As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.
Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.
“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”
'I felt guilty when I got my results': your stories of buying essays | Guardian readers and Sarah Marsh
The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.
“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”
But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.
“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?
“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”
Critique your own arguments
Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.
“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”
Applying to university? It's time to narrow your choices down to two
Fine, use Wikipedia then
The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.
“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”
Focus your reading
Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.
Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.
You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.
“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”
There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.
Essays for sale: the booming online industry in writing academic work to order
Look beyond the reading list
“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”
And finally, the introduction
The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.
“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”
Keep up with the latest on Guardian Students: follow us on Twitter at @GdnStudents – and become a member to receive exclusive benefits and our weekly newsletter.
Assignment:Indicate a person who has made a significant influence on you, describe that influence.
I had to do a college essay for my English 4 Honors class and I did mine on a topic from the University of Miami. We pre edited them in class, but this is kind of the final draft and I want to make sure it is perfect before turning it in. She is a writer by heart, so she is tough. Please tell me what should I correct.
As someone who was not close with their family, I had a difficult time distinguishing a role model in my life. Over the years, as I have watched my peers credit others for their road to success, I worried that I would never have that type of support in my life. It was not until my significant other, who is also my best friend, that I finally found someone to help me on the journey toward becoming a better, and more confident, person. Without him, I don't know if I would have gained the most essentials traits in my life today.
Since my partner came into my life, I have changed in a way that I never thought possible. I find myself learning from him everyday and, even if it is the slightest lesson, it has a great significance to me. For example, he is a very calm and stress free individual. I admire this quality, essentially allowing him to make clear decisions. As time passes, I learn from his ways, and make positive changes to become more relaxed.
Assisting me to relieve undesirable stress in my life is not his only positive influence. I used to be a very shy individual, and I disliked presenting my opinions in front of a group of people. My partner stresses the significance of stating your mind, forewarning that if you miss your chance to talk, you may never get the opportunity again. I have become very fortunate to have broken that habit, and now I enjoy speaking in front of others.
By becoming more relaxed, and obtaining confidence in my own voice, I have been able to concentrate more on priorities in my life. I am determined to pursue my goal of going to college to become an elementary school teacher. My partner constantly states how vital it is to obtain a higher form of education, and to aim for a career of my choice. Since he began studying for his future career, his study habits have been instilled into me. Procrastination used to get the best of me, but I am no longer that individual. With his support, I feel that I can accomplish my future endeavors.
My partner's significance in my life will stay marked in my heart forever, and for that I am eternally grateful. With this new found confidence in myself, my goals finally seem to be within my reach. I feel ready to take on new and exciting challenges that come my way in the near future. By implementing the positive traits I have learned from him, I am confident in my ability to be a successful student, future educator, and person all together.
I know you said that this was more of a final draft, but I think that there a lot of sentences here that are very repetitive. By incorporating a larger variety of word choices, fixing some awkward sentences, and taking out those unnecessary sentences, I believe that your message will be a little more clear. I see the admiration you have for your partner, and I really hear your voice here. If you would like, you should put up a revised draft so we can take another look.
Please note that all of these are suggestions, and are to be taken with a grain of salt. Good luck!
Growing up, I found it very difficult to find an individual worthy enough to look up to . (Why is this? This statement kind of floats by itself. You should follow it with a sort explanation, or cut out the sentence all together). Many times, I have realized that there is always a person who is accredited for the success of another. Through the many people I have encountered in my life, there is only one I can truthfully state who has made an importance influence on myself today. My significant other, who is my best friend as well as my loved one, has greatly impacted my life. Through him, I learned to become a better and more responsible person.
Since my partner came into my life, I have changed in a way that I never thought possible. On different occasions, I find myself learning from him everyday and, even if it is the slightest lesson, it has a great impact (this is a repeat word, you should find a synonym to put here) on me. For example, he is a very calm and stress free individual. This is a quality that I do not naturally posses. As time passes, I learn from his ways, and make positive changes to become a more relaxed(I would take out "calm and stress less" because it is repetitive) individual. I believe that by learning this important trait, I have made significant steps to becoming a better individual.
