University skills: How to write a great university essay

31st October, 2023

When students are given their first university essay to write, it’s common to feel a little stressed or even overwhelmed. Our advice – don’t panic! With some time and proper planning, you’ll find you have many of the right skills already to tackle this challenge with ease.

Take a look at our top tips for writing a great university level essay:

1. Plan your time carefully

The last thing you want when writing your first university essay is to end up in a rush! Last-minute submissions are when silly mistakes in referencing, layout and spelling are most often made.

Instead, from the moment you’re given the essay assignment, plan ahead. How long do you need to research the topic vs write the essay? Remember that getting to grip with referencing or your university’s style guide might make this first essay process a little longer than usual.

Giving yourself and sticking to a personal deadline of a day or two before the real one can be a useful way to make sure you get the essay finished on time. Sometimes it’s also helpful to revisit the essay the day after you’ve written it; you may find you’ve developed an idea further or that an argument no longer makes sense when you’re not in the zone!

2. Read and analyse the question

While this may seem obvious, it’s important! Read the question carefully and think about what it’s asking of you. Are you expected to compare two ideas, events or theories and draw a conclusion? Does the question want you to use evidence to determine how valid a statement is?

Also think about definitions within the question. For example, if a History essay asks how true it is that a certain monarch was ‘useless’ in the public arena, how do you define this word yourself and in the context of the historiography?

You might also want to challenge the question – is there a more useful way to approach the topic or evidence?

3. Plan as much as you can

Good planning is your friend! Make notes as you read so you can easily access summaries of the arguments you’ve read in your secondary literature. Making a note of the page numbers where important quotes or arguments you’d like to reference are located will make your life a lot easier when you’re referencing!

When you’ve done your reading, try different ways to plan out your essay. Some people find mind maps helpful, while others prefer to talk the topic through with a friend. Think about your argument and how the evidence supports each point you’d like to make.

4. Read widely

One of the biggest jumps between school essays and university essays is the volume of reading suggested.

It’s important to choose what you’d like to read carefully. Many lecturers or academics will give you a recommended reading list, sometimes with essential reading starred, which is a great place to start. It’s also helpful to try and read as widely as you can – make sure you’re reading a wide range of arguments and not just the ones that support your conclusion!

Looking at books’ introductions and conclusions can be a good way of quickly understanding their argument before you go into detail. Google Scholar can also be useful to find literature outside of your reading list.

5. Create a clear structure

Make reading your essay as easy as possible for the person marking it. Is your argument clear, well presented and compelling?

One of the easiest way to approach essay structure is to ‘tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them’. I.e., use your introduction to address the question and define anything that needs defining, the main body to analyse the evidence and make your argument, and your conclusion to sum it up.

Don’t forget to link your paragraphs. Often essays can read like a list of for and against arguments without clear links between ideas. Reading your essay back and good planning beforehand can help you to structure your points so that they flow in a natural way.

6. Engage with the arguments

While putting forward others’ academic arguments in a clear way that also makes good use of the evidence will often get you a decent grade, truly excellent essays engage with the scholarship and go beyond what students have read.

What are the limitations of the theories or scholarship you’ve read? What might be a more useful way of approaching the topic? How might approaching a topic from a completely new angle change how we answer this question?

7. Make sure to reference properly

At this level, it’s important to cite your work properly. Check your University’s style guide or course guidelines to understand which referencing style you are expected to use, and use our handy guide to referencing to get started.

8. Proof and edit

Don’t forget to proof your essay after you’re finished – ideally the next day if time allows. Some students prefer to print their essays off to proof them, while others like using text-to-speech software or reading them out loud.

This is an important stage of the process; it’s when you’ll notice spelling or grammatical errors, missed or incorrect citations and most importantly of all, when you’ll get an understanding of how your essay flows overall.

Make use of the fact you’re writing on a laptop – go back and edit anything that doesn’t make sense, and if necessary, restructure paragraphs to optimise how the essay flows.

Most of all, enjoy the process! This is a chance for you to show what you can do!

As you settle into university, don’t forget that we’re here to help. Each year we support lots of university students to maximise their potential, supporting them to develop core study skills, prepare for exams and feel confident as they take on this new challenge! Get in touch to discuss your university journey.