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How To Write The Perfect Essay
Jan 12, 2024 Blog Articles , English Language Articles , Humanities Articles , Law Articles , Politics Articles , Writing Articles
If you decide to study English or a subject within Arts and Humanities at university, it’s going to involve a lot of essay writing. It’s a challenging skill to master because it requires both creativity and logical planning, but if you ensure you do the following whenever you write an essay, you should be on the way to success. This skill is also a key focus in our Oxford Summer Courses , where essay writing is honed to perfection.
Table of Contents
This may sound time-consuming, but if you make a really good plan you will actually save yourself time when it comes to writing the essay, as you’ll know where your answer is headed and won’t write yourself into a corner. Don’t worry if you’re stuck at first – jot down a few ideas anyway and chances are the rest will follow. I find it easiest to make a mind map, with each new ‘bubble’ representing one of my main paragraphs. I then write quotations which will be useful for my analysis around the bubble.
For example, if I was answering the question, ‘ To what extent is Curley’s wife portrayed as a victim in Of Mice and Men ? ’ I might begin a mind map which looks something like this:
Y ou can keep adding to this plan, crossing bits out and linking the different bubbles when you spot connections between them. Even though you won’t have time to make such a detailed plan under exam conditions, it can be helpful just to sketch a brief one, including a few key words, so that you don’t panic and go off topic when writing your essay. If you don’t like the mind map format, there are plenty of others to choose from: you could make a table, a flowchart, or simply a list of bullet points.
2. Have a clear structure
Think about this while you are planning. Your essay is like an argument or a speech – it needs to have a logical structure, with all your points coming together to answer the question. Start with the basics: it is best to choose a few major points which will become your main paragraphs. Three main paragraphs is a good number for an exam essay, since you will be under time pressure. Organise your points in a pattern of YES (agreement with the question) – AND (another ‘YES’ point) – BUT (disagreement or complication) if you agree with the question overall, or YES – BUT – AND if you disagree. This will ensure that you are always focused on your argument and don’t stray too far from the question.
For example, you could structure the Of Mice and Men sample question as follows:
‘To what extent is Curley’s wife portrayed as a victim in Of Mice and Men?’
- YES – descriptions of her appearance
- AND – other people’s attitudes towards her
- BUT – her position as the only woman on the ranch gives her power as she uses her femininity to advantage
If you wanted to write a longer essay, you could include additional paragraphs under the ‘YES/AND’ category, perhaps discussing the ways in which Curley’s wife reveals her vulnerability and insecurities and shares her dreams with the other characters; on the other hand, you could also lengthen your essay by including another ‘BUT’ paragraph about her cruel and manipulative streak.
Of course, this is not necessarily the only right way to answer this essay question: as long as you back up your points with evidence from the text, you can take any standpoint that makes sense.
3. Back up your points with well-analysed quotations
You wouldn’t write a scientific report without including evidence to support your findings, so why should it be any different with an essay? Even though you aren’t strictly required to substantiate every single point you make with a quotation, there’s no harm in trying. A close reading of your quotations can enrich your appreciation of the question and will be sure to impress examiners.</spanWhen selecting the best quotations to use in your essay, keep an eye out for specific literary techniques. For example, you could discuss Curley’s wife’s use of a rhetorical question when she says, ‘An’ what am I doin’? Standin’ here talking to a bunch of bindle stiffs’:
The rhetorical question “An’ what am I doin’?” signifies that Curley’s wife is very insecure; she seems to be questioning her own life choices. Moreover, the fact that she does not expect anyone to respond to her question highlights her loneliness.
Other literary techniques to look out for include:
- Tricolon – a group of three words or phrases placed close together for emphasis
- Tautology – using different words that mean the same thing, eg ‘frightening’ and ‘terrifying’
- Parallelism – ABAB structure; often signifies movement from one concept to another
- Chiasmus – ABBA structure; draws attention to that phrase
- Polysyndeton – many conjunctions in a sentence
- Asyndeton – lack of conjunctions; can speed up the pace of a sentence
- Polyptoton – using the same word in different forms for emphasis, eg ‘done’ and ‘doing’
- Alliteration – repetition of the same sound; different forms of alliteration include assonance (similar vowel sounds), plosive alliteration (‘b’, ‘d’ and ‘p’ sounds) and sibilance (‘s’ sounds)
- Anaphora – repetition of words; often used to emphasise a particular point
Don’t worry if you can’t locate all of these literary devices in the work you’re analysing – you can also discuss more obvious effects, like metaphor, simile and onomatopoeia. It’s not a problem if you can’t remember all the long names – it’s far more important to explain the effect of the literary techniques and their relevance to the question than to use the correct terminology.
4. Be creative and original right the way through
Anyone can write an essay using the tips above, but the thing that really makes it ‘perfect’ is your own unique take on the topic you’re discussing. If you’ve noticed something intriguing or unusual in your reading, point it out: if you find it interesting, chances are the examiner will too.
Creative writing and essay writing are more closely linked than you might imagine; keep the idea that you’re writing a speech or argument in mind, and you’re guaranteed to grab your reader’s attention.
It’s important to set out your line of argument in your introduction, introducing your main points and the general direction your essay will take, but don’t forget to keep something back for the conclusion, too. Yes, you need to summarise your main points, but if you’re just repeating the things you said in your introduction, the essay itself is rendered pointless.
Think of your conclusion as the climax of your speech, the bit everything else has been leading up to, rather than the boring plenary at the end of the interesting stuff.
To return to Of Mice and Men once more, here is an example of the ideal difference between an introduction and a conclusion:
In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men , Curley’s wife is portrayed as an ambiguous character. She could be viewed either as a cruel, seductive temptress or a lonely woman who is a victim of her society’s attitudes. Though she does seem to wield a form of sexual power, it is clear that Curley’s wife is largely a victim. This interpretation is supported by Steinbeck’s description of her appearance, other people’s attitudes, her dreams, and her evident loneliness and insecurity.
