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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In the job market of today, people are no longer asking if they will change jobs, but when. Take the bellwether state of California: The average employee there stays in his or her job 2.5 years. Frequent job changes have become the norm rather than the exception.
If a job change is in your near future, one of the best ways to begin the process is by evaluating your skills. You might think of skills as the raw materials of any given company: When a company has employees with the right skills, it can accomplish or exceed its goals.
Types of Skills
Skills fall into three groups: personal qualities, information-based skills, and transferable skills.
Information-based skills are those skills you've learned on or off the job, the incredibly vast body of techniques, methods and knowledge you've gathered over your lifetime. Speak Spanish? Know the ins and outs of a software program? Have a black belt in jujitsu? All of these are examples of information-based skills.
Personal qualities are individual traits you start with at birth and can develop with practice. Examples of personal qualities are patience, optimism, and imagination.
Transferable skills are based on action: analyze, write, persuade, manage. While your information-based skills and personal qualities are important to a job search, transferable skills are essential. Your transferable skills are what will facilitate a career change.
Transferable Skills: Your Ticket to a New Job
Imagine you're currently working as a business consultant for a large firm. Through education, practice, and your razor sharp mind, you've developed the ability to analyze, quantify, and communicate, all strong transferable skills.
You decide you want to change roles and that you want a job at an Internet startup in business development. To go from the Fortune 500 to the fun, frenzied environment of an Internet startup, the key will be repackaging your skills and accomplishments to show that you can do the job.
First, you'll want to get a job description. Large, established companies provide these on their websites-no problem.
At startups, however, job descriptions move like traffic on the German autobahn. And it may not even be written down; only the VP knows what it is.
Identifying Skills You'll Need for a Job
Do not despair! If a job description is not written, ask your prospective employer for a list of the most important skills the company requires for the job.
Once you have a list of the skills necessary to do the work, you'll want to match your skills and experiences to those that the company needs. What skills does the company want? These will likely be active verbs. In the case of a business development job, it's likely they'll want somebody who can communicate, negotiate, manage relationships, lead teams, and strategize.
After identifying the skills necessary to do the job, work backward from the description to your skills and experiences. Which skills in the description seem transferable? Circle them.
How do these skills match with your skills? Your most recent resume as well as your past and present job descriptions (you may have to visualize these) should give you some clues about your most relevant, transferable skills.
Assessing Your Transferable Skills
If you're having trouble assessing the skills you have, then create a simple analysis chart. Take a piece of paper and draw a vertical line down the page, dividing the paper in two.
On the left side, make a bulleted list of the skills that your job of choice requires. On the right, jot down your own skills in one or two sentences that most directly match each of the skills required on the left.
Using a business development job listing as our example, you might see that it asks for experience in "negotiating." Write down "negotiating" on the left side of your analysis chart. On the right side, write down all your negotiating experience in bulleted form.
You can also create a third category titled "skills to be acquired." These are skills you think you need to develop or learn in order to get the job. These skills can be gathered through classes, seminars, internships, and education.
To reacquaint yourself (with yourself), you can also try a quick skills autobiography. Think about five life accomplishments that you are very proud of. Did your last client rave about your work? Play a role in student council? Were you the CEO of a lemonade stand as a kid? Write a short story about it!
Then take a look at the story. Circle all the verbs you used. The action verbs you've circled are probably transferable skills. By choosing the skills you like to use from this list, you'll help yourself choose work that you both excel at and enjoy doing.
Knowing Your Skills Helps You Present Them
Having a good sense of your transferable skills makes the whole process of packaging and presenting your skills to a prospective employer much easier. Presentation can take the form of a resume, cover letter, or job interview.
If you want to go deeper into the skills assessment process, there are other tools available. Career counselors use skills inventories and other skill-gathering exercises to help you figure out not just the skills you have, but the ones you most want to use in your next job.
You can find a local career counselor in your yellow pages or check with your alumni association to see what services are available for graduates.
Skills are powerful allies in helping you make a successful job transition. Understanding your transferable skills and matching them with a job you want will give you the ability to bridge the gap between the work you do today and the jobs of tomorrow.