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.”
'I felt guilty when I got my results': your stories of buying essays | Guardian readers and Sarah Marsh
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.”
Applying to university? It's time to narrow your choices down to two
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.
Essays for sale: the booming online industry in writing academic work to order
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.”
Keep up with the latest on Guardian Students: follow us on Twitter at @GdnStudents – and become a member to receive exclusive benefits and our weekly newsletter.
Familiar essays and an accessible aural exam would leave most students pleased with higher level Irish paper one, according to Emer McTernan, Studyclix.ie expert teacher.
“This afternoon’s paper would leave most students pleased,” she said. “Old reliable essays like the education system and scandals in sport meant most students would have had little difficulty tackling an essay question.”
John Gavin, founder of LeavingCertIrish.com, said that nearly every student in the country was expecting Brexit or homelessness to appear on the paper. “Both appeared, with the latter topic listed as the speech option under the heading: ‘the housing problem in Ireland today.’ This title was a twist on the standard topic of homelessness, requiring candidates to write a few paragraphs on the broader issue, which might have frightened off a few people. As both of these topical titles appeared under the speech and debate section, something which requires candidates to include a specific style and terminology, it might not have suited everyone.”
The essay titles covered a broad range of topics including the education system, equality in society today, violence around the world and political leaders today. “Any student who was well prepared for these topics for the oral exam should have had both the vocabulary and fluency to write a very comprehensive composition,” said Mr Gavin. “
Mr Gavin said that all of the questions on the cluaistiscint were well presented and should have been accessible to every student, while Ms McTernan said that students seemed to find the aural exam easier than in previous years.
Clodagh Sweeney, a higher level student at Jesus and Mary Secondary School said that the general essay questions made for a nice paper with few issues. The aural was far easier than our mock exams so, overall, quite happy. There were few surprises and the tape was easier than any I tried before, making for a nice introduction to a nice paper.”
Ms McTernan said that the essay questions posed at ordinary level would have been easily accessible, even to weaker candidates. “The vocabulary used was easily understood and many candidates would have been able to rely on material they had learnt for their oral exam.”
Mr Gavin said that some of the verbs used in the ordinary level listening comprehension would have challenged quite a few of the candidates, although the composition titles were very fair and provided candidates with a great range of topics to choose from.