How to write an essay that will knock the socks off your teacher and propel your grades into the stratosphere...
Sitting down to prepare an essay can be a daunting task at any academic level. Hitting the high notes requires a strong combination of analysis, research and planning.
Sounds a bit intimidating? Maybe it would be if you weren't prepared. But you're going to be ultra-prepared. After all, you have The Student Room's epic guide to writing the ultimate essay in front of you...
Follow these steps and stick to some basic guidelines and you'll soon be rattling out A* essays without even breaking sweat.
How to understand the wording of essay questions
Analysing the essay title is your crucial first step. Lots of students miss this out because it doesn’t feel all that important. After all, you’ve got the gist of what the question is about, why not just get going? Trouble is, you then risk veering off on a tangent that doesn’t truly answer what you’re being asked. The title contains lots of clues to answering the question perfectly. Decipher those clues and you’re a step closer to getting that elusive A*.
Each essay title contains a word or two which helps you suss out the kind of essay you should be writing; these are your command words. Words like ‘discuss’, ‘describe’ or ‘examine’ are all open-ended terms which mean there’s scope for you to explore the subject.
Words like ‘prove’, ‘compare’ and ‘criticise’ are asking you to dig deeper into the argument and put forward your own side of the discussion. Command words should be the first thing you look out for when you’re given your title so you know how to structure your essay.
Look out also for subject-specific technical words. Before you get writing, make sure you know the definition of these words and their significance to the subject as a whole.
How do I research my essay?
Don’t write a single word until you’ve done your research. Spend some time digging around and making notes on your planned argument. You can get started by re-reading your class notes. It's your teacher who set you the essay, and they're not going to ask you to write about a topic you know nothing about. Look back for the lesson that covered the key ideas needed to answer your essay.
Create a mindmap of all the key points you’ve come up with, then use independent research to delve deeper. Try using your school or college library or intranet for your initial research or use online sources like Google Scholar for more in-depth information on your topic. Keep expanding your mindmap by adding key quotes and critics.
How to create a decent essay plan
There’s one simple key to writing a stand-out essay: planning. Define your essay plan in advance and you’ll find it far easier to form a coherent argument.
Do this paragraph by paragraph, and be ruthless with your writing. You want to ensure each paragraph has a vice-like grip on the question; refer back to it constantly by using words contained in the title. Signpost what each paragraph is for and keep reminding your examiner that you understand what the essay title is all about.
Another way to ensure your writing stands out is by doing some independent research. Check sources that your teacher hasn’t explicitly told you to use and come up with some unique points of view. You can also stand out by using subject-specific jargon, but make sure you’re using it all correctly.
How to start an essay: the introduction paragraph
OK, so now you're ready to write. Making a fantastic first impression sets the tone for the rest of your essay; so ensure your introduction is concise, well-written and engaging to get off to a great start.
Lots of students write a bland and generic introduction, just to get it out of the way. Don’t fall into this trap; you want your reader to want to keep on reading! Try starting with something attention-grabbing like a controversial point of view or a compelling story to get your reader interested.
Your introduction should also identify what the debate is and act as a ‘road map’ to highlight what your essay will contain. You need to demonstrate how you’re planning to answer the question, so try identifying and explaining its key terms.
Essay structure: writing paragraphs and transitions
Every paragraph in your essay needs to be laser-focused on addressing your argument, and there’s a neat method for making sure that happens. It goes by the catchy acronym PEE: Point, Evidence, Explanation. Get your point across, supply evidence from a source or quote, then explain the significance of this information while linking back to the essay title.
Each paragraph should be on a different and distinct topic, with this topic clearly signposted in the paragraph's opening sentence. It's often helpful to refer to your title here, to remind the examiner of the relevance of your paragraph. Make sure each paragraph flows from one to the other following a logical argument.
How to write a good essay conclusion
Your conclusion is your chance to leave a lasting impression on the person marking your essay; where you can reinforce all the fantastic ideas you’ve previously discussed.
Here's where you pull everything neatly together; don't just repeat yourself by summarising all your points.
Try returning to the essay title or the key themes outlined in your introduction. This will round off your essay nicely and will leave your marker in no doubt that you’ve understood the essay question and the most significant key points.
Your teacher might have told you not to introduce anything new into a conclusion and that you should instead recap your argument. It’s true that bringing in something new which hasn’t been previously addressed in your essay is a risky strategy, but do it right and it can take your essay to a level where your teacher applauds your arrival in the classroom. This rings particularly true for humanities subjects, where it might be relevant to mention a contemporary issue to add weight to your argument.
