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University Essay Tips

You got into uni, the academic year’s in full swing, and the time has come to get down to business and pay your respects to that stalwart of higher education, the essay. You have your question, you’ve gathered your sources, and perhaps you’ve even taken your notes already – good for you!

But now you actually have to write the thing.

Stay calm. Deep breaths. We’re here to help you grind out your essay without grinding yourself into a pulp. That word count up in the thousands might be intimidating, but, with the right mindset and approach, you can cut it down to size pretty easily!

Work out where you’re going

It can be tempting to write an essay by the seat of the pants, as it were – the idea of simply diving in and getting down to business is appealing, especially if you’re keen to get that looming spectre of responsibility out of the way. While it is possible to write something wonderful without premeditation, there’s a good reason most lecturers advise against it: with very little middle ground, essays written this way tend to either soar and excel or crash and burn, and the latter is far, far more common. For reliable performance, you’re definitely going to want a plan.

It doesn’t have to be especially complicated or include minute details of where exactly you plan to include every piece of information; at that point you’re basically writing the essay in miniature, anyway. All you really need is an outline, a basic idea of where you’re going and how your various points are going to flow into each other.

Form your battle plan

You should now know what you’re going to write, so it’s time to work out how. The approach you take to time management

The Classic: Write the essay in order over a couple of days, pausing every so often for a drink and a stretch so you don’t seize up. This is a time-honoured approach favoured by students across the world, and, if it suits you well enough, it will rarely let you down.

The Bust-a-Gut: Write hard for a fairly extended stretch and try to get the whole thing written in one sitting, then edit heavily on a second run once you have a basic prototype in place. This lets you get the grunt work of getting the text in place out of the way first, but it can be difficult and tiring to concentrate for extended periods.

The Assembly: Write the essay in sections, often non-sequential and usually with the introduction and conclusion last. Once you have them all, put them together, edit in some segues between sections, and you’re done. This has the perk of letting you revise your structure on the fly without much hassle, but you do risk losing track of the main thread of your essay if you’re not writing it in the same order it’ll be read in.

The Holistic: Write bits and pieces of the essay as they come to you, then stick them all together and fill in any gaps. This tends to lead to very naturalistic writing, which may or may not be a good thing depending on your subject (and your tutor).

The Mix: You might well prefer to use some combination of these methods. We advise you to experiment in first year, when essays typically count for less (or not at all), to work out what works best for you, and develop your perfect essay strategy.

The Three in the Morning: Write the whole thing, top to bottom, in one caffeine-fuelled night. Not recommended, except in emergencies.

Proofread and refine

Reading over your completed essay should not just be a matter of fixing typos and grammar. It’s an opportunity to streamline, prune, and adjust. Regardless of which approach you took, your first pass is probably pretty rough around the edges, and now is the time to change that.

Check your references, ensuring they conform to your department’s style guide, and make sure your bibliography has them all down too. Check your formatting – Microsoft Word is a temperamental creature and sometimes your beautifully formatted essay can be thrown off by a glitch or oversight. Watch out for words and phrases you might have overused and replace them with something less repetitive. You may find it helpful to read your essay aloud, as some issues are easier to hear than see. Again, experiment.

Final tips

Always aim to write over, not under, your word limit on your first try. It’s much easier to cut unnecessary material than it is to pad out what you’ve already written, and excessively padded writing reads poorly and is very easy to spot.

Go easy on the caffeine! It’s tempting to fuel up with strong coffee or energy drinks, but too many of them will affect your concentration and make it harder to put in a concerted effort.

Do take breaks, even if you’re aiming to finish the essay in one shot. In particular, make sure you get out of your seat, as this stimulates brain activity and can help you “wake up” when you’ve burned out a little.

Technical language is useful in moderation, but do make sure your essay still looks and reads like English! It’s very easy to get stuck in a kudzu of buzzwords and end up looking like you have either a concussion or no idea whatsoever what you’re talking about.

Finally, once you’re done, try not to jump straight into the next essay! Give yourself a proper break and do something else for a while to refresh your mind. You’ve earned it.