Writing a high scoring essay – guide for academic success
I am often asked by students and colleagues on courses to give a few practical lessons in writing an essay and getting the top marks. As always what we need is a clear strategy and this article goes through the key points. Follow them and you’re sure to get straight A’s!
Obviously: first of all you must read the essay question and be prepared to answer this question and not the one you have revised for or you think it should be.
Strategy : essay writing and preparation
Step 1: Reconnaissance and unpacking the question
- Unpack the question, underline all key words and check their definitions. Even seemingly innocuous terms such as ‘might’ should be assessed – does that mean there is the alternative option of ‘might not’?
- Understand the purpose of word in the sentence and why the questioner used the word in that way,
- Continue to deconstruct the question – what is the counter argument?
- When we see critically examine (or similar constructs) we are being asked to provide an alternative or we being asked to probe for weaknesses and counter argument;
- What assumptions were made by the author when drafting the question?
Researching the assignment
Step 2: Research the subject
- Read broadly at first, make notes of key things that will be important for the essay, but leave a column on the side of your notes so you can note counter arguments or alternative evidence that you find as your read;
- When you are not sure about an article, read the abstract, introduction and conclusion – that is often enough;
- If you see a quote that says it all make a very careful reference of the page number – it’s a devil of a job later finding the right page;
- Ensure your reading includes some very up to date articles ;
- Always focus your reading on peer reviewed journal articles. Use very sparingly the trade press like the HBR or Sloan Management Review they are simply not rigorous enough;
- Prepare a mind-map of all you think is relevant in your answer. Then jot down the potential order of the points. Be firm, cut out things that might not be relevant.
Writing the assignment
Step 3: Focus your writing
- Focus – on the specific question! The most common reason for failure, or getting low marks is answering the wrong question. Answer this assignment question and not everything you know about the subject;
- Summarise readings, don’t describe and them use to answer the question. Be concise and use references to support and assertions made;
- Use evidence and examples, (not personal experience) but again, be concise – one or two sentences and a reference not paragraphs of description;
- Check again that all your material is relevant, helps answer the question, sounds logical and minimises use of adverbs or covering words;
- After each paragraph, ask yourself how this is relevant to the question, and say so explicitly;
- At the end of a section state explicitly how what you have said answers the question. ( I have shown that …)
- Whenever you discuss ideas, concepts, or research – make sure you also analyse these, tell us what the assumptions are, problems with the method, counter-evidence you have found etc., be critical/analytical.;
- Avoid any sweeping generalisations!
Post Writing Review
- Put aside for a week or two if possible for a big assignment and then come back to it. It allows you to see it afresh;
- Read the marking guidelines, look at the example essays, and look also at the marking sheet – they can be very explicit about the need to define terms, develop an argument, take a critical approach etc;
- Get your partner to read it through – it is better to have someone unfamiliar with the subject to check for psychobabble.
Review this pre-Flight checklist before you submit the essay:
- Have I answered this question – in an ongoing manner?
- If it is in two parts, have I answered both of them equally?
- Did I define all key terms?
- Have I really unpacked the question, considered alternative arguments?
- Did I cover the main aspects of the question?
- Have I arranged the material logically?
- Is there a clear introduction saying how I will answer the question, flow between paragraphs, clear conclusion?
- I ensured each main point was supported by examples, evidence, and argument?
- Did I acknowledge all sources and references, including page numbers for direct quotes?
- Have I written plainly and simply, and sorted out clumsy or muddled phrasing?
- Do I present a convincing case which I could justify in a discussion?
- When a question is in two parts I would write the essay around two sections rather than trying to mix the answer. This will lead the marker through the question in a logical order. What we are going to say, say it, what have we said;
- Set down a plan in the introduction (First I am going to this , then I am going to do that, and close by considering …) then stick to the plan;
- Stick to the mainstream theory – and use any course materials. Be wary of bringing in theory from outside the bounds of your course;
- If we are only doing a 3000 word essay and the essay is literature based a rough guide would be: Intro 400, first part 1000, second part 1000 conclusion 600;
- Don’t be too rigid with this guideline but use it to make sure you answer all the elements of the question in enough depth;
- Rough guide for an academic essay at Masters level I like to see about 10 references per 1000 words.
Stick to this outline strategy and you will always be up there in the Stars – good luck
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