How To Write Better Essays for School and Prepare for University
Essays can make or break an assessment period, but we’re often given little to no guidance on how to craft the perfect piece of writing.
Although essay topics vary depending on the subject or field, there are a number of general rules that you can follow to help elevate your essays to the next level.
Written by a postgraduate English student, this article serves as a guide to how you can improve your essay-writing skills, equipping you with the tools you need to succeed at school and prepare for university!
Understanding Essays and Their Structure
What is an essay?
We all know (and sometimes fear) the word “essay”, but taking a step back and examining what exactly the word means can provide a huge indicator as to what an essay should do.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an essay is:
“A composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range.”
We’ve highlighted the two most important words in this definition. An essay should be elaborate in employing many detailed strands, all of which support your main argument. It should be limited not in the extent of your knowledge on the subject, but in focusing that knowledge on the argument at hand; in other words, it should be laser-focused in its aim.
Essay writing can sometimes feel like an education hoop you’re required to jump through, but essays are so much more than that! The more you develop your essay-writing skills, the better you’ll become at communicating your ideas and thinking critically – two essential skills in any career.
How is an essay structured?
Like a building, an essay needs a solid structure from top to bottom to be able to stand as a strong whole.
Think of your introduction and your conclusion as the essay’s foundations, which are crucial in propping the essay up. Each of the paragraphs in between can be thought of as different rooms within the essay’s “building”, each with its own purpose yet still existing within the wider essay itself.
Your introduction and conclusion must contain the essay’s thesis statement – in other words, its central argument – and each paragraph within the essay should ultimately support and tie back to this central argument.
Common essay types
There are lots of common essay types, all of which will follow this standard structure above.
Some of the most common essay types include:
- Persuasive essay – uses logical reasoning and strong evidence to convince the reader to accept a viewpoint or course of action
- Analytical essay – seeks to critically analyse a topic, issue or piece of literature
- Expository essay – presents facts, statistics and details to provide information, explain a topic, or clarify a concept
- Narrative essay – shares insights and emotion in order to tell a story or recount a personal experience
- Descriptive essay – uses sensory language and imagery to provide vivid descriptions of a subject, person, place or experience
- Creative essay – breaks the typical essay structure and style, exploring topics in a personal and emotive way
So, how do you write a great essay?
How to Write a Great Essay
Step 1: Understand the assignment
Teachers will often tell you to closely read an essay question or its marking criteria – and for good reason!
Essays are more than just a test of your writing skills and persuasiveness; they’re also designed to test a specific facet of your knowledge, so it’s essential to understand exactly what you’re being tested on.
Reflect on what the essay question is asking you! Words like “describe”, “explain” or “argue” might initially seem interchangeable, but they’re asking very different things. Identify the type of essay you’re being asked to write (e.g. expository or analytical) and you’ll be far more likely to convince the reader.
Don’t forget to also make a note of specific guidelines and requirements like word count and formatting. Try to avoid being unnecessarily penalised!
Step 2: Choose a topic
If the essay question is broad, or you’re allowed to choose your own question, it’s important to carefully consider your choice of topic.
Firstly, make sure your subject aligns with your assignment’s requirements. Secondly, write about something that interests you!
This might sound self-explanatory but you’ll be spending a lot of time on your essay. Choosing a topic you have a solid understanding of, and a strong interest in, can make all the difference.
Even if the topic is niche, don’t be disheartened by a lack of source material. On the contrary, original research and unique essay ideas are a central part of university study, so it’s great practice!
Step 3: Research and gather information
Essay markers want to see how well-versed you are in your chosen topic. The more research you can do, the better – even if you end up reading things that don’t make the final cut. Understanding the current research that’s been carried out on your topic of choice, and what ground still remains uncovered, is an essential part of forging your own, unique argument.
In our digital age, resources have never been more abundant; lots of books and journal papers are available to view online, as are a number of academic websites.
However, remember to examine your sources’ credibility! For each source, aim to identify:
- The author’s name
- When the source was published,
- Who it was published by
- Whether or not it’s been peer-reviewed (approved for publication by the writer’s colleagues within the academic world)
Make sure to take notes of your reading and research, no matter how minute. Noting points you agree and disagree with, as well as a text’s overarching argument, will help you imbed other sources into your own work.
Jotting down page numbers will also make your life much easier when it comes to referencing!
Step 4: Develop a thesis statement
All great essays begin with just a sentence or two, outlining your argument. It doesn’t matter if your argument changes a little as you put your essay together, as your thesis statement can always be amended down the line.
A good thesis statement will be specific and foster debate; it will guide the entire essay. Let’s take, for example, an essay about Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. A bad thesis statement might be:
Oscar Wilde uses metaphors in his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
This statement is hard to argue with, but only because it is so obvious. Almost all novel-writers use metaphors, and the statement doesn’t indicate that the essay will contain any specific or original analysis (even if it does end up doing so).
A good thesis statement might be:
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde uses the immorality of the titular character to critique the narcissism of aestheticism.
This thesis statement is in conversation with existing critical debates about the text, it can be counter-argued, and it offers a subjective and specific reading of the novel based on the essay-writer’s own opinion.
Step 5: Create an outline
Now you’ve got your thesis statement, it’ll be easier to create a rough plan of what your essay is going to look like.