Proofreading: how to avoid common essay mistakes
Many marks are thrown away by students who didn’t proofread their essay. But when you’ve been working on something for so long, it’s easy to skim-read it and miss silly misteaks. See? Get a friend to check your essay for any grammar or spelling blunders; they’re likely to spot things that you haven’t noticed.
If nobody else is available, read your essay out loud or, better yet, read it backwards. Yep, word by word, back to front. This jars your mind out of its skim-read mode and makes you truly look at the words in front of you. Any mistakes will stand out a mile.
Another mistake to avoid: waffling. When you’re keen to get all your knowledge into your essay, it can mean it loses its coherency. This takes us back to the planning point. Stick to a detailed plan and you’ll have no room to waffle.
But the classic slip-up is not answering the question. Once you’ve written your paper, remove any points that deviate too far from the essay title. Be ruthless! Keep asking yourself ‘does this answer the question?’
Essay timing and how to write an essay fast
Writing a great essay is tons easier if you give yourself lots of time. But time isn’t always on our side. So if you’ve left it late and have a deadline looming, here are three things you need to do to write a great essay in a hurry.
Start off by looking at a textbook. Using a textbook you haven’t studied in class will give you all the facts you need, and may provide the added bonus of a new angle that’s not been discussed in lessons.
Second, use wording from the title for maximum impression. Show the marker that you’ve understood the essay by sticking closely to the title and make references to the wording throughout your essay.
Lastly, get your hands on a mark scheme. Check out the essential criteria for getting the grades you want. Stick to this scheme and check off each point as you go. With perseverance, concentration and energy drink in hand you will complete your essay within the deadline.
How to make an essay longer without waffling
We touched on it previously, but waffling is the bane of all essay markers' lives. It’s glaringly obvious when a student is inching towards a word count by adding in superfluous language and flowery adjectives. Don't do it! If you find you've reached the end of your essay with only half the word count accounted for, you’ve missed something. Go back over the core material and look for any important points you’ve not covered. Next, look through each point you’ve made and make sure you’ve explored it in as much detail as possible.
What is plagiarism and how do I avoid it?
Plagiarism is copying someone else’s work without crediting them. Of course, quoting in critics or key figures is crucial – it will get you more marks. But, you must make sure any quotes you use are properly signposted. Using quotation marks to indicate who originally said it should be sufficient but if your teacher has asked you to use a particular style of referencing then you should double-check you've done all this correctly.
At A-level and GCSE your teacher isn’t expecting you to think of something completely unique but they do want you to interpret ideas for yourself. Above all, they want to see that you understand the quotation or source you’re using.
Tips on how to write an essay in an exam
When writing an essay under timed conditions it’s tempting to get stuck in right away. Time is tight and you want to get as many marks as possible. It’s important to get a plan together first - just like you would with a normal essay - but to condense the information as much as possible.
Ideally, you’ll allow yourself the last few minutes to check over your essay. However this doesn’t always go to plan. If you feel yourself running out of time in the exam and know that you won’t be able to finish, you need to prioritise getting all your points down as detailed bullet points. Then jump to your conclusion and get that written up.
It’s important to understand what writing an essay in exam conditions feels like; practice is crucial. Use past papers to test yourself against the clock so, when it comes to the real thing, you know exactly what part of your essay you should be writing at particular times during your exam.
Got it? Need a quick reminder? No problem. Here's your A* essay-writing crib sheet.
10 steps to writing an amazing essay
1. Read the question...properly! (and make sure you understand it)
2. Do all your research before you write a single word
3. Create an essay plan that defines your argument, paragraph by paragraph
4. Write an introduction that grab your reader's attention
5. Write focused paragraphs; using point, evidence, explanation (PEE)
6. Make sure your conclusion returns to the essay title and your key themes
7. Proofread your essay word by word. Make sure it really answers the question!
8. Save time by working from a textbook you've not studied in class
9. Never waffle! Make sure every paragraph addresses a distinct and important point
10. Don't plagiarise! Be careful to credit every quote you use
Got any tips of your own to share? Add them in the comments!
Your overall structure is simple: an introduction, four or five paragraphs, each containing one main point, and finally a conclusion.
The points need to flow in order. When you’ve written your list of points in your plan, think about what order they make most sense in. You need to be able to make a chain, linking each point to the next. Use connectives to link each paragraph to the previous one. In the exam make a quick note of the order you’ve decided on by putting a number next to each point.
Each paragraph needs its own structure, too. You could use P-E-E:
The point you are making.
Evidence - an example of why you are right (such as a quotation or an observation from a specific point in the text).
Explanation - what the quotation or observation means, why it explains your point, and anything else that is interesting about what is happening in the quotation.
To get the highest marks make a further development, linking your point to further evidence that backs up your point, or ending with a link to the next point.
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