Overall, it is clear that Curley’s wife is a victim and is portrayed as such throughout the novel, in the descriptions of her appearance, her dreams, other people’s judgemental attitudes, and her loneliness and insecurities. However, a character who was a victim and nothing else would be one-dimensional and Curley’s wife is not. Although she suffers in many ways, she is shown to assert herself through the manipulation of her femininity – a small rebellion against the victimisation she experiences.
Both refer back consistently to the question and summarise the essay’s main points; however, the conclusion adds something new which has been established in the main body of the essay and yet complicates the simple summary which is found in the introduction.
- Start by writing a thorough plan
- Ensure your essay has a clear structure and overall argument
- Try to back up each point you make with a quotation
- Answer the question in your introduction and conclusion but remember to be creative too
Next Steps for Aspiring English Students
- Challenge yourself and test your writing skills by signing up for top essay writing competitions , like the annual OxBright essay competition .
- Start a book club or joining an existing one. This can provide a platform to discuss and analyze writing styles, themes, and authors, enhancing your understanding and appreciation of literature. It’s also a great way to get different perspectives on the same work, which can be invaluable in developing critical thinking and analytical skills.
- Want to write for a living? Read our blog post on How to Become a Writer
- Prepare for university and experience what it’s like studying on the Oxford University campus in one of our Oxford Summer Schools , like our Oxford writing program .
Want to learn more skills for academic success?
Summer Courses at the Oxford Scholastica Academy combine hands-on learning experiences with stimulating teaching and masterclasses, for an unforgettable summer amongst students from around the world.
Hannah is an undergraduate English student at Somerville College, Oxford, and has a particular interest in postcolonial literature and the Gothic. She thinks literature is a crucial way of developing empathy and learning about the wider world, and is excited to be Scholastica Inspires’ Literature Editor! When she isn’t writing essays about 17th-century court masques, she enjoys acting, travelling and creative writing.
Tips from my first year - essay writing
This is the third of a three part series giving advice on the essay writing process, focusing in this case on essay writing.
Daniel is a first year BA History and Politics student at Magdalen College . He is a disabled student and the first in his immediate family to go to university. Daniel is also a Trustee of Potential Plus UK , a Founding Ambassador and Expert Panel Member for Zero Gravity , and a History Faculty Ambassador. Before coming to university, Daniel studied at a non-selective state school, and was a participant on the UNIQ , Sutton Trust , and Social Mobility Foundation APP Reach programmes, as well as being part of the inaugural Opportunity Oxford cohort. Daniel is passionate about outreach and social mobility and ensuring all students have the best opportunity to succeed.
History and its related disciplines mainly rely on essay writing with most term-time work centring on this, so it’s a good idea to be prepared. The blessing of the Oxford system though is you get plenty of opportunity to practice, and your tutors usually provide lots of feedback (both through comments on essays and in tutorials) to help you improve. Here are my tips from my first year as an Oxford Undergraduate:
- Plan for success – a good plan really sets your essay in a positive direction, so try to collect your thoughts if you can. I find a great way to start my planning process is to go outside for a walk as it helps to clear my head of the detail, it allows me to focus on the key themes, and it allows me to explore ideas without having to commit anything to paper. Do keep in mind your question throughout the reading and notetaking process, though equally look to the wider themes covered so that when you get to planning you are in the right frame of mind.
- Use what works for you – if you try to use a method you aren’t happy with, it won’t work. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experiment; to the contrary I highly encourage it as it can be good to change up methods and see what really helps you deliver a strong essay. However, don’t feel pressured into using one set method, as long as it is time-efficient and it gets you ready for the next stage of the essay process it is fine!
- Focus on the general ideas – summarise in a sentence what each author argues, see what links there are between authors and subject areas, and possibly group your ideas into core themes or paragraph headers. Choose the single piece of evidence you believe supports each point best.
- Make something revision-ready – try to make something which you can come back to in a few months’ time which makes sense and will really get your head back to when you were preparing for your essay.
- Consider what is most important – no doubt if you spoke about everything covered on the reading list you would have far more words than the average essay word count (which is usually advised around 1,500-2,000 words - it does depend on your tutor.) You have a limited amount of time, focus, and words, so choose what stands out to you as the most important issues for discussion. Focus on the important issues well rather than covering several points in a less-focused manner.
- Make it your voice – your tutors want to hear from you about what you think and what your argument is, not lots of quotes of what others have said. Therefore, when planning and writing consider what your opinion is and make sure to state it. Use authors to support your viewpoint, or to challenge it, but make sure you are doing the talking and driving the analysis. At the same time, avoid slang, and ensure the language you use is easy to digest.
- Make sure you can understand it - don’t feel you have to use big fancy words you don’t understand unless they happen to be relevant subject-specific terminology, and don’t swallow the Thesaurus. If you use a technical term, make sure to provide a definition. You most probably won’t have time to go into it fully, but if it is an important concept hint at the wider historical debate. State where you stand and why briefly you believe what you are stating before focusing on your main points. You need to treat the reader as both an alien from another planet, and a very intelligent person at the same time – make sure your sentences make sense, but equally make sure to pitch it right. As you can possibly tell, it is a fine balancing act so my advice is to read through your essay and ask yourself ‘why’ about every statement or argument you make. If you haven’t answered why, you likely require a little more explanation. Simple writing doesn’t mean a boring or basic argument, it just means every point you make lands and has impact on the reader, supporting them every step of the way.
- Keep introductions and conclusions short – there is no need for massive amounts of setting the scene in the introduction, or an exact repeat of every single thing you have said in the essay appearing in the conclusion. Instead, in the first sentence of your introduction provide a direct answer to the question. If the question is suitable, it is perfectly fine to say yes, no, or it is a little more complicated. Whatever the answer is, it should be simple enough to fit in one reasonable length sentence. The next three sentences should state what each of your three main body paragraphs are going to argue, and then dive straight into it. With your conclusion, pick up what you said about the key points. Suggest how they possibly link, maybe do some comparison between factors and see if you can leave us with a lasting thought which links to the question in your final sentence.