Each individual section should contribute to and support the overall argument, and your thoughts should be organised and concise, with each section having its own purpose.
If you’re particularly worried about reaching the word count, it can be helpful to outline not only what the function of each paragraph will be, but also a rough word count for each section.
Step 6: Write the introduction
The introduction is the first chance to sell your argument! A strong introduction will convince the reader that your essay is well thought-through, well-researched, nuanced and interesting.
An introduction should be engaging – but try to avoid cliches! A firm statement, a startling statistic, or brief historical context are all great ways to engage readers.
The introduction should also include your thesis statement in a clear and straightforward way, and should clarify any complex concepts or ambiguous terms in your essay.
Step 7: Craft body paragraphs
Think of each of the paragraphs that follow as mini-essays in and of themselves. Each of them should introduce an idea, argue it, and then conclude it.
Using the PIE system is a helpful way of remembering how to structure your paragraphs:
Point – P stands for the main point of your paragraphs
Illustration – I stands for the evidence to support your point
Explanation – E stands for the explanation of your evidence and point
Aim to transition between paragraphs in a cohesive way. Think about how you can relate the point you’re making in one paragraph to the point you plan on making in the next. These transitions will underscore the cohesion of your essay and the well thought-through argument that underpins it.
Transitional or comparative phrases, like the ones below, can make this easier:
- In contrast
For a really great essay, it’s advised to address counter-arguments. This might seem a bit strange – after all, aren’t you trying to further your argument, not the opposite?
Yet, presenting and refuting a counter-argument to your claim can actually facilitate your argument. By considering and then disproving counter-arguments to your points, you’re able to demonstrate critical analysis, thorough research, and a lot of confidence!
Step 8: Write the conclusion
Think of the conclusion as a reprise of the introduction. It’s a final opportunity to summarise your thesis statement and demonstrate your thorough research and understanding of the topic.
Thought-provoking questions, definitive solutions, future predictions and calls-to-action are impressive and memorable ways to round off your work.
Step 9: Proofread and revise
After you’ve done all that hard work, the last thing you want is to slip on the potential banana-skin that is a typo! Read your essay and then read it again, run it through a spell-check, and read it once more.
We get it, when you’ve been working on an essay for a long time it can all start to look a bit like a word-salad, so take a break and come back to your essay in a few hours’ time. A refreshed pair of eyes are often better at spotting grammar, punctuation and spelling errors, as well as checking for general clarity and coherence.
Step 10: Include a bibliography
We’re in the home-stretch now – the bibliography!
Bibliographies are essential in acknowledging your sources and avoiding unintentional plagiarism. Each school and university will have their own preferred citation style, from the Harvard System to MHRA referencing, so check the requirements for your essay.
Most systems will need the author’s name, title of the text, publication information and source type, so keep a note as you go to save yourself time later down the line!
10 Top Tips for Better Essays
1. Start early. It’s easy for markers to distinguish between a rushed essay and a carefully-planned one. No matter how good your writing skills are, a thoroughly researched essay takes time; give yourself a good head start!
2. Be concise. Unnecessary wordiness, and switching from topic to topic, can suggest a poorly thought-out argument – the more focused you are, the better.
3. Use strong evidence. You can find all sorts of opinions on all sorts of things, but those that come from credible sources will significantly strengthen your argument, even if you disagree with them!
4. Follow guidelines. After all your hard work, you probably don’t want to lose marks through sloppy formatting and citing, so make sure you’re up to speed on what your essay should look like!
5. Seek feedback. Re-reading old feedback from past essays, and seeking new feedback from teachers and mentors, can be significant in improving your work as you go.
6. Read aloud. If your essay does start to look a bit like word-salad, try reading it aloud. This will help you pick up on clunky sentence structure and syntactical errors.
7. Edit for clarity. Make sure each section of your essay is coherent and follows a logical throughline from your first paragraph to your last.
8. Avoid plagiarism. Remember to properly cite all of your sources; clearly distinguish between your own voice and those of the sources you’re quoting.
9. Revise multiple times. It’s unlikely that your essay is going to be ready to go the moment you type the last word. Writing second, third, and even fourth drafts, will help refine and perfect your essay.
10. Stay organised. Keeping track of the sources you’re using will make your life a lot easier down the line. Trust us – you’ll thank yourself later.
Transitioning to University-Level Essays
By following our essay-writing guide, you’ll be incredibly well-equipped for the transition to university-level essays from high school work.
University essay markers are looking for you to demonstrate keen research skills, a solid comprehension of the topic, critical thinking skills, and strong argumentation.
You’ll be expected to work independently at university, and to produce work that is both original and nuanced, so reading widely around your essay topics is a superb habit to get into as early as possible.
While university tutors have higher expectations for written work than you might be used to at school, they’ll be thoroughly impressed by any student who starts their undergraduate degree with a detailed knowledge of how to write a well-researched, thoughtful and convincing essay.
Like all things in life, practice makes perfect when it comes to essay-writing. Stay on top of your essay feedback, try to improve on areas you feel are lacking, and you’ll be able to track your improvement in no time.
Be open-minded when it comes to how you approach essays, and don’t be afraid to change how you usually work. Once you find a method that works for you, and that delivers excellent results, essay writing will feel instinctive!
By Sam Cox
Sam is a recent English graduate from the University of Bristol whose interests include twentieth-century fiction, film, and cultural criticism.
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