Essays & Assignments

A written essay demonstrates not only what you know but how well you can communicate it. The essay should be clear, concise and critical and, most importantly, answer the question that was set! Our step-by-step guide below will help you to craft an impressive piece of work:

Why do many of us, when we have an essay to research, go to the library, read dozens of books, make detailed notes, and only try to knock all that material into shape the night before the deadline? The first thing to do when researching any kind of project is to think about what kind of information you want, and why.

Think about how you usually approach a project – or plan any other aspect of your life. There may be some external factors, such as how much time or other resources you have available, which you take into account from the start. There will also be more specific decisions to make, some of which will involve research. But you are unlikely to start by collecting every piece of information you can find and then narrowing this down at the last minute. Instead, most of us engage in a continuous dialogue, however unconscious, where each stage of finding out generates new questions and new decisions, until we arrive at a satisfactory resolution.

Whatever the question, most essays will have a common basic structure. They need an introduction, a main body (usually divided into sub-sections) and a conclusion.

What is the brief? An essay question is rarely, if ever, an invitation to find out and communicate everything about a given subject. The wording of the question will usually specify what kind of approach you are expected to take. Underline the key words and try to work out what type of answer is implied in each case. For instance, if you are asked to compare two things then the essay will need to be structured around that comparison, rather than a description of one followed by a description of the other.

Even the neutral word ‘discuss’ implies a logical consideration of the arguments on a particular issue. If what you are being asked to discuss is a quotation, then you may need to put it in context – who said it, when and what was it about – but the main focus is likely to be on unpicking the assumptions embedded in the quote, and weighing up the arguments for and against.

For a downloadable table explaining what words mean in your assignment titles, click here: INSTRUCTION_WORDS.doc

The structure of this will be influenced by the demands of the particular essay question so it is important to read your assignment brief and grading criteria carefully.

However most essay assignments contain around 3 or 4 main sections, each of which should have their place in the argument clearly signalled, and will themselves be sub-divided into paragraphs. It can be useful to plan how many paragraphs or main points you can make in an essay based on your word count. Most paragraphs are around 200-300 words so in a 2,000 word essay, if you leave 10% each for the introduction and conclusion, you are left with around 6 points that you can make. It is far better to get across fewer points in depth than to try and deal with everything but only on the surface.

Each paragraph should deal with a single theme or idea, which will probably be indicated in the first sentence. Here is a fantastic video on how to create well-structured and clear paragraphs and why that matters. The main argument of the essay should be weaved throughout the essay and the main body should be supported by a strong introduction and conclusion.

Working to a plan has many advantages, although some people prefer to start writing wherever they can, just to get going, and then sort it out later. Either way, the final piece should be carefully constructed so every point is supported through argument or example, and its place in the overall structure clearly indicated to your reader. Here is a fantastic guide to planning your assignment.

In the conclusion, you should summarise the main points of your essay and pull it all together. Your final section should show how you have answered the question set or (where you had a free choice) that you have addressed the problem you identified in the introduction.

Don’t forget to include proper references and a bibliography. Visit the ‘Referencing’ section of this site for more on this topic. Education students can also refer to the SSGT section on studentcentral which offers further advice on how to Harvard reference accurately in the School of Education.

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