This article is intended for students going to university for the first time, though it might also have some helpful hints for more experienced undergrads. It will also probably be most relevant to students of humanities and social sciences subjects.
1. Manage Your Time Effectively
Don’t wait until an assignment or essay is due in a couple of weeks before you start working on it. You will soon realise that all your assignments (both minor and major) will be due around the same time, and you don’t want to end up cramming a semester’s worth of work into only a few weeks. This would not result in good grades.
Instead, plan how much time you need to spend on each assignment at the very beginning of the semester. In Week 1 you will be given your tutorial guides, subject guides and other materials. These will tell you exactly how many pieces of assessment you have for each subject, how many words they will each need to be and what percentage of your grades they will be worth. Use this information as a guide to plan your time.
One way to do this is to simply write out, in the order of when they are due, all the individual units of assessment you need to hand in. Then assign a number of weeks to each of them depending on their length and importance, and remembering that there are only usually 10 or so weeks in a semester. Get started on these assignments straight away, in the first or second week!
2. Don’t Just Do the Minimum Required
One piece of advice that I have often heard given to students is that if you want to pass your subjects, go to all your compulsory tutorials. If you want to get a Credit, go to your tutes and your lectures. If you want to get a Distinction, go to your tutes and your lectures, and do all your readings. For a High Distinction, do all of the above plus work hard on your assignments.
Of course, that advice isn’t the best, and it won’t hold true for everyone. However, it does make the point that the more work you do, the better your grade will be. When you switch from high school to university, you may find it difficult to adjust to the fact that most of your learning is now optional. However, this is something you will have to work through if you want to do really well. If you only do the minimum required of you, you won’t do very well, because as you will soon find out, not that much is actually required. It is up to you to succeed.
So if you are aiming to do as well as you can, attend your tutes and your lectures. Take notes at both. Do all the compulsory reading as well as the suggested or further reading. Put in as much effort as you can with all your assessments.
3. Research Is Key
The research component of essay writing should take up the majority of your time. It is the longest stage of the essay writing process. How much time you spend will depend on your year level, the word length of the essay, the type of essay (minor, major or tutorial paper) and what percentage of your grade it is worth. It also depends on what grade you are aiming for.
For example, if you are a second year student and you are writing your major essay of 3,000 words that is worth 50% of your grade, then you need to do as much research as you can (a lot) if you are after a Distinction or a High Distinction. This should take around 4 weeks. If you are working on a tutorial paper worth around 10%, you might spend less than a week.
The way that you record your research is vital to the essay writing process. If you don’t record your research sources properly, you can spend hours (or even days or weeks) doing research, and then when you come to write your essay you will find out that you have to go back and re-do things, like search for page numbers or correct quotations. This is a waste of your time!
You must record your research in a way that makes essay writing easier for you. You must record your research in a way that is accurate, includes all the information you need, and gives you a chance to record your own ideas and thoughts on the material you are reading as you go along. Don’t leave this to the end!
4. Improve Your Essay Writing Skills
Knowing your subject well is only half the battle. You also need to be able to demonstrate that knowledge through your essays. This is why essay writing skills are so vital for students. Many students get to university and still don’t know the correct way to structure an argumentative essay.
Referencing is also a vital component of essay writing that many students neglect. Spend some time in your first semester teaching yourself how to do it properly! Find out which referencing style is preferred in your discipline. You may find that each subject will ask you to use a different style. But don’t be afraid to learn one style really well, and then ask your tutors whether it is acceptable to use that one. Most tutors won’t mind which you use, so long as you use it correctly.
5. If You Need Extra Help, GET IT!
Don’t be afraid to ask your university tutors and lecturers for help when you need it. But please be aware that there are other places at uni that you can go to for help. You can talk to other students in your lectures and tutes. You can go to the student union or association, since they will often have a Student Learning Centre on campus that offers extra support. The library staff are also really helpful.
Friends and family can also be helpful, even if they haven’t been to university or studied your subject. One thing to remember about essay writing is that what you have written should make sense to anyone, even someone who isn’t familiar with the subject you are writing about. Essays should be written in a language that is clear and concise, and free from jargon. So ask your mum to read your essay and tell you if it doesn’t make sense!
Updated 6 March 2023
Ellen McRae, PhD, AE (IPEd), MNZSTI
Senior Managing Editor