will help students as they conduct research and publish their findings. Citations also help students and researchers avoid plagiarism.
This guide explains how to write a public health report, a research paper, and an exam essay. The page also advises students on how to conduct research online and find trustworthy sources. Students can review citation style guides and public health writing samples.
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Types of Writing Public Health Students Will Do in School
When applying to a public health program, schools often require students to submit personal statements. Schools may either ask students to write a general personal essay answer a certain prompt. Usually, prompts center around applicants’ interest in public health or about the public health field in general. Students might come across a prompt similar to this one: “Identify a public health issue in the U.S., and how you would work to rectify it as a public health professional.” Alternately, students may encounter this common topic: “What drove you to pursue a career in public health?”
Schools look for essays that are honest, well-written, and well-organized. Students should get the reader’s attention with an anecdote illustrating their commitment to public health. Was it an experience with adversity or discrimination that prompted you to pursue this career? Did you learn about the importance of public health while volunteering or traveling? Include those details in the story.
Students should also demonstrate their current knowledge of public health. They may write about their career goals as well. However, students should avoid writing exaggerations, falsehoods, or superlatives. People who read admissions essays can typically sense when applicants are stretching the truth. If the school makes the personal statement optional, students should still consider writing one. A personal statement demonstrates commitment and hard work, and may help make up for flawed or weak admissions materials.
In some public health courses, professors require students to answer essay questions during exams. This can be intimidating since students do not usually know the prompt until they actually start the exam. Students have a limited amount of time to write the essay, typically one or two hours. Students should allot their time accordingly. Some students do not plan their work before they begin writing; this can lead to sloppy essays with weak supporting points, disorganized information, and tangents unrelated to the prompt.
For a 60-minute time frame, students may give themselves 10 minutes to brainstorm, plan, and outline.
During the brainstorming process, students should write their thesis statement.
Then they should jot down three points that support the thesis. These ideas will serve as the three body paragraphs. Students may give themselves five minutes to write the introduction, 30 minutes to write the body, and then five minutes to write the conclusion. They then have 10 minutes to proofread. Students often inadvertently miss this step, but proofreading may make or break the essay.
Students should begin planning long before the day of the essay. Students ought to review the material well enough to be prepared for any prompt. They should carefully look over their lecture notes to determine which points the professor emphasized during classes. These points will likely prove significant when it comes time for the exam. Students should also make sure that they actually answer the prompt instead of rushing and jumping to assumptions.
In a research paper, students examine the existing research, theories, case studies, and ideas about a particular topic. Students have several weeks to write research papers, which may seem like a huge amount of time. However, research papers demand a lot of work, so students should start early. Professors rarely assign strict, narrow prompts for research papers. Instead, they usually give students a topic or range of topics, and students choose their focus. Public health topics may include how poverty or race affects access to healthcare; opioid abuse; the social consequences of HIV/AIDS; childhood obesity; or maternal mortality in third world countries.
Students should start by brainstorming a list of points and ideas they will investigate. Then comes the most time-intensive and significant part of a research paper: the research itself. Students ought to use multiple different resources to help them craft their arguments. Options include online databases, academic journals, and their college library. Make sure you keep track of citations and sources as you go.
Students should also make sure their essays are well-structured. A well-written thesis unites the main points of the paper. Unlike essays, research papers usually include more than five paragraphs. Students may break down their arguments into different sections. A research paper must include a works cited or bibliography that credits all sources. The exact length of the paper and number of sources depends on the professor’s expectations.
Over the course of their academic careers, public health students write many kinds of essays. Professors often assign persuasive essays, in which the student must make a convincing argument; expository essays, in which the student explores and explains an idea; narrative essays, in which the student tells a story; comparative essays, in which the students analyzes two different viewpoints; and cause and effect essays, in which the student must explain the logic behind why certain events or phenomena occur.
- Narrative: In a narrative essay, the author tells a meaningful story. Studying public health, you probably won’t write many narratives. However, narrative essays can support an argument or prove a point. For instance, if you argue that every community should have a free clinic, you might tell a personal story about your experience growing up in a low-income neighborhood with no access to healthcare. Make sure your essay demonstrates a clear plot, follows an organized structure, and includes many details.
- Expository: When professors assign expository essays, they expect students to explain or describe a concept. These essays help professors evaluate whether students have a firm grasp on a topic. Expository essay often include five paragraphs: an introduction with a thesis statement, three main points backing that thesis statement, and a conclusion. Students should do plenty of planning and research before writing to ensure they adequately address the prompt and include enough evidence.
