A classification essay is an essay in which the writer sorts a number of items into categories. Categories may be very specific and based solely on fact or may be broad and determined more by subjective opinion. Such essays begin by establishing the subject of the paper and listing the categories, then continue by describing each category and providing examples. Both the broad categories and the examples within should be clearly related to one another. A summary paragraph often ties the essay together at the end.
There are many topics that can be used for a classification essay. A writer might choose to write about types of women's shoes, breeds of dog or vacation spots in the US. If writing about women's shoes, the categories might be flats, sandals, and pumps. A dog breed classification essay might group the breeds by show class, such as working dogs, sporting dogs, and hounds. One on US vacation spots might include Florida, Hawaii, and New York City.
Once the main category and subcategories have been established, the writer will then give examples under each subcategory. In the US vacation spot example, the writer might list Orlando, Miami, and St. Augustine as vacation spots in Florida. He would then give details about each example, such as the presence of Disney World in Orlando or the proximity of St. Augustine to the beach.
A classification essay can be relatively simple. For example, an elementary teacher might ask a young child to group together items that are the same color. The child might write that apples, fire trucks, and stop signs are red while leaves, broccoli, and grass are green. A classification essay assigned to a teenager would likely be more involved. A teacher might ask a student to involve opinion by assigning such topics as good books. In this case, the student might group the books he likes into genres, such as mystery, science fiction, or literature, and then give examples of each.
Researchers often publish long, complex papers that are actually highly analytical classification essays. For example, a professor researching the effects of a certain chemical on unborn children might divide his findings into physiological effects and psychological effects. He might then further classify the physiological effects into those affecting growth, those affecting spacial perception, and those affecting motor skills. In this situation, it is common to include a section explaining the methodology by which the researcher collected and verified his findings.