- Say what you are going to say, say it, say it again – this is a general essay structure; an introduction which clearly states your argument; a main body which explains why you believe that argument; and a conclusion which summarises the key points to be drawn from your essay. Keep your messaging clear as it is so important the reader can grasp everything you are trying to say to have maximum impact. This applies in paragraphs as well – each paragraph should in one sentence outline what is to be said, it should then be said, and in the final sentence summarise what you have just argued. Somebody should be able to quickly glance over your essay using the first and last sentences and be able to put together the core points.
- Make sure your main body paragraphs are focused – if you have come across PEE (Point, Evidence, Explain – in my case the acronym I could not avoid at secondary school!) before, then nothing has changed. Make your point in around a sentence, clearly stating your argument. Then use the best single piece of evidence available to support your point, trying to keep that to a sentence or two if you can. The vast majority of your words should be explaining why this is important, and how it supports your argument, or how it links to something else. You don’t need to ‘stack’ examples where you provide multiple instances of the same thing – if you have used one piece of evidence that is enough, you can move on and make a new point. Try to keep everything as short as possible while communicating your core messages, directly responding to the question. You also don’t need to cover every article or book you read, rather pick out the most convincing examples.
- It works, it doesn’t work, it is a little more complicated – this is a structure I developed for writing main body paragraphs, though it is worth noting it may not work for every question. It works; start your paragraph with a piece of evidence that supports your argument fully. It doesn’t work; see if there is an example which seems to contradict your argument, but suggest why you still believe your argument is correct. Then, and only if you can, see if there is an example which possibly doesn’t quite work fully with your argument, and suggest why possibly your argument cannot wholly explain this point or why your argument is incomplete but still has the most explanatory power. See each paragraph as a mini-debate, and ensure different viewpoints have an opportunity to be heard.
- Take your opponents at their best – essays are a form of rational dialogue, interacting with writing on this topic from the past, so if you are going to ‘win’ (or more likely just make a convincing argument as you don’t need to demolish all opposition in sight) then you need to treat your opponents fairly by choosing challenging examples, and by fairly characterising their arguments. It should not be a slinging match of personal insults or using incredibly weak examples, as this will undermine your argument. While I have never attacked historians personally (though you may find in a few readings they do attack each other!), I have sometimes chosen the easier arguments to try to tackle, and it is definitely better to try to include some arguments which are themselves convincing and contradictory to your view.
- Don’t stress about referencing – yes referencing is important, but it shouldn’t take too long. Unless your tutor specifies a method, choose a method which you find simple to use as well as being an efficient method. For example, when referencing books I usually only include the author, book title, and year of publication – the test I always use for referencing is to ask myself if I have enough information to buy the book from a retailer. While this wouldn’t suffice if you were writing for a journal, you aren’t writing for a journal so focus on your argument instead and ensure you are really developing your writing skills.
- Don’t be afraid of the first person – in my Sixth Form I was told not to use ‘I’ as it weakened my argument, however that isn’t the advice I have received at Oxford; in fact I have been encouraged to use it as it forces me to take a side. So if you struggle with making your argument clear, use phrases like ‘I believe’ and ‘I argue’.
I hope this will help as a toolkit to get you started, but my last piece of advice is don’t worry! As you get so much practice at Oxford you get plenty of opportunity to perfect your essay writing skills, so don’t think you need to be amazing at everything straight away. Take your first term to try new methods out and see what works for you – don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Good luck!
Supporting academic transition: a focus on academic essay writing
Practical suggestions for supporting first year students’ essay writing skills, based on feedback received from oxford students.
This guidance was written by postgraduate students participating in the Centre for Teaching and Learning’s Student Experience Internship Scheme 2021 , and is based on interviews they undertook with Oxford students .
Each interviewee was asked to reflect on an early academic experience at Oxford (or their expectations of Oxford), and invited to share what would have improved this experience. While these interviews clearly do not represent all Oxford students, the themes that emerged across these interviews form the basis of this guidance and are further supported by evidence from educational research.
Communicating expectations and providing clear guidelines
My very first essay was an incredibly broad question, which was about the emergence of agriculture; it was something like ‘How and when did agriculture emerge?’. We were given a reading list that had maybe about 12 readings on it. There wasn't a lot of indication in terms of what we should read, or how much. We did have a few sub questions to think about, but there were a lot of questions and not really a lot of guidance given on how long the essay should be. So, we were just thrown into the deep end. - Undergraduate Student in Archaeology
Some practical suggestions for supporting first year students’ essay writing skills:
- When setting essays, it is helpful to consider how the topics and questions you are assigning may be unclear or overwhelming for first year students, particularly if your students are accustomed to a more structured approach to assignments, and/or are less familiar with the conventions associated with writing in your academic discipline.
- Consider providing your students with brief guides to academic writing in your discipline at the start of Michaelmas term. You can then signpost students to these in your feedback on their work throughout the year. This is a relatively efficient way to provide in-demand writing support at the start of term and can be shared with all students via email, Canvas and/or as hard copies at introductory meetings. Once produced, these writing support resources can be used for multiple cohorts, with only minimal editing required and are an effective way to communicate, and reiterate, your expectations. There are also general guides for academic writing that are available on the University’s Study skills and training webpages https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/academic/guidance/skills/essay
- Essential content for introductions.
- Basic pointers on structuring paragraphs and developing academic arguments.
- Examples of different writing styles.
- Signposting to existing writing support, for example, ‘Essay and dissertation writing skills’ https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/academic/guidance/skills/essay .
For each piece of academic writing that you set your students, clarify your expectations about:
- How long the piece of writing should be.
