20 Evaluation

Phil West and Christina Frasier

Learning Objectives

  • Recognize the purpose of an evaluative essay, both in college and in work
  • Identify the structure of an evaluative essay
  • Choosing criteria to use in an evaluation essay


The Purpose of Evaluation in Writing

The evaluative essay is a cornerstone of many college writing classes, and for good reason. If definition is what we use to understand the world, evaluation is how we help classify what’s important and valuable to us. Evaluation plays a role in many aspects of our lives, including what colleges accept us, what jobs we’re qualified for, and where we decide we want to live.

Evaluative essays can take different forms, but they’re all rooted in definition. Some evaluative essays debate aesthetics and artistic merits, determining whether a specific artwork meets a definition of what’s “good” or what constitutes “quality” for its particular genre or medium— much as a movie review or food critic does. Some are concerned with ethics, such as evaluating a policy or a decision based on a certain set of values helping determine whether it’s ethical or not.

Perhaps the most important concept in an evaluative essay is criteria. Criteria is a group of qualities or characteristics that someone uses as a basis for evaluation. In a real-life example you’re no doubt familiar with, colleges evaluate students with several criteria, including grade point average, standardized test scores, and completing a high school diploma, to determine who’s accepted to attend those schools. In an evaluative essay, it’s up to the essayist to establish criteria for the basis of an evaluation, and then to show that the specific subject being evaluated meets or does not meet the criteria for what’s good or ethical.



Someone writing an essay about marriage might turn to legal definitions to determine their criteria. Criteria for marriage might include:
  • Involves two people
  • Impacts taxes
  • Aids in emotional stability



A definitional essay asks, “What is a marriage?” An evaluative essay, however, looks at a particular marriage or a type of marriage, asking, “Is this marriage [or type of marriage] a good marriage?” The criteria that define a marriage might have some overlap with the criteria that allow us to determine whether it’s good, healthy, ethical, or whatever other evaluative aspect the essayist is arguing.

When creating an evaluative essay, think about the criteria first. For example, if you’re thinking about what makes for a good movie, you might start by thinking of a movie you like, and you might like it in part because it’s funny. But certainly, not all good movies are funny—though if you were setting up an evaluative paper about a good comedy movie, being funny would be an essential criterion to evaluating whether a comedy is good. But elements of a movie like acting, writing, and cinematography might apply more broadly to evaluating whether a movie is good.

The Structure of an Evaluative Essay

One way to conceive of an evaluative essay is by thinking of the thesis statement is a formula: x is a good/ethical y because of a, b, and c.

Let’s say you’re evaluating whether George Washington was a good President of the United States. In this case, George Washington is the x, President of the United States is the y, and a, b, and c are the three criteria you’re arguing are essential for a good President.

Once you’ve created an introductory paragraph that establishes that Washington is your topic and determining whether he was a good President is your objective, you then want to establish your criteria for a good President. The reader can’t follow your evaluation unless knowing what criteria you’re using.

For our purposes, let’s say that honesty, decisiveness, and accomplishments are the three criteria you come up. You would then, in a single paragraph, discuss why those three are most important in determining whether a President of the United States is good. You would want to focus on those three criteria without bringing up Washington at all. At this stage, it’s about establishing a baseline for measuring every President.

After that, you’d bring Washington in. One paragraph would discuss Washington and honesty, one would discuss Washington and decisiveness, and one would discuss Washington and his accomplishments. Here is an example outline:



  • Introduction–establish focus, criteria, and state thesis
  • Define criteria–honesty, decisiveness, accomplishments
  • Criteria 1–Washington’s honesty
  • Criteria 2–Washington’s decisiveness
  • Criteria 3–Washington’s accomplishments
  • Conclusion–what does this say about the office and its impact on the nation?


The thesis will establish whether or not you’re arguing Washington is a good president, and the body paragraphs will provide the proof.

The conclusion is a place where you can discuss the significance of the exercise you just embarked on: Now that we’ve examined why Washington was a good President of the United States, what does that say about the office and its impact on the nation?

Writing an Evaluative Essay

Choosing your criteria is key. You can either choose to have a more broad definition of what’s good or what’s ethical, with lots of test cases meeting the criteria, or it can be more narrow, with making it harder for any one test case to meet all the criteria.

To qualify as good or ethical (or whatever else you’re determining), the x should meet all of your criteria. If it doesn’t meet a criterion in your list of criteria, you’ll want to set that expectation up in your thesis and anticipate how you want to present that. You could say it meets Criterion A and Criterion B, but not Criterion C, and therefore is ultimately not good or ethical in the end.

Sources will be imperative in helping you make your case, and will also lend credence to the criteria you select. If you’re evaluating a movie and you quote a respected movie critic, that will help piggyback the critic’s ethos onto your own. If you’re evaluating a President and quote a respected historian, that will bolster your ethos as well.

Writing at Work

When you’re applying for a job, you’ll likely see some qualifications required for candidates, like years of experience in a field, a college degree, or a portfolio showing past samples of your work. Those criteria begin what’s a two-way street of evaluation. You are evaluating the job and determining whether you’d be a good candidate for it, and whether or not you want to put in the energy to apply for it. Then, once applications come in, the people hiring evaluate the candidates, determine who they want to bring in for interviews, and then do further evaluation based on criteria built around those job interviews.

In any situation involving evaluation—and there will be many in any workplace setting—it’s essential to understand what criteria are most important, how to determine whether criteria are being met, and to be able to use evaluation to determine not only what’s good, but indeed what’s best for your company.



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From College to Career: A Handbook for Student Writers Copyright © by Phil West and Christina Frasier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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