No matter what you study at university, you will be required to write essays during your time there. Although some people may find writing easier, anyone is capable of penning a brilliant essay. It is a skill like any other and just takes preparation and practice.

In the real world, essay-writing is also an important skill – if you ever need to write a cover letter, professional reports or complete a lengthy application or other such project, some of the skills you learnt writing essays will come in useful time and time again.

We have compiled a few general rules to follow when putting an essay together that should always help steer you in the right direction. Some are stylistic while others are technical, but all are important to bear in mind.

Do the reading

With most subjects, there will be a main textbook that is on your course’s required reading list. It should go without saying that before writing an essay, you should read this or, at the very least, the relevant chapters or sections. However, most courses ask that students read around their subjects. Critical essays or other books from reputable sources (no Wikipedia) provide much-needed alternative opinions and viewpoints that help to broaden your knowledge and inform your own judgements.

Reading around your subject is not only advisable for these reasons; once you try writing an essay, you’ll often find it hard to reach the word count using just one text. There is obviously a limit to how much you can read for each essay, so try and find books you like and that interest you, so reading them doesn’t feel like a chore. Learning should be enjoyable as well as enlightening.

Follow a structure

There are several different ways to structure an essay. You can find and use the way that makes the most sense to you – the important thing is to have a structure. One simple way is to start with an introduction. In this, you set out what the essay is about. An essay isn’t a mystery novel – you don’t need to keep your reader in suspense about what is going to happen. Clearly show you understand the question, that you have considered various points of view supported by relevant texts and then the conclusion that they have led you to.

Next, put forward a thesis. This is your point of view on the subject and should be backed up by other sources. You can use quotations to support your stance and make sure you continue to refer back to the question to drive home your position. You can then start on your antithesis, which is the other side of your argument. This shows you have considered an opposing perspective thoroughly while also making sure your thesis the stronger with a more convincing viewpoint.

You can end with your conclusion, which brings together both sides of the debate and is where you explain your final judgements on the topic. Even if the subject of the essay isn’t phrased as an argument, you can usually find two sides to create a debate. This gives your essay intention and purpose.

Remember to ACE it

The ACE method, which stands for Answer, Cite and Explain, is also to do with structuring your writing. It is a useful technique for making sure your paragraphs are to the point and well-supported. Simply put, you should start by answering the original question or at least a part of it. You should then present evidence to support your answer, either from the original text or a trusted source. Finally, explain how your evidence supports the answer and supply reasons your answer is correct.

At the Ulster University London and Birmingham campuses, ACE also means Academic Community of Excellence. The ACE Team are dedicated academic support tutors who will be happy to go through your essay with you, before, during or after – offering their expertise to help you succeed. Make sure you drop-in or book an appointment with a tutor should you be struggling with your essay.

Don’t fail on a technicality

University essays are formal. There will be a process for submitting them and there are rules that should always be followed.

  1. Do not plagiarise your work. Copying either from the internet or from a book and passing it off as your own work, even accidentally, is not acceptable. These days, your essays will go through software that can identify plagiarism and your essay will likely be inadmissible.
  2. Make sure your quotes are clearly attributed in your footnotes and that these are in the style that is used by your university.
  3. Include a bibliography. This is the list of books, essays or online resources you have used to write your essay. You will lose marks for not including one of these and showing all the sources you have used, which is a shame when you’ve worked hard to produce a great essay.

Check and check again

Reading through an essay once you’ve finished writing it can feel like the very last thing you want to do. You want to be done, press submit and not think about it again. However, this is how errors get overlooked. If you can, print out a copy of your essay and read through it with a pen to make any corrections. Browser extensions like Grammarly can help as you write but you’ll be shocked at how many mistakes you find that it doesn’t pick up on. Your spelling and grammar are the first impression your essay gives. Make sure that impression is a good one.

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