Study Tips – For Successful Essays (also useful for exams!)

We put so many articles out, in the interests of sharing our knowledge with our followers, and it occurred to me that we could also help by offering some sound study tips for those of you who are currently in, or considering academia. So here for you, are some of the basics to get you started based on my years as a student. It looks hard, but it really isn’t. It is a simple case of having an aim, making a skeleton and then adding layers until you have it finished. So lets begin! (And by all means please feel free to print this out and pass it around!)


You will no doubt as part of your studies, at whatever level, be expected to read an ever increasing amount of materials. Some of these form part of your set texts, others are optional to expand your knowledge and the content of your essays. So here are my steps to successful reading.

• Put away your highlighters, they actually serve no useful purpose. Can you imagine going through your books with a highlighter and marking up vast tracts of material, only to discover later that little of it bears any relevance to what you are expected to write about? How do you then discern the relevant parts from the rest? More importantly, how do you remember where it was in the book in the first place? Your only result at this point would be to have to waste large periods of time, searching back through the book to find where “this nugget” of info was, and then trying to pick it out of a distracting amount of bright yellow words.
• Invest in some colour co-ordinated sticky tabs and some matching index cards. All good stationers, or household suppliers stock them. Pick one colour…. When you do your first read-through, if you come across some fact or another that you think is interesting, stick a tab on the edge of the page, somewhere close to where it is located. Then close your book and on BOTH SIDES, write a one or two-word hint of what that tab represents ie “pigs ASIA” for domestication of pigs in Asia. (You will need to learn to write small for this). Ask me why on both sides? So when you are paging through later to reach it, you can see it from both the front and the back!
• Now get your index card, and write a quick ONE SENTENCE synopsis of what the tab represents. For example, “9000BCE domestication of pigs in Asia, page 43”. These cards can then be kept in an index card file, a sectioned display wallet or my particular favourite method, stuck to the wall of your study space with a blob of sticky tack. (This being my choice, I was able to use the cards to form a structured timeline, or order to where to find the stuff in the books!) When writing your essay, you can move the relevant ones to a separate area and adjust them around to form a skeleton of your essay points. Using this method, you will NEVER AGAIN have to attack your books with a highlighter, nor will you feel the need to copy out vast tracts of the materials as “notes”. My reasoning: its already written in the book, why waste time, energy and paper writing it out again?

Construction of your essay

Okay so now we have those basic yet effective methods in place, let’s move onto the next step – How to write an essay. There is always the desire to read the question, take it on face value and feel you have it figured out. Then you dive in and scrawl however many words of absolute rubbish, cut it down until it loses all meaning and submit it, only to be returned to you with the worst mark in the history of assignments. Or so it feels. So let’s break it down into easy to manage steps, which will (hopefully) help you to achieve those higher grades.

• Read the question. Done it? Okay now read it again. Properly this time. What is it actually asking you? The key to getting it right is answering what it asks you, NOT what you think it says. As the level gets higher, you tend to find that the question is formed of more parts, so the key is to really look at it and take in what it actually wants you to say. Often there are guidance notes to accompany the question, which also help you focus on what the goal of the exercise is.
• Take a piece of paper. Write the question at the top. Now get that highlighter, you know, the one you didn’t need before. Now…. Look very carefully at the question. Break it into its parts, write these underneath as headings, leave gaps to add notes. Then highlight the key words within the question. Often these are “Compare”, “Contrast”, “Analyse” and so on. Go back to the guidance notes, repeat.
• Spend a few minutes looking at your list. Here is where you get creative. You have the basics to write your essay here, now in your spaces, write a few words to summarise what direction you aim to take, perhaps using your knowledge so far, make a few points on what to include. Look at your index cards, are any of them relevant? If so, take them and put them in order on a separate bit of wall. When you have an idea of what you are being asked, and how you plan to write it, make bullet points on those things you want to include. For a 2000-word essay, you will need to reserve perhaps 200 words for your introduction and conclusion. This leaves 1800 words. Aim for around 300 words per point, that is six points. Each point is one paragraph. Write your paragraph list.
• Now, keeping your list to one side, go to your paper or computer and write out a rough plan of this order, with each of your points. Fill in any bits you already have. Start writing the basis of what you want to say.
• When you have this step completed, go back to your essay plan and check that each point is relevant to the question. You can achieve this by writing a one sentence summary that ties back to the question, USING YOUR KEY WORDS. For example…. This shows us that…. There is a comparison between…. If you cannot do this, then your point is probably not relevant.
• Start going back through your materials. Your guidance notes will have given you a strong starting point on where you can find relevant information within the texts. USE IT. If your question is asking you to compare and contrast the difficulty of recovering primary sources from both settling colonists AND indigenous people, in the British Empire, then this is what we will do. The question is asking us to concentrate on the British Empire. It is asking you about Primary sources ie journals and so on. And it is asking you to consider those from both settlers and the native people whose land they colonised. Then it is asking you to think about the difficulties… for example, is there a lack of these sources? Why could that be? Then finally it is asking you if the difficulties are the same for both groups? It may well ask you what as historians can we do about this? What METHODS can we employ to fill in the gaps. Your guidance notes will have all these extra clues and hints. USE THEM.
• Use a different colour sticky tab/ index card. In the same way as before, mark with a tab, relevant sections in the materials that back up the points you are wanting to make. Make a note on your plan where these points will fit in… again a one sentence summary of what it is, and why it is relevant to that point.

