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Advice From a Graduate: Your first essay

By bzbeth 27 Oct 2020

Freshers' Week is over and it's time to face the music of writing essays.

In high-school, your teacher held your hand through every step of an important essay. At uni, it is entirely down to you to ensure that you get a good grade. Hard work, dedication and proof-reading will set you on the right track though.

This is not an overnight process. University essays can take up to four weeks to write so start early and don't think you can get a good quality essay done in 8 hours the night before it's due!

DISCLAIMER: As a graduate of the Arts, my approach to essays may differ from other courses.

Step 1: Choose your question 

Before you do anything, pick out your essay question and read your guidelines. Make sure you're well aware of your word count, formatting rules and how many essays you need to write. Made a decision? Print it off, grab your highlighters and start jotting down a few ideas. Write down your main themes/topics on a separate piece of paper and keep it somewhere safe! 

Step 2: Start reading 

The main difference between writing essays at university and high school is the amount of independent research you need to do. If your course leader has made a reading list - make use of it! Read as widely and as deeply as you can.

Use the bibliography of these academic readings to guide your research and spark new ideas. Again, give yourself time to get through everything. A couple of weeks should be enough time. Always take notes when you are reading too. Reading aimlessly will not accomplish anything. You need to understand what you are reading but also know when to give yourself a break if you start to find the academic material challenging.

First-year is all about learning how to approach academic articles and how to understand them. It's not easy!


Step 3: Make a mindmap

Once you have read all about your topic, it's time to make a mindmap. This isn't for everyone but give it a go. Gather all of your notes and highlight the relevant ideas throughout. You may find a few common ideas running throughout your material. In this case, colour code your highlighting and organise your mindmap into themes. After noting all of your ideas down, you will see the direction of your argument and where it needs improving. Summarise your argument in one sentence - this is your thesis statement.

(Do NOT skip planning)

University essays require a focused argument. Do not blurt out all of your ideas and hope for the best. Write your thesis statement on a post-it note and tape it to your laptop screen. This allows you to stay focused!

Form three rough points around this statement and organise your research accordingly. Often planning is the hardest part of writing an essay. Be patient with this process. It will get easier as you go through your degree. 


Step 4: Referencing

You have your research, thesis and plan. Now before you start writing, you need to reference. Most university websites will have a referencing guide. This is your new bible. Double-check which referencing style you need to use and DO NOT mix it with any other style. E.g. Harvard, MHRA, etc. 

Reference all of your articles in one document so that you can check they all follow the same style. As you start writing, copy and paste your references.  Do not wait until the end of your essay to reference. You will risk plagiarising yourself and it will take FOREVER to get finished. Trust me on this one.

Step 5: Write, edit, proofread. Repeat.

Write your first draft over a couple of days. Don't worry about getting it perfect the first time around. Instead, concentrate on getting all of the information down. This is the time to spot any issues with your argument. For example, you may find that some points need more development.

Edit your first draft. Edit again. And edit again for good measure. Your finished essay should look nothing like the first rough draft. Then, proofread MULTIPLE times. Check your word count, grammar, spelling and referencing rigorously.

Step 6: It's time to submit. And go for a celebratory drink or treat yourself to a Deliveroo!  

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