Writing an essay at university can be a very scary experience even if you are used to writing essays at school or reports at work. Every task has it's own rules to follow, traps to avoid and rules for success. At the end of the day there is no substitute for going straight to the person setting the task and asking them to explain what exactly it is they are looking for. As in all things, asking questions is the key to understanding.
That said, there is some general advice that will always help in the production of a university essay no matter what subject you are studying. This is not everything that can be said about producing an essay by any means but it does represent some important first steps in successful academic writing.
- Plan your essay – time spent thinking about the question, organising the order you want to present your information in and considering the points you want to make is still working on the essay. Actually writing up is only the final stage.
- Explore the question – what is it actually asking you to do? How many parts is it in? If the question is in 3 parts and you only answer one of those parts then you can only get 1/3 of the grade no matter how brilliant your answer is.
- Structure your essay - Make sure your essay has an introduction, middle and conclusion. Your introduction should explain what the essay is about and how you plan to tackle it. Make sure the main body of the essay is written clearly with evidence of reading, remember, you are being marked as much on the information you have been able to find and the evidence you are able to present to support your argument as on your own opinions. Finish your essay with a conclusion summarising what you have done and what you have learned – don't just let your essay stop abruptly.
- Reference your work thoroughly; you need to show your readers exactly where all your information has come from. The referencing method preferred by the university is known as the Harvard method.
- Proofread your essay before handing it in. Don't just check for typos and spelling but check that you haven't made any claims that are unsupported by reading and evidence. As you read your work be self-critical, if you see a claim or statement of fact ask yourself the question "How do I know this?" then add a reference making this clear to the reader.
- Always use your own words – it's easy to think that the books and websites you have read say everything so much better than you can but your tutors want to hear your voice. You will get more credit for expressing things in your own words, however rough this may sound to start with, than simply using somebody else's.
As you can see putting together an essay is no different to any of the other tasks you have to do every day – you need to plan, organise and gather the right resources to get the job done properly. You wouldn't expect anybody to accept your opinion just because you say so, you need to be believable and credible. If you are in a job where you are trying to convince your boss to invest £50,000 of the company budget in a new project simply smiling and saying, "I think this would be a really good idea" is unlikely to get you very far. Presenting a thoughtful case with evidence of how other companies have successfully run the same project will be much more convincing.