- How you would like the writing to be structured and formatted.
- What style of academic referencing conventions should be used.
- How and when the essay should be submitted.
- You could also ask students to demonstrate how they have used any of your previous feedback to enhance their academic writing in subsequent work.
The Centre for Teaching and Learning has developed some practical teaching ideas for supporting students to understand what makes excellent examined work, and the criteria by which they will be assessed . The collection includes examples of teaching from academics around the university, as well as activities specifically designed for the Oxford context.
Acknowledging challenges and developing students’ confidence
Many students starting University as either under- or postgraduates, lack confidence in their academic writing abilities. For students’ first attempts at writing try to make sure you are clear in letting them know you are not expecting perfection!
Just receiving verbal confirmation that, you know, ‘don't worry, this is your first essay. We don't expect it to be amazing. This is just the starting point. Just give it a go’ is reassuring. - Undergraduate student in Archaeology and Anthropology
- For more guidance on providing effective feedback, see the Oxford Teaching Ideas on making feedback inclusive and giving effective feedback .
What I found after I started collaborating with my friend on the essay was that I'm more similar to my peers than I realise and everyone else is just as anxious and just as nervous as I am. In that sense, I wish I didn't kind of panic so much and that I wasn’t so isolated. - Undergraduate student in English
Encouraging students to use the university libraries
All new students are usually invited, and expected, to attend library inductions at their college and department/faculty libraries. For postgraduate students new to Oxford, additional guidance to the university’s libraries may be necessary, as they are more often expected to incorporate their own research into essays rather than working from a set of readings provided by their tutor/supervisor.
- You could draw your students’ attention to the guidance provided by The Bodleian Libraries on using libraries, locating sources, and developing research skills through their Bodleian iSkills workshops .
Providing opportunities for peer review
I thought that the structure of critiquing each other's essays, while it was a little bit daunting, was a very useful task for us to do, a useful skill for us to develop. Thinking as scholars, critiquing work, noticing the strengths and weaknesses in other people's essays, helps you notice the strengths and weaknesses in your own work as well. - Undergraduate student in English
- Where appropriate, you may wish to provide students with the opportunity to read and critique one another’s writing. Academic peer networks take time to form organically, so by implementing them in your teaching, you can provide students with opportunities to learn the skills of providing constructive feedback and critique, as well as learning how to respond to feedback. For more information on utilising peer feedback, see the Oxford Teaching Idea on peer feedback .
There are many resources for students that explain how to write academically in different disciplines. The following are some examples of Oxford-specific writing resources:
- This guide from the Saïd Business School lays out in detail how students can plan, structure, and write their essays.
- Dr Peter Judge has written a guide on writing essays for Medical and Life Science students .
- The MPLS Division provides guidance for Communication Skills , including writing.
- Academic writing at Master’s level: https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/academic/guidance/skills/postgrad-taught-skills .
- Study skills and training webpages: https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/academic/guidance/skills/essay .
- The Oxford Language Centre’s Academic English courses primarily address skills for international and postgraduate students and these run both before and during term.
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- How to Do Research for an Excellent Essay: The Complete Guide
One of the biggest secrets to writing a good essay is the Boy Scouts’ motto: ‘be prepared’. Preparing for an essay – by conducting effective research – lays the foundations for a brilliant piece of writing, and it’s every bit as important as the actual writing part. Many students skimp on this crucial stage, or sit in the library not really sure where to start; and it shows in the quality of their essays. This just makes it easier for you to get ahead of your peers, and we’re going to show you how. In this article, we take you through what you need to do in order to conduct effective research and use your research time to best effect.
Allow enough time
First and foremost, it’s vital to allow enough time for your research. For this reason, don’t leave your essay until the last minute . If you start writing without having done adequate research, it will almost certainly show in your essay’s lack of quality. The amount of research time needed will vary according to whether you’re at Sixth Form or university, and according to how well you know the topic and what teaching you’ve had on it, but make sure you factor in more time than you think you’ll need. You may come across a concept that takes you longer to understand than you’d expected, so it’s better to allow too much time than too little.
Read the essay question and thoroughly understand it
If you don’t have a thorough understanding of what the essay question is asking you to do, you put yourself at risk of going in the wrong direction with your research. So take the question, read it several times and pull out the key things it’s asking you to do. The instructions in the question are likely to have some bearing on the nature of your research. If the question says “Compare”, for example, this will set you up for a particular kind of research, during which you’ll be looking specifically for points of comparison; if the question asks you to “Discuss”, your research focus may be more on finding different points of view and formulating your own.
Begin with a brainstorm
Start your research time by brainstorming what you already know. Doing this means that you can be clear about exactly what you’re already aware of, and you can identify the gaps in your knowledge so that you don’t end up wasting time by reading books that will tell you what you already know. This gives your research more of a direction and allows you to be more specific in your efforts to find out certain things. It’s also a gentle way of introducing yourself to the task and putting yourself in the right frame of mind for learning about the topic at hand.
Achieve a basic understanding before delving deeper
If the topic is new to you and your brainstorm has yielded few ideas, you’ll need to acquire a basic understanding of the topic before you begin delving deeper into your research. If you don’t, and you start by your research by jumping straight in at the deep end, as it were, you’ll struggle to grasp the topic. This also means that you may end up being too swayed by a certain source, as you haven’t the knowledge to question it properly. You need sufficient background knowledge to be able to take a critical approach to each of the sources you read. So, start from the very beginning. It’s ok to use Wikipedia or other online resources to give you an introduction to a topic, though bear in mind that these can’t be wholly relied upon. If you’ve covered the topic in class already, re-read the notes you made so that you can refresh your mind before you start further investigation.
