an explanation of the topic or purpose of a research paper
Sometimes you will know the answer to an assignment question immediately, but often you will need to research the topic first.
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An essay is a piece of writing that intends to make a single point. That point becomes the basis of your thesis statement. You should have this point in mind while writing the essay as it will keep you on track. The entire essay should be focused on proving the point of your thesis statement.
In France, the academic dissertation or thesis is called a thèse and it is reserved for the final work of doctoral candidates. The minimum page length is generally (and not formally) 100 pages (or about 400,000 characters), but is usually several times longer (except for technical theses and for "exact sciences" such as physics and maths).