Rachel McCombie, a graduate of St John’s College, Oxford, shares actionable tips on taking your essays from “Good” to “Outstanding.”
For ambitious students, essays are a chance to showcase academic flair, demonstrate original thinking and impress with advanced written English skills.
The best students relish the challenge of writing essays because they’re a chance to exercise academic research skills and construct interesting arguments. Essays allow you to demonstrate your knowledge, understanding and intelligence in a creative and relatively unrestricted way – provided you keep within the word count! But when lots of other people are answering the same essay question as you, how do you make yours stand out from the crowd? In this article, we’re going to show you the secret of writing a truly brilliant essay.
What are essays actually for?
Essays test a wide variety of skills, including your ability to absorb and analyse information.
efore we get into the nitty gritty of how to write an outstanding essay, we need to go right back to basics and think about what essays are actually designed to test. Only by understanding the purpose of an essay can you really begin to understand what it is that tutors are looking for when they read your work.
No matter what the academic level of the student is, essays are designed to test many things:
– Knowledge – fundamentally, essays test and help consolidate what you’ve read and learned, making them an important part of the learning process, particularly for humanities subjects.
– Comprehension – they test your ability to make sense of and clearly explain complex concepts and issues.
– They test your ability to understand the question and produce a considered response to it.
– They evaluate your ability to absorb and condense information from a variety of sources, which will probably mean covering a lot of material in a short space of time; this necessitates appraisal of which bits of material are relevant and which are not.
– They test your ability to write a balanced and coherent argument that considers a number of points of view.
– They showcase your level of written English skills.
– They even put your time management to the test – essays are a part of your workload that must be planned, prioritised and delivered to a high standard, to deadline.
Characteristics of the perfect essay
Now that we know why we’re asked to write essays, what are the characteristics that define the essays that impress? The tutors marking your essays may have their own preferences and things they look for in outstanding essays, but let’s take a look at a few of the irrefutable traits of the best.
A good essay can be derivative; a brilliant essay needs to be original.
Original thinkingThe hallmark of the truly brilliant essay is original thinking. That doesn’t have to mean coming up with an entirely new theory; most of, if not all, the topics you’ll be studying at GCSE, A-level or even undergraduate level have been thought about in so much depth and by so many people that virtually every possible angle will have been thought of already. But what it does mean is that the essay stands out from those of other students in that it goes beyond the obvious and takes an original approach – perhaps approaching the topic from a different angle, coming up with a different hypothesis from what you’ve been discussing in class, or introducing new evidence and intelligent insights from material not included on the reading list.
Solid, in-depth knowledge and understandingIt goes without saying that the brilliant essay should demonstrate a strong knowledge of the facts, and not just knowledge but sound comprehension of the concepts or issues being discussed and why they matter. The perfect essay demonstrates an ability to deploy relevant facts and use them to form the basis of an argument or hypothesis. It covers a wide range of material and considers every point of view, confidently making use of and quoting from a variety of sources.
Clear structure with intelligent debateThe perfect essay provides a coherent discussion of both sides of the story, developing a balanced argument throughout, and with a conclusion that weighs up the evidence you’ve covered and perhaps provides your own intelligent opinion on how the topic should be interpreted based on the evidence covered.
No superfluous informationEverything written in the perfect essay serves a purpose – to inform and persuade. There’s no rambling or going off at tangents – it sticks to the point and doesn’t waste the reader’s time. This goes back to our earlier point about sorting the relevant facts from the irrelevant material; including material that isn’t relevant shows that you’ve not quite grasped the real heart of the matter.
Exceptional EnglishThe words in the perfect essay flow effortlessly, and the reader feels in safe hands. Sentences need never be read more than once to be understood, and each follows logically on from the next, with no random jumping about from topic to topic from one paragraph to the next. Spelling and grammar are flawless, with no careless typos.
So how do you go about writing this mythical Perfect Essay? Read on to find out!
Put in extra background work
Committed students always read beyond what the reading list tells them to read. Guaranteed to impress, wide reading gives you deeper knowledge than your peers and gives you the extra knowledge and insights you need to make your essay stand out.
If you’re studying English, for example, don’t just read the set text! Here are some ideas to widen your reading and give you a good range of impressive quotes to include in your essay:
– Other works by the same author – how do they compare with your set text?
– Works by contemporary authors – does your set text fit into a wider movement, or is it very different from what was being written at the time?
– Works by the author’s predecessors – what works inspired the author of your set text? How do you see them shining through in the text you’re studying, and how have they been developed?
– Literary criticism – gauge the range of opinions about your set text by reading what the literary critics have to say. Whose opinion do you most agree with, and why?
– Background history – so that you can appreciate and refer to the context in which the author was writing (we’ll come back to this last point a little later).
It sounds like a lot of extra work, but you don’t necessarily have to read everything in full. It’s fine to dip into these other resources providing you don’t inadvertently take points out of context.