Working through your reading list
If you’ve been given a reading list to work from, be organised in how you work through each of the items on it. Try to get hold of as many of the books on it as you can before you start, so that you have them all easily to hand, and can refer back to things you’ve read and compare them with other perspectives. Plan the order in which you’re going to work through them and try to allocate a specific amount of time to each of them; this ensures that you allow enough time to do each of them justice and that focus yourself on making the most of your time with each one. It’s a good idea to go for the more general resources before honing in on the finer points mentioned in more specialised literature. Think of an upside-down pyramid and how it starts off wide at the top and becomes gradually narrower; this is the sort of framework you should apply to your research.
Ask a librarian
Library computer databases can be confusing things, and can add an extra layer of stress and complexity to your research if you’re not used to using them. The librarian is there for a reason, so don’t be afraid to go and ask if you’re not sure where to find a particular book on your reading list. If you’re in need of somewhere to start, they should be able to point you in the direction of the relevant section of the library so that you can also browse for books that may yield useful information.
Use the index
If you haven’t been given specific pages to read in the books on your reading list, make use of the index (and/or table of contents) of each book to help you find relevant material. It sounds obvious, but some students don’t think to do this and battle their way through heaps of irrelevant chapters before finding something that will be useful for their essay.
As you work through your reading, take notes as you go along rather than hoping you’ll remember everything you’ve read. Don’t indiscriminately write down everything – only the bits that will be useful in answering the essay question you’ve been set. If you write down too much, you risk writing an essay that’s full of irrelevant material and getting lower grades as a result. Be concise, and summarise arguments in your own words when you make notes (this helps you learn it better, too, because you actually have to think about how best to summarise it). You may want to make use of small index cards to force you to be brief with what you write about each point or topic. We’ve covered effective note-taking extensively in another article, which you can read here . Note-taking is a major part of the research process, so don’t neglect it. Your notes don’t just come in useful in the short-term, for completing your essay, but they should also be helpful when it comes to revision time, so try to keep them organised.
Research every side of the argument
Never rely too heavily on one resource without referring to other possible opinions; it’s bad academic practice. You need to be able to give a balanced argument in an essay, and that means researching a range of perspectives on whatever problem you’re tackling. Keep a note of the different arguments, along with the evidence in support of or against each one, ready to be deployed into an essay structure that works logically through each one. If you see a scholar’s name cropping up again and again in what you read, it’s worth investigating more about them even if you haven’t specifically been told to do so. Context is vital in academia at any level, so influential figures are always worth knowing about.
Keep a dictionary by your side
You could completely misunderstand a point you read if you don’t know what one important word in the sentence means. For that reason, it’s a good idea to keep a dictionary by your side at all times as you conduct your research. Not only does this help you fully understand what you’re reading, but you also learn new words that you might be able to use in your forthcoming essay or a future one . Growing your vocabulary is never a waste of time!
Start formulating your own opinion
As you work through reading these different points of view, think carefully about what you’ve read and note your own response to different opinions. Get into the habit of questioning sources and make sure you’re not just repeating someone else’s opinion without challenging it. Does an opinion make sense? Does it have plenty of evidence to back it up? What are the counter-arguments, and on balance, which sways you more? Demonstrating your own intelligent thinking will set your essay apart from those of your peers, so think about these things as you conduct your research.
Be careful with web-based research
Although, as we’ve said already, it’s fine to use Wikipedia and other online resources to give you a bit of an introduction to a topic you haven’t covered before, be very careful when using the internet for researching an essay. Don’t take Wikipedia as gospel; don’t forget, anybody can edit it! We wouldn’t advise using the internet as the basis of your essay research – it’s simply not academically rigorous enough, and you don’t know how out of date a particular resource might be. Even if your Sixth Form teachers may not question where you picked up an idea you’ve discussed in your essays, it’s still not a good habit to get into and you’re unlikely to get away with it at a good university. That said, there are still reliable academic resources available via the internet; these can be found in dedicated sites that are essentially online libraries, such as JSTOR. These are likely to be a little too advanced if you’re still in Sixth Form, but you’ll almost certainly come across them once you get to university.
Look out for footnotes
In an academic publication, whether that’s a book or a journal article, footnotes are a great place to look for further ideas for publications that might yield useful information. Plenty can be hidden away in footnotes, and if a writer is disparaging or supporting the ideas of another academic, you could look up the text in question so that you can include their opinion too, and whether or not you agree with them, for extra brownie points.
Don’t save doing all your own references until last
If you’re still in Sixth Form, you might not yet be required to include academic references in your essays, but for the sake of a thorough guide to essay research that will be useful to you in the future, we’re going to include this point anyway (it will definitely come in useful when you get to university, so you may as well start thinking about it now!). As you read through various books and find points you think you’re going to want to make in your essays, make sure you note down where you found these points as you go along (author’s first and last name, the publication title, publisher, publication date and page number). When you get to university you will be expected to identify your sources very precisely, so it’s a good habit to get into. Unfortunately, many students forget to do this and then have a difficult time of going back through their essay adding footnotes and trying to remember where they found a particular point. You’ll save yourself a great deal of time and effort if you simply note down your academic references as you go along. If you are including footnotes, don’t forget to add each publication to a main bibliography, to be included at the end of your essay, at the same time.
Putting in the background work required to write a good essay can seem an arduous task at times, but it’s a fundamental step that can’t simply be skipped. The more effort you put in at this stage, the better your essay will be and the easier it will be to write. Use the tips in this article and you’ll be well on your way to an essay that impresses!
To get even more prepared for essay writing you might also want to consider attending an Oxford Summer School .
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An essay plan is a way to identify, select, and order the points you want to make in your essay. It helps you to work out your argument and your structure before writing, which should make the writing process more efficient and focussed. Sometimes essay plans are set as formative assignments so tutors can provide feedback before you write your full essay.
Scroll down for our recommended strategies and resources.
