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.”
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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.”
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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.
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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.”
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The Reach Cambridge scholarship essay competition is designed for academically excellent high school students aged between 15 and 17 who would otherwise not be able to attend our summer programs. Please note that this scholarship competition is not for application to the University of Cambridge.
Please note, the Scholarship Scheme for 2018 is now closed. Successful applicants will be contacted on or after the 31st December 2017.
What are the prizes?
3 week scholarship prize (awarded to a maximum of 2 students): 100% of the program fee for our 3 week Program 1 in 2018.
2 week scholarship prize (awarded to a maximum of 3 students): 100% of the program fee for either our two week Program 2 or our two week Program 3 in 2018.
Please note that both prizes include all those items ordinarily covered by the program fee. They do not include the cost of flights, or other items which are not ordinarily covered by the program fee. We may also award a prize for our Spring Program which will be decided at the discretion of the Scholarship Team. See terms & conditions for further details.
What is the essay question and what else will be taken into consideration?
The essay question for this year’s scholarship competition is:
“In an age of quick and easy global communication, what is the value of face-to-face interaction and learning with students from around the world?”
To craft a good essay requires careful argumentation, clear structure and personality. It is these characteristics that we will look for in judging applicants’ essays. We will also take into account the letter of recommendation supplied by your school.
How do I enter?
In order to enter the competition, follow these simple steps to complete a full application by the 1st of December 2017:
- Follow the link below to set up a Reach Cambridge scholarship account (do not use the “apply” button at the top right of our website – you cannot set up a scholarship account through that link)
- From your main account page, select the “Scholarship” tab on the left
- Copy your essay into the box provided (it should be no longer than 1000 words). Answer all other questions on the page.
- A letter of recommendation from a member of staff at your school must be uploaded using the form in the Scholarship Tab of your account page. This should be written on official headed school paper, and should outline why you are a good candidate for the scholarship: it should tell us what makes you academically excellent, and it must give us some indication of your financial circumstances. For example, if you attend a fee-paying school, the letter must specify whether you attend the school on a scholarship, or whether you are full or part fee-paying. It must include contact details for the member of staff so that we can contact them for further information if necessary. This is the only part of the application that should come from your school – the rest needs to be completed by you.
- You must also complete the School Transcript, Declaration Form, Parent Info, and School Info sections of your account. Please note that if you do not complete all these sections of your application, we will not consider your application. They should all be “ticked” on your account page before the deadline.
- Shortlisted candidates will be notified by 31st December 2017, and will be invited for an online interview.
Please ensure you read the scholarship essay competition terms and conditions before applying. By submitting an application you are agreeing to these terms and conditions.
THE SCHOLARSHIP SCHEME FOR 2018 IS NOW CLOSED
Scholarship Essay Competition Terms & Conditions:
- Applicants must be between the ages of 15 and 17 on 1st July 2018, and currently studying at high school.
- The students must complete the essays independently – they must be original non-plagiarised work.
- The closing date for scholarship applications is 1stof December 2017 at 23:00 GMT. We will only consider full applications submitted by this date. A full application is one that includes an answer to the essay question and all other questions on the “Scholarship” tab, the letter of recommendation from your school, and also has the following sections completed on the account page: School Transcript, Declaration Form, Parent Info, School Info.
- Applicants from fee-paying schools will only be considered if their letter of recommendation confirms that they attend the school on a scholarship.
- The prizes provide without charge all those items ordinarily covered by the program fee, including accommodation, all excursions, lectures, theatre trips, workshops and tuition, and half board meals.
- These prizes do not include those items which are not ordinarily covered by the program fee: flights; transportation to/from Cambridge at the start and end of the program if travel is undertaken independently; third meal of the day (half board is provided); optional enhancements shown to have an extra fee; snacks, drinks and meals purchased away from the program; pocket money and souvenirs; visa costs (if required); books for credit courses and classes; laundry (aside from bed linen); travel insurance, medical insurance and any medical or dental fees.
- It is not guaranteed that Reach Cambridge will offer scholarship prizes to any of the candidates. Reach Cambridge reserves the right to not award scholarship prizes.
- Shortlisted candidates will be notified by 31st December 2017.
- Shortlisted candidates will be invited for an online interview in early January 2018, and will be notified of the outcome by the end of January.
- The author of the students’ recommendation letter may be contacted for further information.
- The final decision on prize winners rests with Reach Cambridge Ltd. By submitting an application for the scholarship the student agrees to respect and honour the decision made by Reach Cambridge.
- By submitting an application to the scholarship competition, the student agrees to assist with promoting the scholarship scheme if awarded a prize.
- The successful applicant also agrees to their name being published on the Reach Cambridge website, as well as on its social media pages.
- The student must have permission from a parent or guardian to accept the scholarship. Scholarship prizes are conditional on parental approval – a parent/guardian will be required to sign a declaration that they accept the Reach Cambridge terms and conditions and rules and regulations.
- By applying for this scholarship, the student agrees to abide by the Reach Cambridge Terms and Conditionsand Rules and Regulations, available on our website, as well as these scholarship terms and conditions
- Students do not have to pay a deposit before applying for the scholarship.
- Please note that all terms and conditions for Reach Cambridge courses, including the cancellation policy, also apply for scholarship applicants.