As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.
Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.
“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”
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The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.
“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”
But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.
“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?
“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”
Critique your own arguments
Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.
“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”
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Fine, use Wikipedia then
The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.
“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”
Focus your reading
Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.
Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.
You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.
“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”
There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.
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Look beyond the reading list
“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”
And finally, the introduction
The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.
“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”
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If you’re one of the thousands of students that have decided to study in the US this year, you may be aware that unfortunately you cannot escape the dreaded piece of personal writing, even as an international student.
While there is certainly no Ucas system as there is in the UK, you’ll still be required to write a college admissions essay as part of your application. There are three types of applications:
The Common Application and the UCA are used by many US universities and colleges, and you’ll find that if you can write an essay for one of these, you’ll have no problems with any other individual applications.
The key to a successful essay is to start early – with the Common Application this means choosing which one of the five prompts you wish to answer and getting down some initial thoughts.
Think about each prompt carefully and decide whether your skills and life experience relate to one more than the others. Look at the individual words such as “background” and “interest” to help you, and if you still can’t decide, ask your family and friends which prompt they think might suit you best.
Remember that these prompts are just that, and not questions that must be “answered”. If you’re applying to institutions that use the UCA or set their own admissions essay, you won’t have to worry about this part, but the advice that follows will still apply.
When you’ve made a decision, sit down for a brainstorming session and make notes on how the topics below might be used in your essay:
- After school clubs and extracurricular activities
- Holidays and other trips abroad or around the UK
- Hobbies and interests
- Work experience
- Family members and friends
- Special occasions and other life experiences that have influenced you
When you have a few sentences down for each point, you can begin to put together your introduction.
Like the Ucas personal statement, an attention-grabbing opening sentence is crucial if you’re going to highlight yourself as an interesting person who the admissions faculty would want on their course.
Don’t start with something generic, such as “when I go into the city, I visit the museums because I like history”. Everyone goes to museums to learn more about history, so this isn’t a personal story.
Make sure you launch straight into telling the reader why you’re unique, without wasting time restating the prompt or describing what you’re going to write about.
Once you have a solid opening paragraph, think about how you can use your notes to construct several more paragraphs that will make up the bulk of your essay.
You are only given a maximum of 650 words for the UCA personal statement and the Common Application essay, which isn’t a lot of space, but at this stage it’s better to have too much written down that you can then trim, than not have enough. Institutions that set their own essays may offer more words than this, but it’s best to check the application form or their website first.
Think about how your notes from earlier can be used in relation to the prompt you have chosen, and try to link each paragraph so the essay flows well as a whole.
For example, if you’re writing an essay for prompt number five of the common application, “Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family”, you might choose to talk about wanting to get your drivers’ licence as soon as possible. Paragraphs might then be broken down into:
- Your parent’s view of this and any compromises you had to make with them
- What you did to prepare for both the theory and practical tests
- Parts of the learning experience you found difficult and how you overcame them
- How you paid for lessons and/or a car once you had passed, e.g., getting a part-time job
- What the experience taught you, e.g., managing money, being organised, etc. and how it improved any of your personal skills or qualities, such as communication, teamwork or problem-solving
Looking at some example admission essays may also be useful in structuring your own.
The conclusion must round off your essay in a way that leaves a lasting good impression upon the admissions tutor. It should be a summary of what you have learned from your experiences and how they have shaped you into the person you are today.
Explain how this will benefit you on the course and make you a valuable asset to the university. You can also include a brief sentence or two about your career path or any other plans you have for the future that your university education will enable you to achieve. Tutors will want to see that you have thought ahead and considered how you’re going to use your degree later on in the field.
When your first draft is complete, don’t rely on a spellchecker to correct spelling and grammar mistakes; ask tutors, family and friends to look at it and give you their feedback. Make sure you go through at least several rounds of this, and you’ll achieve a polished essay that will give you the best chance of success with your US college applications.