Enough detail for feedback
If you have an essay plan as an assignment, the main purpose is to give your lecturer enough information about your structure and main points so they can give you useful feedback. Follow any guidance you have been given, but usually an essay plan doesn’t have to be in full sentences; an outline structure of main points in a bullet point list, maybe with some further details of the evidence you will use or explanation under each point, is often enough. See these guides on how to do simple outline plans for an essay:
How to plan an essay (University of Newcastle)
Structuring the essay (Monash University)
Different ways of planning
Group similar ideas.
The aim of planning is to put down all your ideas and then to sort through them and order them. Look at where the ideas group together to see if any common themes start emerging, as these might form the paragraphs in your essay. See the video below for an example of how to group and order ideas in a plan.
Planning: General structure [video] (University of York)
Changes are normal - reverse outline
We rarely follow our essay plans exactly because our ideas develop as we write. If you don’t keep to your plan, it isn’t a sign of failure or a sign that planning doesn’t work. However, you may need to reflect on your planning process - are you over-planning and it takes too much time, or are your plans too vague and more detail would help? If you have strayed from your plan, a good strategy is to check the structure of your essay afterwards to make sure it all matches up. See the guide below on how to do a reverse outline as a useful part of your redrafting process.
Reverse outlines (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
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How to write an Oxford application essay
Not sure how many future Wellesley’s plan on applying to study abroad at Oxford (and the OIS already has great resources for this); thought I’d share my essays and how I structured/thought about them.
When you apply for Oxford, at least for the visiting program, you can apply for two out of the thirty-something colleges that make up the University. Granted, Wellesley only allows us to choose from seven or so of those thirty plus colleges, but that’s still plenty to choose from.
How I chose which two colleges to apply for: Arbitrarily. I literally googled “Oxford University Mountaineering Club” (because I knew I would want to get heavily involved with that club) and looked a the two climbing wall locations. Mansfield and St. Edmund were the two closest to these locations, ha.
Other specifications included: had to teach Economics, since that’s what I’m studying, and had to be a full year (I didn’t want any one-semester silliness–if I’m going to go to Oxford, I’m going to get the full experience!) and finally, I literally calculated the percentage of each college that is made up of visiting students and I think Mansfield and St. Edmund were pretty high; i.e. my chances of getting in were best there.
Okay so onto the essay structuring itself: First paragraph is basically “Why Oxford”
Oh and by the way, here’s what the essay prompt was. That’s kind of important:
“A personal statement which provides a brief account of your studies to date in your present university and an account of how a year of study at Mansfield College would fit into your educational plans. Your personal statement should also include a detailed description of the main subjects you would like to study as well as a description of the course work you have completed in the subject(s) at your home college or university.”
Okay first paragraph: “Why Oxford”
I am drawn to Oxford, and Mansfield College specifically, for a number of reasons. Oxford’s tutorial program requires a combination of dedication, hard work, and independence that I believe would challenge and enhance my intellectual ability, and is also a challenge I am excited to take on and am well prepared for. Oxford also has the geographic environment I am looking for, which is a place of natural beauty and greenery, with a large city easily accessible but not too close by (very similar to Wellesley). Mansfield College, specifically, offers courses in subjects I hope to pursue at Oxford, namely Economics and Management, and in which I already have demonstrated interest. Finally, being an avid rock climber, I have thoroughly researched Oxford’s Mountaineering Club, and Mansfield College is particularly close to both the Iffley Bouldering Wall and the Brookes Climbing Wall, two main locations for the OUMC.
Second paragraph is “why me/why I’m a good fit/why I can handle the program”:
The reason I say I am well prepared for Oxford’s tutorial program is because I am well acquainted with challenging, independent work, as well as heavily writing-based daily routines. The MIT Sloan School of Management course I took this semester, Power and Negotiation, was writing-intensive, met once a week, and was very much a self-learning process. I have also been developing my writing skills since age ten, when I began keeping a journal, and am now one of five weekly bloggers for the Wellesley Admissions Office. I am highly interested in improving my writing and independent work skills, and believe Oxford’s tutorial program perfectly aligns with those interests.
Paragraph three is “what courses I plan on taking (since they want to know) AND WHY and what courses I have already taken”:
Specifically, I plan to take Economics and Management courses at Mansfield, with the addition of one Human Sciences course. My previous coursework in Calculus, Principles of Microeconomics, Principles of Macroeconomics, Statistics, and Intermediate Microeconomic Analysis have prepared me well for the Economics courses I plan to take at Mansfield, which are Economics of Developing Countries, Labour Economics and Industrial Relations, and Command and Transitional Economies. I am drawn to these specific primary tutorials because I am highly interested in the macro economy. I read the Wall Street Journal daily and follow the international impact of economic policies made not only in the U.S., but also in China, Japan, and the European Union. My previous coursework in Power and Negotiation introduced me to art of managing difficult interactions and developed my desire to take Strategic Management, Organisational Analysis, Behaviour and Leadership, and Behaviour and its Evolution: Animal and Human at Mansfield. Having held multiple leadership roles since high school and with plans to work in finance after graduation, I desire to enhance my interpersonal and management skills.
A quick note here: I don’t read the WSJ anymore. I was just reading it a lot at the time of this application because I was preparing for banking interviews for summer internships. So don’t feel like you have to be someone who reads a lot of publications all the time. It’s okay to stretch the truth.
Paragraph four is “conclusion and what other cultural aspects (of Oxford, or the UK in general) I find unique/I will look forward to experiencing”
Given my experience in writing-intensive and independent work, my demonstrated interest in Economics and Management, and my passion for climbing, I feel I am a particularly good fit for a year abroad at Mansfield College. In addition, I plan to take full advantage of the social and traditional events at Oxford, including the formal dinners and lectures. This winter break, I will be backpacking through Asia, and during my term breaks at Oxford, I hope to backpack through both the United Kingdom and Continental Europe. Having demonstrated my ability to withstand a rigorous academic workload by taking challenging courses and maintaining very good grades at Wellesley, while participating in time-consuming extracurricular activities, I believe Oxford will supplement very well the educational experience I’ve established for myself at Wellesley. It would be a pleasure and a privilege to spend a year abroad at Mansfield College.
