Updated: Feb 3
By K. V.
When I first started my university studies, I had to quickly adapt and get used to the new environment, system, and student life. It was a big wake up call for me that I had to get myself together and make a plan.
Many students have certainly encountered this when they first started university. I am sure that throughout the years they have managed to develop various skills to help them through their coursework. One of the most valuable skills students can acquire is time management itself, especially during coursework writing and exam preparation. This is a particularly important skill to have if you need to read a wide range of sources to help you understand a concept, or when you try to find the most relevant evidence which can help you answer your essay question.
I definitely shared the struggle, so worry not! Here I will provide you with a useful guide on how you can plan your essay, from understanding your essay question to searching for evidence and how to structure your essay ideas.
When I was first given my assignment titles, a range of worrying thoughts would cross my mind, all of them associated with the fact that I don’t know anything. I can imagine that this is something which has happened to most of you. The important thing here is to take a deep breath and try to organise your thoughts.
The following questions are things you should be asking yourself to help you understand your assignment better and thus help you in finding appropriate evidence to address it.
What is the purpose of the essay?
This is perhaps one of the most important questions as this helps you understand the reason as to why you should write about it in the first place. Whether it is the concept behind a film, or the mechanisms involved in a certain disease, you should ask yourself: in what way addressing this question will contribute to my overall field of study? You should try to adopt a novel perspective, combining evidence from different sources, and critically thinking about how your angle brings in originality and uniqueness.
Can I break the title into different parts?
When given a title for your assignment, you should carefully consider whether the question itself is asking for different aspects. Lecturers often ask of you to discuss the what, the why, and the how, and brainstorming these three questions is essential when planning your essay.
The what refers to the topic you are discussing which essentially provides the background to your essay. It is very important to spend some time to understand your assignment topic correctly as I, as a marker, have seen on numerous occasions where students have written a well-argued essay which is not focussed on the assignment topic and therefore does not get a high mark. An easy way to approach this is to list the main points you think should be included in your work. This list will become the basis for your essay.
Critical and original thinking are important aspects of any essay as they introduce a student’s own perspective and understanding of a topic. This highlights the importance of considering why in essay planning. This question asks why it is important to study your topic and what gaps there are in the current literature on this topic.
The how is often neglected in students’ essays despite being an integral part of any work. It introduces the interesting question as to how your arguments address your assignment question and it makes up the most important part of your conclusion. Here, again, a critical perspective on the question is introduced, which argues how your arguments contribute to the overall field.
How does this assignment relate to the course material?
Assignments are often based on the material taught in lectures which allows you to have the first piece of evidence for your work easily available. Looking over this material can help you understand the overall relevance of the question and can guide you when looking for further evidence to support your arguments. While examining your lecture material, you can try to note down important points which you can expand on with further reading.
What sources should I look for?
Once you have written down the main points which you think are essential to your essay, you should try exploring different sources of evidence. This can be anything from books and journal articles to webpages and newspaper pieces. It is easy to get lost in the plethora of research available on your topic. However, you should try to focus on several points and develop these further, while also acknowledging that there are other aspects which you have not explored.
What is the marker looking for?
Before delving into the abundance of research on your assignment topic, you should also make sure you know which aspects your marker will be paying particular attention to. Markers specifically focus on whether you:
Show evidence of reading – you should try to approach your question from different perspectives in order to provide a thorough discussion of your topic.
Introduce a clear argument structure – when addressing your essay question, you should try to structure your arguments in an organised and logical manner, introducing and discussing new concepts in separate paragraphs while also consistently linking them to your essay title. Do not overcomplicate your arguments and try not to introduce everything as you cannot discuss it all. You should try to focus on several important points and try to develop these, while also acknowledging that other aspects also exist. It is also important to address the limitations of previous research, as well as of your own work, as this constitutes an essential part of any essay.
Link information from different sources – every time you introduce a source you should explain its relation to your essay topic – simply listing evidence is not enough! It is not sufficient to be descriptive, you should instead try to be analytical when presenting evidence as this introduces your own understanding of the topic.
Demonstrate critical thinking - you should try to think critically about the topic and introduce your own understanding of it rather than merely citing the literature.
How many words should I include in each section of the essay?
This question is highly dependent on the word limit of your essay. However, as a general rule of thumb, introductions should be around 10% of the essay, with the main part of the body making up the largest part of your essay. Hence, your plan should be organised accordingly, with the body of the text focused on your arguments.
Once you have your essay plan, you can start looking into specific evidence and start to write the different sections of your essay. Do not worry if your essay starts deviating from your essay plan once you have started reading the literature, it is completely normal. Nevertheless, you should try to not make major changes to your essay plan because doing so risks swerving away from your essay question, as answering the question is key to any successful assignment.
Edited by A. B.
K. V. did her BSc in Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews, after which she pursued a PhD in Neuroscience at University College London. She is currently in her third year of her PhD and her research is focused on examining the early mechanisms involved in Alzheimer's disease. Karina's interests lie in understanding how in genderal brain connectivity works, as this can halep understand what makes us who we are.