- Persuasive: Persuasive essays appear commonly in academic assignments. Students first develop an argument as a thesis statement. Then, they generate a cogent defense of that argument by researching supporting evidence. Students should be able to anticipate arguments against their thesis statement and include counterpoints. In persuasive essays, students not only demonstrate their knowledge of the course material, but also prove their critical thinking skills by developing their case.
- Comparative: A comparative essay requires students to compare and contrast two ideas, viewpoints, or things. For example, public health students may compare two texts, theories, public health systems, or positions on an issue. First of all, students should create a list of similarities and differences between the two items. After that, they can develop a thesis statement on whether the similarities outweigh the differences or vice versa. Finally, they should organize the essay. They can either defend their thesis statement by listing each point of comparison, or they can split the essay in half by discussing subject one and then subject two.
- Cause and Effect: These essays require students to explain how one event or theory leads to a specific consequence. For instance, a public health student might argue that abstinence-only education in public schools leads to a higher rate of teenage pregnancies. Students should remember that just because one event follows another, those two events do not necessarily influence one another. In other words, correlation does not equal causation. In the analysis portion of the essay, students must explain specific reasons why they think the two events are connected using data and other evidence.
Citations Guide for Public Health Students
In public health writing, just as any other discipline, students must cite their sources. If students use ideas, theories, or research without crediting the original source — even unintentionally — then they have plagiarised. An accusation of plagiarism could follow the student throughout their education and professional career. Professors may fail students who plagiarise, sinking their GPA. Plagiarism accusations can also ruin a student’s credibility. Fortunately, students can avoid plagiarism by properly giving credit for their data and ideas. Common citation styles include those listed below.
American Psychological Association (APA) Style
Students in the social sciences use APA style when writing their essays and research papers. Business and nursing students also commonly use APA style. APA prefers active voice over passive voice, as well as concise language over flowery words. Research papers written in APA style should include a title page, abstract, and a reference page. In-text citations list the author’s name, year of publication, and page number if applicable. Below is an example of how to cite a source using APA style.
In Milwaukee, poor neighbourhoods were segregated by design (Desmond, 2017, p. 249).
On the works cited page:
Desmond, M. (2017). Evicted: Poverty and profit in the American city. London: Penguin Books.
Chicago Manual of Style (CMS)
History students and students of the natural sciences typically use Chicago, or Turabian, style in their research. Papers written in Chicago style include three sections: the title page, the main body, and a references page. This style also uses footnotes to source information and provide more context. In-text citations list the author’s name, the date of publication, and the page where the student found the data. Unlike APA style, though, the in-text citation does not use a “p.” before the page number. See the example below:
In Milwaukee, poor neighbourhoods were segregated by design (Desmond 2017, 249).
On the works cited page:
Desmond, Matthew. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. London: Penguin Books, 2017.
Modern Language Association (MLA) Format
Students of the humanities — including literature, foreign languages, and cultural studies — use MLA style in their research papers. Unlike APA and Chicago style, MLA style does not require students to add a title page. MLA papers also do not include an abstract. Students only need to include the paper itself and a works cited page that corresponds with in-text citations. When adding citations in the body of the text, MLA includes the author’s last name and the page number in parentheses. This style does not list the publication year. You can find an example of MLA citation below:
In Milwaukee, poor neighbourhoods were segregated by design (Desmond 249).
On the works cited page:
Desmond, Matthew. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. London: Penguin Books, 2017.
Associated Press (AP) Style
Journalists use Associated Press, or AP style, in their work. AP style standardizes grammar and spelling usage across news media and mass communications. Students rarely use AP style, unless they are writing an article in their subject area for a newspaper or magazine. AP style prioritizes brevity and conciseness above all else. Therefore, it includes several rules that differ from other writing styles. For instance, AP style eliminates the last comma in a list of items (for example: “She dressed in capris, a tank top and sandals”). Since students and professors do not use AP style for academic papers, AP style does not include a reference page like other style guides. Instead, AP style simply uses non-parenthetical in-text citations.
“People who live in low-income communities lack opportunities to exercise,” said Lydia Homerton, professor of public health at Hero College.
