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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Katie Miller is a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., who just finished the long process of applying to college and is awaiting her decisions. She was captain of the tennis team, leader of the spoken word poetry club, edited her school literary magazine, likes listening to music and writing — anything but college application essays. Here’s her take on an increasingly stressful rite of passage for college-bound seniors. — Susan Svrluga
[Read a few samples of her essays here.]
Want to share your college essays? Send your favorites to email@example.com.
By Katie Miller
A few days ago, I hit “send” on the last college application I plan to submit. For me, the moment came with an enormous sigh of relief.
Of course I’m anxious to learn where I might go to school next year — but for now, I’m mostly glad that I don’t have to write another essay about myself anytime soon.
By the time I was done, I had written 16 essays, on everything from what sort of research project I’d design if I were given a $4,000 budget, to a description of one of my quirks.
I guess I learned a little bit about myself along the way, and maybe even learned a little bit about how to write something meaningful in 250 or 500 words.
But the process also was grueling, more difficult than taking the SATs twice, more difficult than taking AP exams, more difficult than building my resume over the past few years.
It wasn’t just the volume of work. It was the pressure, the vagueness of some of the questions, the haunting sense that every other applicant had done something amazing.
[Everyone kept telling you to start your essays early. Oops. Save yourself, in four easy steps.]
Every school wanted at least two essays. The most rigorous university I applied to wanted three essays plus five short responses to a series of questions. And even the short questions were difficult: “What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?” (I wrote about the surge in gun violence and the inability of our democratic institutions to address it.)
Essay requirements were all over the place. Some asked for personal reflection, while others expected insights on society and current events.
Personal essays were hard for me in part because I don’t like writing about myself. After writing essays with textual evidence for school for so long, turning the lens back on me seemed weird. How do you strike a balance of not coming across as obnoxious or arrogant while boasting of your accomplishments?
But I also stressed about the stakes and the sensation of never quite being sure who would be reading what I wrote: A middle-aged admissions official? Another student? A whole committee sitting around a table with stacks of papers being sorted into piles of those who would make it and those who wouldn’t?
While writing I tried to fight off a voice inside my head: This could make or break your application. Other applicants are more qualified. They traveled to Africa to build homes for children. What did you do?
I struggled the most with the questions that were open-ended.
This one was brutal: “What matters to you and why?”
I eventually decided to write this one on marriage equality and my experience in San Francisco during pride week. I had always valued equality, and had served as the vice president of my school’s Gay Straight Alliance club for a few years. When I decided on this topic, the memory that stood out for me was the day the Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality. I was taking a flash fiction writing course at Berkeley, so every morning I rode the BART under the bay. Something special happened on the train ride that day. Soon after a banner flashed across the top of my screen saying “Marriage Equality Legalized,” I spotted a man wearing a magenta flannel, ripped jeans, and leather boots. Every few seconds he shuffled his feet and tapped his fingers. When he saw from across the car that I too was singing along to my music, he smiled and nodded. I wrote about how this rare moment of connection was when I truly understood what the morning’s news meant.
In the essays with broader topics, it was really difficult to write about an impersonal event and still give insight into my character.
[To thine self be true, but not overly so]
One of the schools on my list prompted me to write about which historical moment or event I wish I could have witnessed. My choice was crucial because it was really supposed to resonate with me personally and say something about who I am. I had to be careful not to choose an event that was too famous, because I wanted to stand out and have my response remembered.
I decided to write about the exploration of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon. I wrote: “When Carter found King Tut’s tomb in 1922 it was virtually undisturbed, unlike other chambers that had been plundered. It was as if he had entered a portal to an ancient era.”
As the process wore on, I started looking for opportunities to recycle material from one essay to another.
Fortunately, a few schools used prompts that were similar enough that I could repurpose something I’d already written with minimal changes. Since all of my schools required one main essay, I could recycle the personal statement essay I had already written about my passion for poetry.
Going into all this, I didn’t know how much impact the essays can have on the final decision.
Then I heard that qualifications like straight A’s are so mainstream in many schools’ application pools that the standards for acceptance are rising without much awareness. Also, that admission boards consider essays the only real glimpse of an applicant’s true character, free of test scores and grades. I felt pressure to submit a video or fancy multimedia supplement – or at the very least, to nail the essay.
[Videos replace test scores and essays for some applicants]
I learned that admission boards are interested in essays with vivid imagery and clear personality, something that will put them on the edge of their seat after hours of reading.
No pressure, right?
The hardest question, by far, asked me to reflect on an idea or experience that has influenced my intellectual development.
I had never really considered this before.
I tried to think of a really clever example.
Eventually, I decided to write about meeting President Obama. My aunt was a campaign manager and she had invited my family to attend a speech on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. Obama was someone I had only seen on magazine covers and television. He was about to address an audience of 35,000 people and go on to become the nation’s first black president. But in that moment he was also a person, and the distance between us seemed not so vast. As a fourth grader, I wasn’t so moved by the speech itself, which was hard to comprehend. However, I wrote in the essay, “I realized that history is made by people, and that up close they can be both extraordinary and ordinary. It was a liberating concept, one that changed my perspective on figures of politics, science and literature that seemed so distant in textbooks.” The encounter also affected my view of myself. I learned that success is based not only on our ability and determination, but whether we can see ourselves someday in a VIP room.
My favorite question, and the easiest to write, was the one that asked me to write a letter to my future roommate.
When I wrote the other essays, I spent days agonizing over them. With this one, the words came naturally. I liked writing it and I had a clear sense of what to say.
The question itself gave me an audience easier to relate to than some lofty dean of admissions. I got to use a lighter tone, be more creative, add some humor.
I organized this essay based on some of my quirks and flaws. “I enjoy producing my own music. My favorite singing spot is the shower and if anyone complains about my voice, I blame my tone-deafness on my vocal nodules.” I wrote about my squeamishness, and my tendency to cry over TV finales.
This essay sounded the most like me, I thought, and gave the most honest portrayal of me. My friends and family liked it the most, too.
I sent it off to my top-choice school.
About a month ago, I got an email back with the decision.
“Katie, I am very sorry to let you know that we are unable to offer you admission … ”
It was the identical computerized response that thousands of others got at the same time.
I was bummed, texted some friends, and went to sleep. But honestly, the school was a reach for me so I wasn’t too surprised.
What I was really upset over was that they had denied not only me, but my best essay, the one that showed who I am.
In the months ahead, I can only hope I’ll be rewarded with my first acceptance letter in the mail, when I’ll know that all the hard work on my other essays helped win over some intimidating admissions committee.
I still have the letter to my future roommate. When I know who she is, I can send it. I hope she’ll laugh, and we’ll both know that this awful process is finally over, and the real challenges and joy of college can begin.