One of the most frustrating experiences at university is feeling like your hard work never pays off. Here are all the things I wish I’d known about essay writing! By Charlotte Lassman.
One of the most frustrating experiences at university is feeling like your hard work never pays off. You’ve pulled long hours, been consistent with the library and read what feels like a million different sources, yet when the time comes to check your grade, all you feel is disappointment. This can be such a discouraging experience, especially for those who feel inadequate compared to their peers. From choosing the right essay question to proofreading, the process of writing an essay can be overwhelming. You may feel as though you are drowning in sources and unsure where to even start.
There are many great resources out there on how to be more productive, efficient and organised with deadlines, however I have always found that there is a lack of practical tips for achieving better grades – beyond creating a weekly schedule and taking regular breaks. This is why I’ve outlined the three main tips I wish I’d known before starting uni, and how you can apply them too.
Get in touch with your lecturers
Probably the most important piece of advice I would give any fresher is to talk to your tutors and lecturers. A lot of students may struggle to reach out for help as they are worried that their questions aren’t valid, or that they are bothering their lecturers. This could not be further from the truth. When professors end a lecture or a seminar with ‘contact me if you need extra help’, it’s not out of politeness, they really mean it! You may be surprised at how willing they are to help. Ask them if you can meet online or in-person to discuss your essay question. If they offer Q&A sessions, attend them with a list of questions prepared. Email them a draft of your essay plan (you’ll definitely want to do this earlier on in order to get a response in time).
Of course, you shouldn’t bombard lecturers with fifteen questions a day. They are busy people too, and you should always consider their working hours. For instance, avoid waiting until Friday evening to email a lecturer about an essay due at 9am the next Monday. I would advise choosing an essay question and studying it early on, and then producing a list of questions and/or a draft before contacting your tutor. This will allow you to come to terms with the topic at hand. Sometimes, you may even find the answers to certain questions on your own.
Granted, there are students who have had negative experiences with tutors and lecturers being unresponsive or even dismissive. This is not an issue to be neglected, and if this has happened to you, you shouldn’t hesitate to flag it up with student support. But please don’t let it put you off. There are so many lecturers out there who want you to succeed just as much as you do. They love their subject and want you to love it too!
Understand what the essay marker is looking for
The preferred structure of a paper may vary from uni to uni and from course to course. For instance, a critical appraisal for a law degree will look different to a qualitative report for a sociology degree. However, you’ll want to make sure that for every project you undertake, you understand exactly what the marker is looking for.
You will want the structure of the essay flow as smoothly as possible. At the end of every paragraph, connect what you have just argued to what you are about to argue. Also, remember that quality trumps quantity, always. Rather than having eight weak points, focus on writing five strong paragraphs. Another crucial rule: never forget to specify your overarching argument from the outset, and make sure that everything you say from the introduction to the conclusion supports it. That being said, don’t be afraid to introduce opposing arguments. It may seem counter-productive, but explaining why they do not discredit your argument will demonstrate critical thought. Markers will want to see your ability to think critically and analytically.
Making sure that your entire paper answers the question at hand will help avoid ‘waffle’. Veering off-topic is easy when you lack a solid foundation, so don’t hesitate to refer back to the above point and reach out to a professor if you’re worried about not understanding a question correctly. Better safe than sorry!
Don’t let sources overwhelm you – focus on the essay
As most students do, I looked to the popular scholarly databases for sources. These tools are a godsend (shoutout Google Scholar), however seeing the millions of search results could be very overwhelming. I often fell into the trap of thinking that I needed to read and reference every single text ever written on a subject, however I soon realised that this is totally unrealistic. No marker will expect you to become an expert on a topic within two months of writing an essay on it.
Instead, you should start off with the core writers and readings, and build on this. This will give you a solid understanding of the foundational theory, therefore allowing you to better understand studies and reports conducted since. Most of the time, lecturers will speak about key authors during classes, and will include them in the course outline or online student portals. Some tutors may even specify them underneath each essay question. If you are unsure about this… you guessed it, contact your tutor! They will be able to tell you who you should concentrate on and have knowledge on lots of relevant resources that support your argument.
Whilst these tips mainly apply to essay writing, don’t hesitate to use them for other projects, such as exams and group work, where applicable. You must also figure out what works best for you – it’s a process, so don’t feel like you have to have it down pat from the get-go.
Written by Charlotte Lassman.
- Dealing with Imposter Syndrome at University
- Graduating from University as an International Student.
- Saving Money in your First Term at University.