The Best Writing Style for Public Health Majors
Professionals in the public health field use APA, the most common style in the social sciences. Professors expect students to use APA style as well. Public health research follows a standardized system of citing sources, making it easier for students and professionals in the field to conduct further research. Students should add a title page and abstract before the essay, as well as a list of references in the back.
Common Writing Mistakes Students Make
Active vs. Passive Voice
When writing essays and research papers, students should use active voice and avoid passive voice. Learning the difference between passive and active constructions can be tricky. First of all, students should be able to identify the subject in a sentence. The subject is the noun performing an action. Take this sentence: “The woman catches the keys.” In this case, the woman is the subject of the sentence because she is the one performing the action, catching. The sentence “The woman catches the keys” is active because it focuses on the subject and the action. You can identify an active sentence by checking if the first noun is a subject performing an action.
By contrast, examine this sentence: “The keys were caught by the woman.” The first noun, “keys,” is not performing an action. Instead, it is being acted upon. The subject performing the action — the woman — is at the end of the sentence and not the beginning. This sentence uses passive voice instead of active voice. Some passive sentences do not include a subject at all. For example, “The keys were caught.”
Active voice makes writing more concise and easy to understand. Active sentences often include more information, especially about the subject performing an action. In research papers, students should use active voice whenever possible. However, sometimes it is clear that the author is the one performing the action, so active voice is not necessary. For instance, a researcher might write “the experiment was conducted Friday” instead of “I conducted the experiment Friday.”
Incorrect punctuation confuses readers. The wrong punctuation can change or obfuscate the meaning of a sentence, paragraph, or the entire essay. Publishers, professors, and other researchers often look down on papers with incorrect grammar, even if the content includes important or accurate research. Consequently, students should always use proper grammar in their essays.
The wrong punctuation can change or obfuscate the meaning of a sentence, paragraph, or the entire essay.
While students make many different errors with punctuation, most common errors revolve around colons and commas. Understand the difference between colons and semicolons. Both punctuation marks separate two parts of a sentence. Students should use colons when introducing a list. (“He ate lots of meat: pork, chicken, steak, veal, and duck.”) Colons can also introduce an appositive or new idea. (“She finally gave him the gift: a new computer.”) Semicolons, on the other hand, connect two complete, independent sentences. These sentences should be separate but related. (“He ate a lot of meat; he was ravenous.”)
Students should also take care to avoid comma splices. A comma splice occurs when writers connect two independent sentences using a comma. The following sentence includes a comma splice: “She danced with her boyfriend, he was very clumsy.” Instead, students could add an “and” to connect the two sentences. (“She danced with her boyfriend, and he was very clumsy.”) Alternately, writers could connect the sentences with a semicolon. (“She danced with her boyfriend; he was very clumsy.”) Lastly, writers could separate the two sentences with a period.
Proper grammar helps readers understand your essays. Proper grammar also gives your essay credibility. If you have a perfectly-argued essay, but your paper includes multiple grammar mistakes, the reader will likely be skeptical of the entire argument.
Understand the difference between there/their/they’re. “There” refers to a place. (“The dog is over there.”) Their shows possession. (“This is their house.”) “They’re” is a contraction for “they are.” (“They’re eating at the diner.”)
Also learn the difference between it’s and its. “It’s” is the contraction for “it is.” (“It’s hot outside.”) “Its” shows possession. (“The bird eats in its cage.”)
Make sure your sentences include proper subject-verb agreement. In other words, if the subject of a sentence is plural, the verb should also be plural. For example, use “The boy and his sisters are eating breakfast” instead of “The boy and his sisters is eating breakfast.”
Writing Resources for Public Health Students
- Guide to Improving Scientific Writing in Public Health: This guide from the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization teaches students how to write about complicated scientific material in a way that’s easy for readers to understand. The guide includes tips on vocabulary and format.
- Argument, Structure, and Credibility in Public Health Writing: Written by a professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health, this essay breaks down how to make effective arguments in public health writing. The page includes flow charts and figures to help illustrate exactly how public health essays should be organized.
- Purdue Online Writing Lab APA Style Guide: Purdue’s Online Writing Lab includes style guides for all writing and citation styles, including APA. The style guides help students understand how to format papers, use in-text citations, and create reference pages.
- Award-Winning Health Articles: One of the best ways to improve your writing is to read good examples. This page lists nine award-winning public health writing samples.
- The Women’s and Children’s Health Policy Center Writing Skills Guide: This website links to several modules on writing public health documents. Lessons include policy briefs and memos.