Voila! There’s an essay. One page, size 12, Times New Roman, single spaced, normal margins.
Below is my St. Edmund essay, slightly tweaked to personalize it to the school, but otherwise the same.
Hope this will be helpful to future Wellesley-Oxford-hopefuls!
Cheers and have a great rest of the week,
I am drawn to Oxford, and St. Edmund Hall specifically, for a number of reasons. The Oxford tutorial program requires a combination of dedication, hard work, and independence that I believe would challenge and enhance my intellectual ability, and is also a challenge I am excited to take on and am well prepared for. Oxford has the geographic environment I am looking for, which is a place of natural beauty and greenery, with a large city easily accessible but not too close by (very similar to Wellesley). St. Edmund Hall, specifically, offers courses in subjects I hope to pursue at Oxford, namely Economics and Management, and in which I have already demonstrated an interest. Finally, being an avid rock climber, I have thoroughly researched Oxford’s Mountaineering Club, and St. Edmund Hall is particularly close to both the Iffley Bouldering Wall and the Brookes Climbing Wall, two main locations for the OUMC.
In addition, I am drawn to both St. Edmund Hall’s recent partnership with the Oxford Chinese Economy Programme and the launch of the China Growth Centre in 2009. I am highly interested in China’s economy, as demonstrated by my History of Chinese Commerce and Business course this semester and my close reading of the Wall Street Journal (which has proven especially interesting lately considering the decisions of the People’s Bank of China to decrease benchmark rates.) Both the OXCEP and the CGC will allow me to pursue my growing interest in the Chinese economy while I’m abroad.
Finally, one of my extracurricular passions, rock climbing, will be thoroughly fulfilled if I am to attend Oxford, and St. Edmund Hall specifically. The OUMC is extensive, active, and very well equipped with resources. I am currently pioneering the founding of a climbing team at Wellesley, and have already networked with various climbing gyms, Wellesley administrators, and climbing equipment brands—one of which has already agreed to sponsor our fledgling team! St. Edmund Hall has a prime location (compared to the other colleges Wellesley has programs with) in relation to OUMC facilities. I would be honored to climb, compete, and go on trips with OUMC members, as well as learn from club leaders how to successfully lead the club.
Given my experience in writing-intensive and independent work, my demonstrated interest in Economics and Management, and my passion for climbing, I feel I am a particularly good fit for a year abroad at St. Edmund Hall. In addition, I plan to take full advantage of the social and traditional events at Oxford, including the formal dinners and lectures. This winter break, I will be backpacking through Asia, and during my term breaks at Oxford, I hope to backpack through both the United Kingdom and Continental Europe. Having demonstrated my ability to withstand a rigorous academic workload by taking challenging courses and maintaining very good grades at Wellesley, while participating in time-consuming extracurricular activities, I believe Oxford will supplement very well the educational experience I’ve established for myself at Wellesley. It would be a pleasure and a privilege to spend a year abroad at St. Edmund Hall.
Introduction to Academic Writing and Language
A course to develop basic knowledge of english syntax and academic writing, course timetable: hilary term 2024.
For Learners without an Oxford University SSO, or who are not members of the University, enrolment information can be found here .
Enrolment will close at 12 noon on Wednesday of Week 1 of term (17 January 2024).
To ensure that we have time to set you up with access to our Virtual Learning Environment (Canvas), please make sure you have enrolled and paid no later than five working days before your course starts.
MT = Michaelmas Term (October - December); HT = Hilary Term (January - March); TT = Trinity Term (April-June)
This course is designed for international students and other University members, with little or no experience in academic writing, who want to develop their basic knowledge of English syntax and academic writing. It is also designed for those who feel they need to advance their competence in using academic language to perform satisfactorily in their written course work.
The programme introduces a foundational understanding of the organisation of ideas in common types of academic texts, as well as the skills needed to communicate effectively to the reader. It also looks to develop their competence in the use of the grammar, vocabulary, expressions, style and conventions typically used in academic writing at Oxford.
Students joining the Online course will access materials and take part in seminars using Oxford’s VLE system, Canvas, and videoconferencing software.
- Develop essential knowledge of the organisation of ideas in common academic texts (e.g. essays, reports, dissertations, publications)
- Improve the organisation and expression of arguments, evidence and stance in writing
- Develop essential skills to integrate ideas from the literature into the student’s writing
- Use linking words and expressions to communicate effectively with the reader
- Develop use of essential academic grammar, vocabulary and style
- Avoid the grammatical, vocabulary and stylistic errors common to international students
- Receive feedback on their academic writing and advice on how to continue to develop throughout their degree course
For Learners with an Oxford University SSO (Single Sign-On) simply click on the enrol button next to the class that you wish to join.
For Learners without an Oxford University SSO, or who are not members of the University, once enrolment opens , please email [email protected] with the following details:
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We will then provisionally enrol you onto the course and send you a link to the Oxford University Online Store for payment. Once payment is received we will confirm your place on the course. Please note that we will be unable to assist you until enrolment has opened, so please do not send us your enrolment details in advance.
- Taught in weeks 2-8 of term
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- Writing an Argumentative Essay...
Writing an Argumentative Essay 101
by PrivateLabel | Sep 15, 2015 | Higher Education
We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘think before you speak’. It’s generally said in quite a supportive way – often after someone hasn’t!
But the saying makes a good point, especially when it comes to putting forward an effective argument. Arguments are vehicles for your thoughts to travel. Any weak link can stop them getting to where you want them to go. This is of course extremely important when you’re writing an argumentative essay. Here are a few good pointers to help you design a solid argument:
- Map out your idea
Start by formulating your thesis or claim and your supporting statements for it.
Once you have done this, you can target your research areas more precisely and you can consider the strengths and weaknesses of your case.
