Advice for Students: How to Write Your First University Essay

Whether you’re coming to it from A Levels or the world of work, writing your first academic essay is a daunting task. The first thing to do is choose a topic, ideally a few weeks before the deadline so you have time to really think about it and avoid a last-minute panic! Make sure you go for something that interests you, ideally something that you attended the lecture and seminars on. The more you like a subject, the less of a chore the work will feel; you’ll spend more time on it and get a better result.

 It’s absolutely fine to start by reading a basic text book and online encyclopaedia articles to get an idea of the topic, but make sure you use serious, academic texts when in comes to referencing.

 The rule for referencing is if you are stating a fact or the opinion of another person, rather than your own comment or interpretation, you must use a reference. If in doubt, always reference! This doesn’t have to mean hours in the library, online journals are a quick way to find the proof of facts that you need, or search Google Books and it will show you all the texts it has on record with the phrase you’ve searched for in them.

 That said, do start with a few books from the library. Your faculty has chosen, and so implicitly recommended, many of these books; they may well be more reliable sources than you’ll find elsewhere. Take notes as you read with page numbers. You will thank yourself later when many other people are trawling back through what they’ve already read, desperate to find a reference at the eleventh hour. It’s good to have a range of references, try not to rely too heavily on one book. Six to eight is about the minimum number for a 1,000-2,000 word essay.

 Collect your notes once you’ve done your reading and decide what order you’re going to present your argument in. At university, unlike A Level, you must pick a side of the debate and argue it. You can present the alternative argument, but only to refute it with stronger evidence. Your points should follow logically and be summarised in your conclusion.

 Your introduction should say what you’re setting out to do and how you are going to do it: nothing more. For the body of the essay, make sure you start a new paragraph for every new point. Each paragraph should begin with your point, be followed by your evidence (a fact or quotation from an academic) and then finish with an explanation which specifically addresses your title. Point, Evidence, Explain.

 Don’t plagiarise: quote or use your own words and always reference. Have a read through before you submit it: some

Yes, it’s hard for you, but you only have to write one- your tutors have to read hundreds!

institutions award marks for spelling, grammar and punctuation, but whether yours does or not, your tutors will be more pleasantly disposed towards you if your work is well written and easy to read, it might just earn you a few extra marks!

 Before you submit it get someone else to have a read, perhaps a family member, course friend or a professional proofreader: anyone who will give you helpful, honest advice and check for the typos you’ve missed. Click here to see how I can help! 

 Then print it off! At my uni there was always a fight for the printers on deadline day so get in early, use your own or bribe a well-equipped friend! Hand it in (ideally with a bit of time to spare) and treat yourself to a drink, some food and a lie-down!

 Try not to stress about it too much, just read a few books, stick to the word count and get it in on time and you’ll be doing better than a lot of freshers! Relax and enjoy learning about something new: its surprising the things you’ll become an expert on in your uni years! 


Filed under Proofreading, Writing Advice

6 responses to “Advice for Students: How to Write Your First University Essay

  1. Great advice. As a recent graduate (of a US university) I’ve followed all of these rules but particularly the note about writing about what you like. I think naturally papers about topics that interest the writer are filled with more passion and enthusiasm. They’re also more likely to be better researched because of genuine interest!

    When in doubt: cite was my ultimate model during college as well. I never understood why people could accidentally plagiarize. With consistent habit it seems impossible to me.


    • Thank you! It’s interesting that the same rules apply internationally! I did exactly the same through my degree- always choosing something I was really interested in and citing constantly! The fear of plagiarism really struck when one person in my year got caught -for copying from wikipedia- and I never saw him again! I really hope students realise how serious the consequences are, and how easy it is to avoid with proper referencing.


  2. And you can’t start early enough, in my opinion. I teach high school students from the age of 12 up to research and cite for their essays. The older students can be suspended from school if they don’t cite their sources.

    I hate to sound like a cliche, but as a teacher it’s a big disappointment to find out that a student who at first glance seems to have done something really well is actually just copying someone else. But what’s most galling is being taken for an idiot. I’ve researched everything I teach in great depth, so if my students find information online, it’s highly likely I’ve already found it. And that’s just high school. At university level, there’s a good chance that if you found something interesting, relevant and obscure enough to be safe, a friend of your professor wrote it!


    • Brilliant point! Teachers are experts on their subjects and it must feel insulting when students try to cut corners and pass off plagiarised work as their own. Getting into the habit early is a fantastic idea- I wish I’d been taught how to cite at school!


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