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How to write your first University essay

The first few weeks at university will be a daunting but exciting experience, and with so much going on you might forget why you’re there – to learn! You might not be tasked with writing an essay straightaway but it’ll certainly be on the agenda within a few weeks, so it’ll help to be prepared.  Enrolling in university as an international student might mean that you’re coming from a very different education system, which could mean different methods of researching and essay writing. This guide is here to help you understand a bit more about how to write your first university essay and, hopefully, make the transition to UK education as easy as possible. 

Know the Mark Scheme

First of all, you should familiarise yourself with your course’s mark scheme. It will detail the various steps and requirements needed for an essay in your discipline. Generally speaking, this will include the accuracy of your research, analytical detail, and essay structure. You should also ensure a good standard of spelling and grammar throughout your work, even in the non-literary subjects. If you’re worried about tackling essays as a non-native speaker, be sure to discuss those concerns with your lecturers. They’re there to help!

It’s also common for lecturers and course leaders to share examples of work from previous years, which can be helpful in understanding how to approach your work. But remember – universities are very strict on plagiarism, so make sure your work is completely your own before submitting it.

Choosing and Understanding the Question

Before you even begin writing, you need to understand what the essay question or prompt is asking of you. Your lecturer might have assigned you a single title, or you might be allowed to choose from a list of questions. These are usually taken from past exam papers, which in itself offers a chance to learn how to pick a title that suits you and your skillset. 

In choosing an essay title there are a few things to consider. Anything too broad will prove difficult to work with – it’s much better to go into detail with a smaller number of points than spread yourself too thinly. 

It will also help to choose something for which there is a lot of research material available, be it literary texts or published academic essays. Although an essay must be all your own work, to receive a good grade you must consult and demonstrate knowledge of several primary and secondary resources. Further along in your degree, it may prove beneficial to choose the more obscure or less-researched topics, as a way to showcase everything you’ve learned, but for your first university essay, you’ll be thankful for the use of reliable sources. Now that you’ve chosen your question, you should read it through several times, slowly, highlighting any keywords. These could be:

  • Compare: Identify the similarities and differences between two or more things. 
  • Argue: Make a case for or against the claims made in the title. 
  • Demonstrate: Use evidence to prove something is true.
  • Examine: Look closely at texts and evidence and present your findings in a factual, critical way.
  • Assess: Consider all views and facts involved in an argument and come to a conclusion about their strengths and weaknesses. 

How to Conduct Research for Your Essay

Whether the essay title is a subject about which you know a lot, or something completely new, doing enough research is the key to a strong essay. Your essential course reading list should provide a solid base for finding texts relevant to your essay. It will list primary sources, which are texts that are directly linked to the subject, like contemporary novels, letters, or news articles, as well as secondary sources – these provide analysis or commentary on the primary sources, like academic essays or newspaper editorials. 

Something you find in your essential reading might spark an idea in your mind that you wish to explore further and for this, your university library will come in very handy. Within the rows of physical books and the extensive online database, you should find dozens of texts offering new information and perspectives on your chosen topic. 

Of course, a tailored google search is likely to offer you even more research opportunities. There are hundreds of approved websites bearing enough resources for a lifetime of essay writing, and even the most niche topics are likely to have been written on previously. With that in mind, you must ensure that any text you reference in your work is from a reputable source – check with your lecturer if unsure. 

How to Structure and Plan your First University Essay

Now you have a clear understanding of your essay task, it’s time to learn how to plan your first university essay. This is something you’ll either love or hate; some students would rather get stuck in straight away while others appreciate the time to prepare. Try and learn to enjoy planning – the structural guidance it brings will ultimately make your writing experience easier and more time-efficient. 

It will make sense to plan your essay according to its structure, with the basic outline being:

Introduction → Main Body → Conclusion

As you progress through your course as an increasingly confident writer you will become adept at writing organically, unrestricted by the confines of a set structure. For now, however, having a clear beginning, middle, and an end is a good place to start. 

Introduction

Your first chance to captivate the reader. Here, you should introduce your overarching thesis. This is the central argument that will run through your essay and tie everything together - your points will either back up or disprove this thesis. Top tip: Write out or verbalise your thesis as if someone with no prior knowledge of the subject has asked you to describe it. What does your essay argue? How do you demonstrate this? Why is it important? 

Main Argument

Come up with a few main ideas that you want to discuss. These should be interesting ideas that come from a nuanced understanding of your primary reading, and which ultimately link back to your argument.  Try to avoid treating this section as a chronological analysis of your sources. You should begin with your claim, and then back it up using a suitable quote or piece of evidence from your sources. Bulk up your paragraph with a comprehensive explanation of your ideas and their greater contextual significance, before concluding your paragraph by linking back to the essay title. How have you supported your overall argument? 

Counter Argument

This is where you demonstrate wider thinking and your ability to consider several points of view. In taking the discussion beyond your main argument and providing an ‘on the other hand’ perspective, the person marking your essay will know that you’ve given the topic significant thought. Remember, these paragraphs should also be linked back to the title. Why are these arguments also valid? 

Conclusion

Phew! You’ve reached the end of your first university essay. You may be tempted to rush your conclusion, but it is one of - if not the most - important parts of your essay. It’s similar to the introduction in that you will reiterate the argument and sum up your points, whilst also leaving the reader with a lasting impression. What have you learnt? What new questions arise from your findings that could be explored further in future? 

Referencing

One of the main differences between writing an essay for school and university is the requirement for referencing and a bibliography. In addition to finding reputable sources to use in your essay, you must be able to cite them correctly. The referencing system to use will depend on your institution, with the most common styles being Harvard, APA (American Psychological Association), MLA (Modern Languages Association), and MHRA (Modern Humanities Research Association). 

Top Tips for How to Write Your First University Essay

  • Research widely – Without overloading yourself with material, reading a variety of texts and exploring different perspectives (particularly the literary subjects) will equip you with enough information to produce a detailed and well-rounded essay. 
  • Utilise the help available to you – Your lecturers and seminar leaders will be more than happy to answer any questions you have about the essay and their expectations. Not only will seeking their guidance ultimately help your writing, but it will also present you as a curious and dedicated student. 
  • Don’t leave it until the last minute – Many students will profess to thrive under pressure and produce their best work only hours before the deadline, but you will always thank yourself for starting sooner rather than later. This ensures you have adequate time to research, plan, write and edit. Proper time management will become a significant consideration throughout your degree, so start early for the best results. 
  • Leave time to read it over – Similar to the above tip, it is important to leave enough time to carefully read over your essay and implement any changes. Having a break and returning with fresh eyes will allow you to notice things that you might have otherwise missed. 

Lastly, stay calm! Learning how to write your first university essay will undoubtedly require hard work, but you have so much time to practice. Above all, it should be a stimulating challenge where you have the freedom to get creative with your readings and lead with your opinion. Enjoy it! 

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