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Top tips for writing your first university essay

28 October 2021

Moving from A-level (or equivalent) standard of writing to the expectations required for a degree might seem a little daunting, so to help, UCL student Saumark Bhaumick lists her top tips for writing effective essays.

Hand typing on a laptop

1. Set the standard 

Understanding your academic discipline in relation to your year is the first step to writing a great university essay. 
A final-year history essay is going to be very different from a biology essay set for a first-year student.

You should identify what the basic requirements of essays in your field are. This includes common essay structure, tone, and referencing.

If you’re not sure on the answers to these, ask your module tutor for essay examples from previous first year students with similar work from relevant sources. 

2. Understand structuring

Now that you’ve identified what the expectation is for your first essay, you can begin to think about your structure. 
To do this, consider what the word limit is. Using essay examples from step 1, allocate a rough percentage for each section in your structure.

For example, you may decide to give 20% of the word count for each main body paragraph, and 10% each to the introduction and conclusion.

3. Plan your essay

At this stage, creating a plan and allocating the appropriate time for each of the stages will really help you. Here’s an example:

  1. Research two points for my main argument (3 days)
  2. Research two points for my counter argument (3 days)
  3. Write the main argument (1 day)
  4. Write up the counter argument (1 day)
  5. Write my introduction and conclusion (1 day)
  6. Referencing and asking someone for feedback (1 day)

4. Research your sources

The research stage will most probably be the most interesting, and the most time-consuming. 
Here you should focus on learning and building up your notes, so that when it comes to writing, you can simply reword what you’ve already found.

To do this, know which websites to use for sources (journals, papers etc.) such as UCL Explore, Google Scholar, JSTOR. You can also do this by asking your Module Tutor for recommended sites and databases.

Make sure to read through sources efficiently and track what parts are relevant to your essay question by making your own notes from these sources.

5. Write from your sources and reference correctly

Now you can use the most relevant parts of your research notes to write the essay.

Make sure you don’t copy your notes (created from the sources) word for word! You don’t want to plagiarise for a number of reasons, and UCL’s Turnitin System will find out. 

Add in the sources for each relevant idea to get references. You can reference properly at the end or as you go – both are fine – but make sure you have a rough way to keep track of which sources you’ve used!

Having identified which style of referencing you should use (e.g. Harvard, Vancouver etc.), you can use websites such as Mybib, Citethisforme or Mendeley to easily create a proper, error-free Bibliography and In-text citations.

Find out more about academic integrity at UCL

6. Get feedback 

If you have enough time for this stage, you’ve done well! It would be wise to send your essay draft to your Module Tutor or Personal Tutor and ask for some feedback. 

Nice job! You have written your first university essay. The good news? Every time you write one it gets easier, and you get better!

Photo by Corinne Kutz on Unsplash