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Essay Writing: How do I do it, and why did I get that mark?
At several points during your course you will be asked to write essays, either to fulfill a module's continuous assessment requirement or during an examination. The principles of good essay writing hold in both these situations. Bear in mind that as part of your revision strategy you should study past examination papers (available in the Library) to get a feel for the sort of questions you will be asked.

You can use the information on this page to prepare for examination essays. The following hints and techniques are taken from a range of web sites, you can get more detail by following the appropriate links.

An essay involves three steps:
  1. you planit
  2. you writeit
  3. we markit

Step 1 Planning

This superb Student Guide to Good Essay Writing will help you at the planning stage.

Step 2 Writing

Good and bad essays
"Essays should be structured and progressional. A good structure for many essays is to start with a problem or hypothesis, to present selected data or evidence, to use and discuss those data to support or break down the original statement, and finally to make some consequential statements or inferences. Essays should show an ability to assess critically the evidence underpinning your argument. Essays are not lists of data, techniques, sites, or source materials on their own."
Extract from the University of Wales, Cardiff, Handbookmore from Ancient History and Archaeology, Students' :Handbook

Step 3 Marking

Perhaps the best piece of advice I can give you after 33 years of marking undergraduate exam scripts is to make sure you answer the correct number of questions.

It's a matter of maths. It's relatively easy to score the first 40% but increasingly difficult to achieve the next 60%. Do not be tempted to spend too long on a topic(s) that you know a lot about in the vain hope that somehow the marks you score on that question(s) will make up for a missing answer.

It never happens! Plan ahead. Distribute the exam time equally across all the questions. If you have free time at the end of the exam use it to add more to a favourite question.

It also helps if you bear in mind that the examiner may be faced with several hundred essays to mark in a very short period of time. Try to write neatly. Use paragraphs. Diagrams help to convey complex ideas.

Before the exam, think about what questions you may be asked. The syllabus and past papers is a good place to start. Think about the material. Try to have some ideas of your own rather than simply repeating what you were taught. On the other hand, do not simply write down your own opinions unsupported by any evidence.

This sort of essay may come as a welcome relief to the examiner but is unlikely to score very highly!

Contentis the main criterion for assessment, but note can also be taken of presentation.
Content is concerned with issues such as:
  • relevance of the answer to the question,
  • breadth of the essay
  • extent of background reading
  • understanding, structure and organisation of material
  • detail of the information contained within the essay,
  • use of evidence and quality of argument
  • critical analysis of material
  • evidence of imagination, insight and synthesis
  • appropriateness and accuracy of references
  • use of English
  • Presentationis concerned with issues such as:

    spelling, punctuation, grammar, writing style, legibility, and visual presentation.

    The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of Londonhave published the following guidelines which show you the criteria that they use to place essays into each degree classification:

    "These are general guidelines and are not intended to be a complete summary of all the factors involved in assessing History essays. The classes also broadly correspond to those given for degree examination results.

    First Class: 70% and over

    A first-class answer shows an excellent understanding of the question and the complexity of issues involved, a very good command of relevant factual material, and an ability to analyse and interpret material and to handle historical concepts. There should be evidence of an original approach and signs that the student has read widely and carefully and can present a well-reasoned argument.

    Upper Second: 60-69%

    The essay shows a very good grasp of the main issues and a sound understanding of the relevant historical material and debates. There may not be as much originality of interpretation as in a first-class answer, but the material is presented clearly and logically and provides evidence of intelligent reading.

    Lower Second: 50-59%

    A lower second answer is weaker in term of general discussion, knowledge of sources and factual information. There are some significant inaccuracies, irrelevance or poorly substantiated claims, and the organization of material is erratic and inconsistent. Nonetheless, the answer shows some awareness of the issues involved and the main lines of interpretation.

    Third: 40-49%

    A third-class answer lacks a clear understanding of the main issues involved, though some partial understanding may be evident. There is some factual knowledge and/or awareness of theoretical issues, but it is patchy and thinly substantiated. The answer is likely to be poorly planned, with little sense of direction and little development of basic arguments. Significant errors occur, and parts of the answer may be irrelevant.

    Fail: 39% and below

    A fail answer demonstrates no grasp of the issues involved. Factual knowledge may be missing, insubstantial or incorrect. The presentation is confused or very erratic. Much or all of the answer is irrelevant or illogical."