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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Unlike every other aspect of the application, you control your essay. Make sure that the glimpse you give the admission committee into your character, background, and writing ability is the very best possible. Here are seven tips to help you focus and make the most of your application essay.
In our experience, the main worry that applicants have is that their essay won’t stand out. This is a legitimate concern as you will likely compete with numerous applicants who have backgrounds similar to yours. Therefore, follow these tips to ensure that your essay shines in the competitive admissions process.
1. Analyze the prompt thoroughly
Take three minutes to think about the prompt. If needed, divide the prompt into phrases and look at each aspect. Why would the admissions officers ask this prompt? What do you think they want to know? How does that information relate to your ability to excel in college? Next, leave the prompt for a while and then return to it. Do you see something new?
With so many other things in your schedule, this process can initially seem like a waste of time. However, it will save you a lot of time in the long run. If you later realize that you misread the prompt, you might need to start the writing process from scratch.
2. Organize your writing
Like the first item, this isn’t something that should take a lot of time. This is another step that can initially seem completely skippable, but organizing your writing can save you considerable stress and frustration. A good writing plan can streamline or even eliminate the need to do any significant rewrites.
Brainstorm your anecdotes. Create a rough outline, including approximately how long each paragraph needs to be in order to complete the essay within the word count limits. Finally, figure out when you’re going to write. A paragraph a day? The whole thing next weekend? Creating a schedule, even if you need to modify it later, gets your brain in motion.
3. Show instead of telling
When selecting anecdotes for your essay, pick vivid ones that you can tell succinctly. If a story would require 450 words of a 600 word essay, then you’re not going to have a lot of space to express self-reflection and analysis of the situation. Remember that the admissions officers are more interested in your perspective of what happened than the events themselves.
In addition, keep in mind that the admissions officers don’t know you personally, and that’s why they’re reading your essay. They want to get to know you, and the essay is your first introduction. Because of this, don’t tell them that you’re passionate about public service. Show them through strong examples. Help the admissions officers envision each example as if they’re experiencing the situation alongside you.
4. Know your vocab
Your admissions essay should reflect command of college-level vocabulary. One of the most common mistakes that we see in essays is using advanced vocabulary almost correctly. Even among synonyms, there are shades of meaning. If you’re using a thesaurus, look online for examples of that word in action. Will it still fit into your sentence?
Avoid overdoing it. Advanced vocabulary should be the spice of the essay to give it flavor, so you’ll use plain language most of the time. Essays that are riddled with advanced vocabulary can seem pompous or even inadvertently comical to the reader.
5. Write succinctly
Can you say what you need to say in fewer words? Can you substitute an advanced vocabulary word for a phrase? Writing concisely expresses to the admissions officers that can organize your thoughts and that you respect their time.
6. Combine like ideas into more sophisticated sentence structures
The vast majority of the sentences in your essay should be compound, complex, or a combination of both (compound-complex sentences). Save simple sentences for instances when you need to create impact.
7. Seek qualified second opinions
You should absolutely ask others to take a look at your essay before you submit it. As we work on things, we become blind to mistakes that will be glaringly apparent to others. However, limit the number of people you ask to two or three. Asking too many people for feedback will only confuse you and result in a lower quality essay as you revise the essay according to each person’s advice. Therefore, look to individuals who have background and expertise in the college admissions process.
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