University level essays can be rather daunting, especially your first few, so here are some tips to help you get the best marks...
University essays are generally of a much higher calibre than you would have been expected to produce at A-level, featuring a full bibliography of sources which will include academic papers and published journals.
You will be required to show critical thinking in your analysis of the subject topic and be expected to research novel ideas or arguments in the latter half of your degree.
Getting a first in a university essay is highly sought-after and is something that some lecturers will not give out lightly, so don't be disappointed with a mark that's still above the 60% barrier.
Here are our top five tips to push your marks into the next boundary...
Don't leave it to the last minute
It's obvious but it needs to be said: don't leave your essay to the last minute. Degree essays need a lot of work and research, it's not something you can usually bash out from scratch in an hour or two the night before your deadline.
If you want to get a first you're best off starting as soon as you can to allow as much time as possible to research the topic and to ensure you're not left rushing as the deadline looms.
Pay attention to your references
A good essay is one which is built on good references. Make sure you start organising your sources from the first step, keeping track of websites, books, journals and publications you're using.
Make sure you use a wide range of relevant and applicable resources and be critical when referencing them in your work.
Spend time organizing and building your references section in your essay, don't leave it as an afterthought. Ensure your citations are done in the style required by your university or lecturer to avoid losing any easy marks.
Get stuck in
Read deep into the subject topic you've been given, you won't be able to get a first by just skimming over a few articles.
Always try to do more and go further than you've been asked to do, getting a first at university level is usually about going beyond the given mark schemes and questions.
Be critical throughout your writing, being sure to justify and back up any quotes or comments you make.
A first class essay often requires original input too, you can't get top marks by simply regurgitating information you've researched.
But be warned: Make sure you know how best to incorporate your own remarks and critiques, such as whether to refer to yourself in the first singular or first plural person. If you're unsure, consult your degree handbook or simply ask your lecturer.
Whatever you do, keep it relevant and on topic. The biggest mistake with any essay is rambling on and getting lost in information that is not applicable to the original topic or question.
Use the given word count as a guide, if you're finding it hard to stick to it, you probably need to focus more on exactly what the question is asking of you.
At the same time, you don't want to just scrape the surface. If you're struggling to reach the word count, you'll probably want to delve a little deeper into the topic and research some more.
It's a fine balancing act and one which you'll only learn with practice.
More on:Studying & Revision
I have just read your essay, and I must apologise – I have absolutely no idea what it said.
When you hold this essay in your hands in a few weeks’ time, I know that you will look immediately at the mark I’ve written at the top of the first page. You will make assumptions about yourself, your work – perhaps even your worth – based on this number. I want to tell you not to worry about it.
How to survive marking dissertations
When I was a student, I assumed – as you probably do now – that my work was meticulously checked and appraised, with the due consideration it deserved, by erudite scholars who perhaps wore tweed.
I wonder now if it was actually marked by someone like me: a semi-employed thirtysomething on a zero-hours contract, sitting at home in pyjamas, staring at a hopeless pile of marking, as hopes of making it to the shops for a pint of milk today fade.
Your essay is one of 20 or so I’ve tackled in one sitting this afternoon. They are beginning to blur into one; a profusion of themes and things “to be noted” and endless variations on the phrase “It is interesting that...”.
I’m reading something you wrote on page two and I’m wondering if I just read an explanation of this concept on page one, or if that was in someone else’s essay. I have to go back a page, eyes swimming, and check.
Your essay does not stand alone, but becomes amalgamated with the others I’ve read so far today, all talking about the same things, with varying degrees of clarity. Your words are diluted by the ones that came before, they are lost on me even before I begin.
It should not be like this. In an ideal world, I would spend my morning carefully marking three essays at most, giving them the thought they deserve. I would spend the early afternoon wandering around a meadow picking flowers – something, anything, to clear my head so I can approach the next batch with a fresh outlook and enthusiasm.
Academic workload: a model approach
But I do not have that kind of time. I have academic work of my own; I have a job interview to prepare for; at various points of the year, I have additional employment to help tide me over. (And I’m only a part-time lecturer, I’m aware that my colleagues in full-time jobs have a lot more of this to do.)
I have cleared this bit of space in my schedule to read your essays, and I have come at them genuinely excited to see what you have found out this term, and to tell you how you can improve. I try to be thorough and write actual comments on your essay, even though I’m aware that I could probably get away with a few ticks, question marks and a cryptic “needs improvement”.
I’ve been at it all day and it is 6.20 pm. There are 11 unmarked essays. I could carry on, but I can’t make sense of anything you say any more. I have to force myself to understand anything other than the clearest, nicest writing; the kind of writing that takes me by the hand and shows me round all your ideas. (Dear student, please note: I am not so exhausted that I can’t spot nice writing. Do us both a favour and spend time on your essay. Make it good. Edit, polish, relieve my boredom and let me award you a first.)
I know that I should go back and reread a few essays to compare the marks I’ve given, but there isn’t time. I would like to look up the references you cite, to tell you if there are other gems in those books you may have missed, or suggest other interpretations, but there’s no chance. I also have a life – washing to do, family to spend time with, that sort of thing.
In this letter (which I’ve written with an aching hand) I ask three things of you:
- Work hard on your essays. Help people like me. It’ll open your mind, and it’ll make me happy. And I really, really want to give you a first.
- Don’t think that if you just waffle on for three pages to bring your essay up to the required word count, I won’t notice. I will.
- Do not get too upset – or complacent – because of whatever mark you’ve got. Don’t take it too personally. I’ve tried my best to be consistent and fair, and other lecturers will moderate my marking, but really, by a certain stage, I’m just pulling numbers out of the air. (55? 58? I don’t know)
Teaching at a university means constant pressure - for about £5 an hour
Your essay does not stand alone; it’s either going to impress me or sap my energy, and if it does the latter, it affects how I read the ones which come afterwards. Too many awful essays and I can’t concentrate anymore.
The books on your reading list will tell you everything about the subject that you need to know; read them. There are also books in the library with titles like How to Write an Essay; make use of them. If you don’t understand something, come along to my office hour. I’ve gone on about it all term, and you know where that is.
All the best,
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