Coming in to LSE I was a high flying A-level student regularly achieving 80-100% on nearly all my essays. When I’d gotten my first two essays back and saw 62% and 58%, to say I was shocked would be an understatement. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation please do not worry! University and A Level essays are simply completely different in how they are marked and the approach needed in order to get the highest grade. So before that impostor syndrome kicks in, here’s three tips that have helped me go from a 2:2 to a 1st in my essays!
1) Writing to Argue vs Writing for a Criteria
One of the biggest differences between university and A-level essays is writing to form a strong, convincing argument compared to writing to fulfil an examiners criteria. Don’t get me wrong, university’s also mark according to a criteria, however in terms of essays these are much more fluid and abstract than anything you may have seen at A level. When I was writing essays for my A-level in Politics, I remember how formulaic my essays seemed. Making sure to include specific terms and phrases to hit the examiners criteria and offering a balanced viewpoint were all key to achieving the highest marks.
At university, your essay is primarily marked on the sophistication and strength of your argument. This doesn’t mean you don’t acknowledge other viewpoints and be fair to the criticisms of your argument, however the focus is on creating a genuinely convincing response that can convince the teacher or professor marking your paper. Understanding this premise will make writing your essay so much easier and it is something very different from the A-level experience
2) Approaching Reading Lists
At A-levels you are given a text book and pretty much all the content you need to write your essays is available there. One of the most daunting discoveries I’d made before starting my first essay is there is no central textbook! At University you are expected to draw your argument from a variety of academic sources, from books on your subject area to papers made by leading academics in the field. Not to worry though, you aren’t left completely in the dark. You’re provided with an essential and further reading list from which there’s more than enough to extract the content you need to write your essays.
A key skill you will develop at university is learning how to approach these reading lists. In terms of writing an essay, definitely make sure you’ve thoroughly read your essential readings and approach a number of the further readings that are relevant to your argument. You definitely do not need to read these back to back. A useful starting point is to read the introduction, conclusion and then find relevant chapters relating to your essays topic. Don’t be afraid to go beyond the reading lists too! In fact demonstrating further research will help develop the originality of your argument, a key indicator your class teachers and professors are looking for when examining your essay. With that being said, don’t make your essay solely on readings that you’ve searched up yourself completely ignoring the reading list (I’ve done that myself and it didn’t end up too well!).
3) Critiquing your work
As I’ve previously said, creating a strong argument is central in really getting your essay into the top band. Perhaps the most useful tip that my class teachers have given me, that wasn’t really applicable to the fast paced A level environment, is to critique my own work. This means writing my essay, leaving it for a day or two, and re-approaching it with fresh eyes. This allows you to view the essay somewhat objectively and you’ll begin to see parts of your argument that don’t really work and need redrafting. This ability to look at your own work and critique it will immensely help you improve essays. This is not only beneficial in writing up your papers, but is a life skill that the academic side of university really helps you to develop. In addition to this, also of course ask your friends to read over your essay and critique it for you. They’ll be able to spot things that you may have missed and can offer different viewpoints that you may not have considered.