Know what you want to say before you start writing
You’re probably sick of hearing this particular piece of advice, but it’s important to start out with a clear idea in your mind of what you want to say in your essay and how you will structure your arguments. The easiest way to do this is to write an essay plan. This needn’t be a big deal, or time-consuming; all you need to do is to open a new document on your computer, type out the ideas you want to cover and drag and drop them into a logical order. From there, you simply start typing your essay directly into the plan itself. Your essay should include an introduction, a series of paragraphs that develop an argument rather than just jumping from topic to topic, and a conclusion that weighs up the evidence.
Answer the question you’ve been set, not the question you want to answer
A common problem with students’ responses to essays is that rather than answering the question they’ve been set, they try to mould the question to what they’d prefer to write about, because that’s what they feel most comfortable with. Be very careful not to do this! You could end up writing a brilliant essay, but if didn’t actually answer the question then it’s not going to be well received by the person marking it.
Give a balanced argument…
Good essays give both sides of an argument, presenting information impartially and considering multiple points of view. One-sided arguments won’t impress, as you need to show that you’ve thought about the evidence comprehensively.
…but your opinion and interpretation matter too
Show that you’ve made your own mind up based on your weighing up of the evidence. This shows that you’re not just hiding behind what other people say about the topic, but that you’ve had the independence of mind to form your own intelligent opinion about it.
Use quotations from academic works and sources to back up points you want to make. Doing so strengthens your argument by providing evidence for your statements, as well as demonstrating that you’ve read widely around your subject. However, don’t go too far and write an essay that’s essentially just a list of what other people say about the subject. Quoting too much suggests that you don’t have the confidence or knowledge to explain things in your own words, so have to hide behind those of other people. Make your own mind up about what you’re writing about – as already mentioned, it’s fine to state your own opinion if you’ve considered the arguments and presented the evidence.
Understanding the religious and political context of the times in which Blake wrote is essential to understanding his writing and art.
As we’ve already touched on, if you can demonstrate knowledge of the context of the subject you’re writing about, this will show that you’ve considered possible historical influences that may have shaped a work or issue. This shows that you haven’t simply taken the essay question at face value and demonstrates your ability to think beyond the obvious. An ability to look at the wider picture marks you out as an exceptional student, as many people can’t see the wood for the trees and have a very narrow focus when it comes to writing essays.
If you’re an English student, for instance, an author’s work should be considered not in isolation but in the context of the historical events and thinking that helped define the period in which the author was writing. You can’t write about Blake’s poetry without some knowledge and discussion of background events such as the Industrial Revolution, and the development of the Romantic movement as a whole.
Include images and diagrams
You know what they say – a picture speaks a thousand words. What matters in an essay is effective and persuasive communication, and if a picture or diagram will help support a point you’re making, include it. As well as helping to communicate, visuals also make your essay more enjoyable to read for the person marking it – and if they enjoy reading it, the chances are you’ll get better marks! Don’t forget to ensure that you include credits for any images and diagrams you include.
Use full academic citations and a bibliography
Show you mean business by including a full set of academic citations, with a bibliography at the end, even if you haven’t been told to. The great thing about this is that it not only makes you look organised and scholarly, but it also gives you the opportunity to show off just how many extra texts you’ve studied to produce your masterpiece of an essay!
Make use of the footnote feature in your word processor and include citations at the bottom of each page, with a main bibliography at the end of the essay. There are different accepted forms for citing an academic reference, but the main thing to remember is to pick one format and be consistent. Typically the citation will include the title and author of the work, the date of publication and the page number(s) of the point or quotation you’re referring to. Here’s an example:
1. Curta, F. (2007) – “Some remarks on ethnicity in medieval archaeology” in Early Medieval Europe 15 (2), pp. 159-185
This much editing is a good thing; it should mean you’ve proofread thoroughly and picked up on any mistakes.
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Before you ask, no, a spell check isn’t good enough! How many times have you typed “form” instead of “from”? That’s just one of a huge number of errors that spell check would simply miss.
Your English should be impeccable if you want to be taken seriously, and that means clear and intelligent sentence structures, no misplaced apostrophes, no typos and no grammar crimes.
Include your name at the top of each page of your essay, and number the pages. Also, make sure you use a font that’s easy to read, such as Times New Roman or Arial. The person marking your essay won’t appreciate having to struggle through reading a fancy Gothic font, even if it does happen to match the Gothic literature you’re studying!
Meet the deadline
You don’t need us to tell you that, but for the sake of being comprehensive, we’re including it anyway. You could write the best essay ever, but if you deliver it late, it won’t be looked upon favourably! Don’t leave writing your essay until the last minute – start writing with plenty of time to spare, and ideally leave time to sleep on it before you submit it. Allowing time for it to sink in may result in you having a sudden brilliant revelation that you want to include.
So there we have it – everything you need to know in order to write an essay to impress. If you have any further great tips to add, feel free to share them in the comments below!