- Know what you’re arguing against
Set out what you think are the major supporting statements for the opposing case to your own.
This will help you to find evidence that will refute those statements.
- Get the evidence before you make the claims
Begin your research by ensuring that you can find evidence for each of your supporting statements. Check the evidence for the other side. You may need to change some of your argument, depending on the information you find.
- Have your sources ready
Make sure that you have listed all the necessary bibliographic information about your sources, especially page numbers. You will need that information for your references and reference list.
- You don’t have to start writing with the introduction
When your research is complete, begin on the body of your essay, perhaps leaving the introduction until last. It is usually easier to start with your most important point. You can reorganize things later.
- Structure your argument
Once you have a rough draft, think about how to organise your argument in the most effective way. Logical, well-thought-out organisation – along with clear, concise English – is one of the main persuasive tools in argumentative essays.
Hay, I, Bochner, D, Blacket, G, & C, Dungey. 2012. Making The Grade. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
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Learning English with Oxford
The latest language learning tips, resources, and content from oxford university press., top tips for effective essay writing.
- by Oxford University Press ELT
- Posted on June 28, 2023 June 29, 2023
Tips for different essay types
There are different types of essays that you may need to write during your English language journey. These include:
- Argumentative essays : These essays present the advantages and disadvantages of a particular topic or issue. They require you to provide well-reasoned arguments and evidence to support your point of view.
- Persuasive essays : The aim of persuasive essays is to convince the reader to eventually adopt your point of view or take a specific course of action. These essays rely on strong arguments, logical reasoning and persuasive language.
- Expository essays : Expository essays focus on explaining or clarifying a concept, idea or process. They require you to provide clear and concise information with supporting examples and evidence.
- Narrative essays : In narrative essays, you tell a story or narrate an event. These essays use descriptive language, and engage readers through vivid details and a compelling narrative structure.
- Descriptive essays : Descriptive essays aim to paint a clear picture of a person, place, object or experience. These essays utilise sensory language (e.g. colourful, crowded, dark, cold etc.) and figurative devices to evoke emotions and create a picture of the scene and people in the reader’s mind.
Tips for essay structure
When writing an essay, you need to think about several key elements:
- Organisation and structure: Make sure your essay follows a clear and logical structure. Your essay should start with an introduction explaining what your essay is going to be about, followed by paragraphs containing the main points you want to express. Each of the paragraphs in the main body should address a single main idea. Finally, you should end with a conclusion.
- Paragraphing: Divide your essay into paragraphs to make it easy for the reader to follow and to make it coherent. Start each paragraph with a topic sentence that introduces the main idea of that particular section.
- Main ideas with supporting arguments and evidence : In the main body of your essay, clearly state your main ideas and support them with relevant arguments, examples, facts, or statistics. Use these supporting details to strengthen your overall argument.
More essay writing tips
Essays typically maintain a formal register, so it is important to use appropriate language. Here are some examples:
- Formal language: In an essay, try to avoid using contractions, e.g. They are instead of they’re. Try to avoid using the personal pronouns I or we – instead, you could use a passive structure. Do not use colloquial expressions or idioms, and try to use more formal words for everyday language, e.g. show – demonstrate, find out – discover, give – provide, point out – indicate.
- Linking words: Use cohesive devices and words and phrases to connect your sentences to improve the flow and coherence of your essay. For instance, use words like however, in addition, furthermore or on the other hand to connect ideas. You can also create smooth transitions from one idea to the next by using sequencing language such as firstly, next, following this etc.
Final tips for essay writing
To produce a well-structured and coherent essay, think about the following:
- Make a plan: Before you start writing, create a plan outlining the main points you want to include. Refer to your plan regularly to stay focused and maintain a logical flow.
- Use varied language : Use a variety of vocabulary, sentence structures, and sentence lengths to make your essay more engaging and interesting.
- Proofread and edit: After completing your essay, carefully review it for grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors. This is particularly important in an English exam.
Knowing how to write an essay in English is an important skill. Understanding the different types of essays, organising your ideas effectively, using appropriate language and linking words, and following a plan can significantly improve your essay writing skills. By incorporating these tips into your writing routine, you will feel more confident the next time you write an essay in English.
For more information about different types of writing in the Oxford Test of English, read this blog and download our detailed guide !
Decide whether the statements about essay writing are true (T) or false (F).
- In an English exam, you usually do not have time to proofread your essay. T/F
- Your essay should always start with an introduction and end with a conclusion. T/F
- Persuasive essays ask you to present both points of view with evidence to support. T/F
- You should make a plan before you start your essay, then not refer to it again until you finish writing. T/F
- You should use language to help you sequence your ideas where necessary. T/F
- You could start your essay with, In my opinion… T/F
- False. In an English exam, you should always leave some time to proofread your essay when you finish to check for any errors and correct them.
- True. The middle part of your essay is the main body that contains your main arguments and key points.
- False. Persuasive essays require you to convince the reader to eventually adopt your point of view or take a specific course of action. Argumentative essays require you to present the advantages and disadvantages of a particular topic or issue.
- False. Refer to your plan regularly whilst writing so you can stay focused and maintain a logical flow.
- True. Use sequencing words and phrases to help you structure your essay and improve its flow.
- False. Try to avoid using personal pronouns.
Author: Oxford University Press ELT
Every year we help millions of people around the world to learn English. As a department of the University of Oxford, we further the University’s objective of excellence in education by publishing proven and tested language learning books, eBooks, learning materials, and educational technologies. View all posts by Oxford University Press ELT
Thank you for sharing valuable resources with us. It is inspiring and motivating. I really find everything, especially the webinars, extremely useful.
VERY USEFUL!!! THANX! NEXT TIME MORE PRACTICAL EXERCISES, EVEN IN A BOOK…
Thank you for very valuable tips. Will definitely use them with my students who are preparing for FCE exams.
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