(again, repetitive)Helping me to relieve unnecessary stress in my lifeisn't the only ("impact is repetitive) influence he has had. (I think the next few sentences get the point across just fine, so this sentence is unnecessary) Since he began studying for his future career, his study habits have been instilled in me. Before my bad habits of procrastination used to get the best of me, but through him I am no longer that individual. My partner constantly states how vital it is to become someone in life by obtaining a higher form of education and pursuing a career of my choice . Subsequently, he is very supportive in my decision to become an elementary school teacher. With his support, I feel that I can accomplish my future goals in life.
In addition to what I have mentioned about, he has (you use "impact" again) helped me a to be a [b]more outspoken and opinionated individual. I used to be a very shy individual and I never even liked presenting in a group of people, but now I enjoy it. My partner stresses the importance of stating what is on your mind in the moment and, if you miss your chance to talk, you may never get that opportunity again. (this is another sentence that just repeats what you already said) I have become very fortunate to have broken that habit. Speaking publicly is not only an essential part of life,but vital for the career choice I am determined to accomplish.
Thanks to my significant other(this is structured in an awkward way) I am a changed person. Through his positive influence I have become the individual I always knew I was set out to be, I just needed a little push. Becoming a responsible, outspoken, and stress free individual is the way to be and take on the world of adult hood (this is an awkward sentence). I am eternally grateful to have learned so much from him, and I hope that I have made an impact on my partner as well. (this is another repeat sentence)
Thank you so much for revising my essay! I have made the revisions necessary and I took up all of your suggestions they were really helpful to me. I re wrote it again, please let me know if I still need anything tweaked. Anyone else who feels they need to tell me what I should change please do, I am open for suggestions (:
Great job on this new draft! When you make a new draft, it sort of becomes a new essay Essays are always a work in progress (I'm writing one right now :-P), and I really admire your ability to go with the flow. I was getting a little lost as I was reading, so I tried something new. I switched a paragraph to make the content flow better, then added suggestions to polish that up a bit. This may be a little overwhelming, so let me explain:
Intro: I was never close to my family, and was worried I would never have support. Then I met my partner. He helps me become better, more confident person.
P2: He helped me to focus on relaxing.
P3: He helped me to speak my mind.
P4: Both of these things help me, along with my new study skills, to attain my goals.
Conclusion: I'm so glad he came into my life. I feel more confident and ready to take on the world.
It makes it more of a story of how he changed your life, then merely a list of examples. It also adds a theme to your essay: that everything he did increased your confidence, allowing you to change your own life. Take a look at this, and let me know what you think...
As someone who was not very close with their family, I had a difficult time identifying a role model in my life. (I just combined the following two sentences).(This is an awkward sentence, it makes a statement, but doesn't follow up. Try the following sentence.)Over the years, as I have watched my peers credit others for their road to success, I worried that I would never have that type of support in my life. It was not until my significant other, who is also my best friend, that I finally found someone to help me on the journey toward becoming a better, and more confident, person.(I just tried to take what you said, and make it flow a little better)
Since my partner came into my life, I have changed in a way that I never thought possible. (since you say "everyday" in the next sentence, you don't need to preface it) I find myself learning from him everyday and, even if it is the slightest lesson, it has a great significance to me. For example, though I do not posses this quality, he is a very calm and stress free individual. As time passes, I learn from his ways, and make positive changes to become more relaxed.(you said "individual" in the last sentence, be careful not to be repetitive). (I took out this sentence because it repeats what you already said. when you conclude a paragraph, you don't always have to write a "conclusion sentence," just end with a sentence that transitions into the next paragraph)
Assisting me to relieve undesirable stress in my life is not his only positive influence . I used to be a very shy individual[b], and I disliked presenting my opinions (i added this because you say your partner talks about stating your mind. this means opinions, not just schools presentations.) in front of a group of people . My partner stresses the importance of stating your mind,cautioning that if you miss your chance to talk, you may never get that opportunity again. I have become very fortunate to have broken that habit, and now I enjoying speaking in front of others. (this sentence will tie in to the next paragraph)
By become more relaxed in the face of stress, and gaining more confidence in my own voice, I have been able to focus more on the priorities in my life.I would love to pursue my goal of going to college tobecome an elementary school teacher. My partner constantly states how vital it is to obtain a higher form of education, and to pursue a career of my choice . Since he began studying for his future career, his study habits have been instilled into me. Procrastination used to get the best of me, but (you already made it clear that this was a result of his influence)I am no longer that individual. (you already say "vital" in the sentence, so "is important" is a repeat)(mentioned earlier) With his support, I feel that I can accomplish my future endeavors ("Goals" is in the second sentence, so i"m adding word variety).
