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Let’s be honest: university essays can be overwhelming, and the hardest part is often getting started. There’s nothing worse than a blank page, and we’re probably all familiar with the lingering sense of doubt that comes with a new essay-based assignment.

This is my strategy for initially getting over that hurdle, and, eventually, producing something that makes you proud!


Criteria are key

Uni essays can vary quite a lot, even within the same faculty or school. You might find that criteria in one unit are really quite different to criteria in another. That’s why it’s so important to clearly understand the expectations of the essay.

Before you even open the Word document, find the assessment instructions and marking rubric (if available). Read through what you’re actually being assessed on, and where you’ll be getting your marks. You might find that there’s a big section of the assessment you’d previously missed, or it might change your strategy a little in terms of what you’ll be focusing on.

Once you’re clear, copy and paste those instructions into your draft Word document - just to have them handy when you’re actually crafting the essay. If you’re anything like me, you’ll refer back to the criteria often, just to make sure you’re on track.

"If you're anything like me, you'll refer back to the criteria often, just to make sure you're on track."


Settle on your topic

You might have already been assigned your essay topic - and if that’s the case, you can jump ahead to the next section - but it might also be the case that the assignment is a little more self-directed.

If you need to settle on a topic yourself, that can be really hard, because there are so many potential options or avenues to take. In these situations, I like to list a few ideas, maybe mull on it for a little bit, do some research if needed, poke around potential resources, and then go all in on just one topic. I find that in nine times out of ten, my gut instinct will be taking me in one direction - and that’s usually the way to go.

Once you’ve made your choice, try to forget the other options. You can always change your mind, of course, but second-guessing yourself constantly probably won’t be that helpful.


Think about general structure

Good essays typically have structure. This structure will vary based on the faculty and requirements, but you will probably be able to make a general breakdown of what you think the essay might look like. For example, you might have something like:


Topic: we should do everything we can to save endangered languages.

  • [Introduction to topic]

  • [Contention 1 - language directly intertwines with identity]

  • [Contention 2 - languages are imbued with important knowledge]

  • [Contention 3 - language variation is beneficial for empathy]

  • [Contention 4 - counter-argument and response]

  • [Conclusion]


This is a very basic structure, but you can use it to start fleshing out your arguments and ideas.


I would make each of these sections a sub-heading on my Word document, then fill each section with things like:

  • Notes to myself about things to include.

  • Specific quotes (with citations to insert later if used).

  • Links to relevant resources.

  • Notes from lectures or readings from relevant areas in the semester.


Using this method tends to work well for me because there is a low-stakes entry point. I’m not asking myself to jump straight in and write the essay from introduction to conclusion; I’m giving myself sufficient time to plan, build resources and arguments, and work out generally what I’m going to write before I actually do write it specifically.

"Using this methods tends to work well for me because there is a low-stakes entry point."

Of course, that means you need to give yourself enough time to complete the assignment. If you’re starting the day before it’s due, you’ll probably feel like you’ll have bigger priorities than conceptual planning, and your work will probably suffer as a result.


Building a section at a time

Now that you have broken the essay down into clear sections, you can start to focus on a section at a time. If you’re finding the overall assessment difficult or overwhelming, this can be really beneficial, because it limits your focus of attention to just one small sub-section.

Use the resources you’ve collected for that section to start putting some sentences together. Then connect some of those sentences, and you have a paragraph.

This might sound like an inorganic way of writing, but you’ll be able to edit your work later. The main priority at this point is to get your ideas down on paper, section by section. When you’ve finished the first section, work on the next one. Then the next one. Then the next one.

Before you know it, your work will start to come together a little bit, and you can move to the editing process.


It’s time to edit

Unless time constraints were unbelievably tight, I would never, ever submit a first draft. Even if it feels like things have come together well, it’s important to realise that it’s just a draft for a reason - you will be able to improve it.

"Unless time constraints were unbelievably tight, I would never, ever submit a first draft."

Read the whole thing through - aloud - from start to finish. In my experience, reading aloud is important because it helps identify things that you might otherwise miss, particularly if you’ve been looking at the document for a long time (we tend to scan over words and errors sometimes).

Chances are that you will not only notice some errors or typos, but also be able to identify sections that you can re-work, bulk up with more evidence, or make more concise. This process will also give you the opportunity to link together the different sections you’ve been working on - maybe you realise that paragraph three would actually work better as paragraph two, for instance.

The editing process is reiterative. That is, it occurs repeatedly, and isn’t just a “one and done” thing. The more times you read through your work aloud, re-work parts, and make small changes, the more polished your final product will be. And giving yourself time to do that is really important.

As I hope you can see, once you make a start on an essay, bits and pieces tend to fall together to create sections, then a whole, and then a finished product. Making that initial jump from a blank page can be really difficult and overwhelming, but being familiar with marking criteria and then breaking the essay into sections can help develop structure.

If you’re keen for more uni strategy and tips, check out the backlog of articles on Uni Notes - and good luck with your essays!