Essay Guide Only Student Survival Writing

Dear student,

I have just read your essay, and I must apologise – I have absolutely no idea what it said.

When you hold this essay in your hands in a few weeks’ time, I know that you will look immediately at the mark I’ve written at the top of the first page. You will make assumptions about yourself, your work – perhaps even your worth – based on this number. I want to tell you not to worry about it.

How to survive marking dissertations

When I was a student, I assumed – as you probably do now – that my work was meticulously checked and appraised, with the due consideration it deserved, by erudite scholars who perhaps wore tweed.

I wonder now if it was actually marked by someone like me: a semi-employed thirtysomething on a zero-hours contract, sitting at home in pyjamas, staring at a hopeless pile of marking, as hopes of making it to the shops for a pint of milk today fade.

Your essay is one of 20 or so I’ve tackled in one sitting this afternoon. They are beginning to blur into one; a profusion of themes and things “to be noted” and endless variations on the phrase “It is interesting that...”.

I’m reading something you wrote on page two and I’m wondering if I just read an explanation of this concept on page one, or if that was in someone else’s essay. I have to go back a page, eyes swimming, and check.

Your essay does not stand alone, but becomes amalgamated with the others I’ve read so far today, all talking about the same things, with varying degrees of clarity. Your words are diluted by the ones that came before, they are lost on me even before I begin.

It should not be like this. In an ideal world, I would spend my morning carefully marking three essays at most, giving them the thought they deserve. I would spend the early afternoon wandering around a meadow picking flowers – something, anything, to clear my head so I can approach the next batch with a fresh outlook and enthusiasm.

Academic workload: a model approach

But I do not have that kind of time. I have academic work of my own; I have a job interview to prepare for; at various points of the year, I have additional employment to help tide me over. (And I’m only a part-time lecturer, I’m aware that my colleagues in full-time jobs have a lot more of this to do.)

I have cleared this bit of space in my schedule to read your essays, and I have come at them genuinely excited to see what you have found out this term, and to tell you how you can improve. I try to be thorough and write actual comments on your essay, even though I’m aware that I could probably get away with a few ticks, question marks and a cryptic “needs improvement”.

I’ve been at it all day and it is 6.20 pm. There are 11 unmarked essays. I could carry on, but I can’t make sense of anything you say any more. I have to force myself to understand anything other than the clearest, nicest writing; the kind of writing that takes me by the hand and shows me round all your ideas. (Dear student, please note: I am not so exhausted that I can’t spot nice writing. Do us both a favour and spend time on your essay. Make it good. Edit, polish, relieve my boredom and let me award you a first.)

I know that I should go back and reread a few essays to compare the marks I’ve given, but there isn’t time. I would like to look up the references you cite, to tell you if there are other gems in those books you may have missed, or suggest other interpretations, but there’s no chance. I also have a life – washing to do, family to spend time with, that sort of thing.

In this letter (which I’ve written with an aching hand) I ask three things of you:

  • Work hard on your essays. Help people like me. It’ll open your mind, and it’ll make me happy. And I really, really want to give you a first.
  • Don’t think that if you just waffle on for three pages to bring your essay up to the required word count, I won’t notice. I will.
  • Do not get too upset – or complacent – because of whatever mark you’ve got. Don’t take it too personally. I’ve tried my best to be consistent and fair, and other lecturers will moderate my marking, but really, by a certain stage, I’m just pulling numbers out of the air. (55? 58? I don’t know)

Teaching at a university means constant pressure - for about £5 an hour

Your essay does not stand alone; it’s either going to impress me or sap my energy, and if it does the latter, it affects how I read the ones which come afterwards. Too many awful essays and I can’t concentrate anymore.

The books on your reading list will tell you everything about the subject that you need to know; read them. There are also books in the library with titles like How to Write an Essay; make use of them. If you don’t understand something, come along to my office hour. I’ve gone on about it all term, and you know where that is.

All the best,

Your lecturer

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If you are an international student coming to study in England for the first time, the British university system may be a shocker. This guide will help you understand the workings of the system, what is expected from you and how to avoid going under in your first semester!

Practical Projects

Coming from Poland, I had a totally different university experience during my undergraduate course than anything I experienced here. Back in my home country, studying at university level is all about listen, read, cram, repeat. But in England it’s a different ball game altogether. Here, you are actually encouraged to do a lot more thinking and be a lot more creative. This might be daunting at first, but once you get that rusty brain going, it’s so much fun! During my International Marketing Master’s degree at Newcastle University we had three practical group projects. We were working on cases provided by real companies (not to name names but Greggs was one of them) and out job was to come up with marketing plans for them. We got to be designers, CEOs, market researchers and creative geniuses all at once. This practice prepared me so well for my working life, as I had something to showcase during job interviews, rather than only book knowledge.

Essay Writing

I hadn’t really written many essays during my Bachelor’s degree in Poland, it was mainly exams. In England, however, you’d be most likely expected to write a few during your Master’s. I have two words for you to sum up what it’s all about: CRITICAL THINKING. This concept that was alien to me at first, but quickly became the core of my studies. Basically, the gist of it is that you cannot just take anything that you read at face value. On the contrary – you have to investigate, analyse, find opposing points and think! When writing any essay and citing what some smart people said, you also have to find some other smart people who said something opposite and draw your own conclusions. It takes time to get used to this way of writing, but again, that rusty brain of yours is working and it’s making you smarter.


The biggest surprise about exams for me: some of them are open book! Meaning that you can actually bring your study books with you to the exam. Then exams should be super easy to pass, shouldn’t they? That’s what I thought, but sadly the answer is no. As with essay writing, the emphasis here is also on critical thinking. Even if you have all your books with you, you still need to contrast different points of view and figure out what the answer is. Also, sometimes there are no right or wrong answers, but your mark depends on you logically proving the point you were making. Hear that brain expanding?


Did I just say the biggest shock factor was open book exams? Well, actually an even bigger shock was when the grades from these exams came back. Not to brag or anything, but I was a good student in Poland and was used to getting good marks. When my first mark came back as 65/100 I was heartbroken. Only 65? Did I even pass?… SURPRISE! ‘You passed with a really good grade’– everyone was telling me. Turns out that although the grading system is out of 100 percent, that mark is reserved only for gods. Nobody EVER gets even near it. Just as a point of reference – if you get something near 80 your work is so good that it could be published! To clarify: 50 is a passing grade (meaning ok), 60 is merit (meaning good) and 70 is distinction (meaning excellent). I wish someone had told me that before I got my first grade back!



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