This entire paragraph is repetitive, and the last sentence would no longer be relevant if you change the intro. I like some of the stuff you had in your old conclusion, so draw from that...
Since I have been with my partner, I have become a better version of myself, and finally feel that my greatest potential is withing reach. By complimenting my best qualities, and influencing me to conquer my challenges, he has instilled a confidence in me that I otherwise would not have had. His significance in my life will stay marked in my heart forever, and for that I am eternally grateful.
If you want to try this new structure out, put the new draft up so we can see how it works. Good luck! :)
Hello Kayla! I am so sorry to have answered so late, but I finally was able to come and try out your suggestion. I have made the revisions and it is really looking great to me now, it makes more sense.
Please feel free to suggest anything else that should be revised or changed. (:
Hey Kayla! I took note on the suggestions you have made, now here is the final product.
Should I elaborate more on the conclusion? In a way I think I should, but I have no idea what to put in there. Or should I leave it as is?
Thank you so much for your help!
This looks wonderful!!! I would just add a comma (noted below). Also, I think you're right about the conclusion. I'd suggest you focus it more on how you are grateful for his influence, and will apply it to your time at U of M. I wrote a suggestion below. Feel free to change it in a way that best suites you:
Assisting me to relieve undesirable stress in my life is not his only positive influence. I used to be a very shy individual, (comma) and I disliked presenting my opinions in front of a group of people.
My partner's significance in my life will stay marked in my heart forever, and for that I am eternally grateful. With this new found confidence in myself, my goals finally seem to be within my reach, and I feel ready to take on new and exciting challenges. By applying the positive traits I have learned from him, I am confident in my ability to be successful student at the University of Miami.
Your essay has come really far, and looks really great. After you finish this draft, I would suggest that you do a side-by-side comparison of the first and final drafts. Taking the time to admire your progress, and making sure that you have not lost your voice in the revisions, is a great final step to take. Great job, and let me know how it all turns out! :)
Hello Kayla! Well I think now we have the final product! I looked it over again and again, it sounds just right this time. This essay is due tomorrow, I know with all your help you have given me I am on the track to an A! (:
Please if you can, look this over one last time before I hit the print button. I surely will let you know what is the outcome to this essay as soon as I can. If you don't get the chance tonight, it is alright because I am confident this is just right.
Thank you SO much! (:
Amber, this looks great. Your essay has come really far, and you should feel confident turning it in! I'm excited to hear the result of your hard work. God luck :)
Okay! I will let you know! (: Thank you so much! (:
I have changed in a way that I had never thought...
I am determined to become an inspired elementary school teacher.
Yes, this is pretty great! I'm impressed by all the work in this forum. One important thing, though, Amber: you are making your smileys backwards! Look at Kayla's example:
hear the result of your hard work. Good luck :)
The smiley has to be laying on his right side so that the eyes are on your left! That is the proper way to make a smiley.
If you want to use the "active voice":
Since he began studying for his future career, he has instilled his study habits into me.
Thank you for the input :)
I am glad to let you know I got a B on the essay.
She said it was good but felt like something was missing, although
I felt the essay was great! Thank you for all the help! I look forward to posting more essays
in order to receive some help, which I might do sometime today!
Thanks, Amber! I wonder what she thought was missing. She should be able to express what it was.
Please check out the EssayForum Contributor Page!