Writing your essay

So now you have the skeleton of your essay, it’s time to layer up on the fleshy bit! This is actually the easy part, you already have the direction, plan and points. You just have to write them out now! So…

• Start writing, use your materials to back it up and fill in the relevant information. Don’t forget to refer each point back to the question, at the end, to ensure it ties directly into what you are being asked, “This shows us that native people of Africa….” And use those keywords, remember those? Compare, Contrast, “In contrast British colonists in Africa…..”, “When we compare this to British settlers in New Zealand…..” And so on. CHUCK THOSE IN….
• Keep an eye on your word count. The trick is to write uphill not down. It’s easier to go in at the end and add a few words here and there, elaborate on a point a bit further, add that extra quote to make up a shortness on word count, than it is to write downhill and have to spend hours chopping it to pieces at the end. Remember…. Learning institutes are crafty. When they set these questions, they do it as a group, and then they do a perfect test answer which includes everything they think you should mention, in the tightest “no waffle” way possible. Then they set the word count according to that. The trick is to learn to answer in the same way. If it doesn’t add anything to your point, leave it out!

Polishing your essay

Now for the set-up…. Yes, it might seem odd doing this last but believe me, it makes more sense to set out your answer WHEN you have answered it!

• Write your conclusion… it’s a summary of what you have said. It’s not hard. “In conclusion we can see that…… “ And summarise what you have said! Golden Rule: NEVER INTRODUCE NEW POINTS INTO THE CONCLUSION! If you think of a new point, transfer it back to the relevant paragraph or start a new one.
• Play swap about with your draft, make sure one point flows to the next. If it doesn’t, cut and paste. This can be a lot easier if you are able to print your draft out. Print it out and take a pair of scissors to it, cut into your paragraphs then swap them around until you get a good structure where one point follows into the next and it all makes sense. Adjust accordingly on your P.C.
• Add any relevant quotes/ information from the materials, remember how you marked the pages before, it should be quick and easy to return to them now, and add them where they need to be.
• Say where you saw it. If it was something that can be considered common knowledge such as Henry VIII had six wives, or The declaration of independence was signed in 1776, then you don’t need to reference this. If there is a chance that somebody reading your essay will not know this or wants know where you got your idea from, so they can follow it up, CITE IT!!! (My advice is to do this as you go along, at least within the body of the essay and a short reminder of the chapter/unit and page, at the bottom.)
• Remember up to and including undergraduate level, YOUR thoughts and theories are irrelevant. Nobody wants to know them; you are not considered to have enough knowledge to offer them. The exercise is to teach you how you construct an answer to a given question using the materials available, not showing off how much you know. Therefore phrases to avoid include “I feel….”, “My theory is…..” and so on. Instead learn general phrases such as “This shows us….”, “We can see from this….” And so on. Pretend people don’t get the relevance, and tell them what it is!!!
• The only time you can OWN your input is within the introduction… “It is my intention to show….” “I will attempt to demonstrate…..” and so on. Simply put, it is YOU that is attempting to answer, so say what YOU intend to do. Everything else is down to those other, clever guys who wrote the books, so acknowledge that!
• Write your introduction last. There is no point trying to tell people what your aim is, until you have that aim finished. It is a lot easier to frame an introduction to fit your finished argument, than it is to frame an unwritten argument to fit an introduction.
• Your finished article should in essence be as simple as
1. “This is what I think the question is asking me, so this is what I am going to say.”
2. Say it
3. End by saying “See? I said that’s what I was going to say, and I said it!”
• Remember there are NO WRONG ANSWERS, providing your argument is relevant to the question and you can back up your argument with relevant material and content, it’s right. The guidance notes are there to guide you. The clue is in the name. Neat huh?
• The only thing left to do is polish it! Put those fonts and line spacing in order, add your word count. Make sure you write your words out in full, ie “it is” not “it’s”… we do not shorten, it is poor academic practice. Go through it to make sure you have referenced absolutely everything you ought to. Check spellings and grammar. And do your bibliography at the bottom.
• Leave it 24 hours and re-read it. Does it still answer the question? Yes? Get it sent. Don’t think about it again.

Other tips

Remember….. SAVE REGULARLY! Make sure you keep a working draft saved to your computer. Keep saving it over your previous copy. Every time you add a new bit, save it again! Keep saving and save some more. Trust me, I have seen grown men cry when they are nearly finished writing the essay to end all essays, and suddenly the computer crashes and takes hours or days of work with it. I also found a good idea was, every time you are done for the day, before you wrap it up, save it and EMAIL IT TO YOURSELF! This ensures that not only is your file saved BUT if your pc crashes for whatever reason and you can’t get to your masterpiece, you can go on ANY other PC, open up your emails, and there it is. Cool huh???

Also save your index cards. Don’t throw them away when you have finished your essay. Add in a little more info from the materials to each one, and keep them on the wall. When it comes to exam time, they are the basis of your revision, as each one represents a point or method or bit of information that was part of your module. This is the stuff that will be in your exam. When it comes to revision, take them off the wall and spread them around the house, near your toilet, next to the kettle, along the wall by the bathtub, whatever…. As you perform your daily routine, read them! When you are sitting in your exam and you need to remember when for example, those pesky pigs were domesticated in Asia…. Think “toilet” or “kettle” etc… and the information will pop right into your head. It’s a tried and tested method of subliminal learning. Incorporate the same essay writing methods into your exams will ensure less meaningless waffle and more time to construct a decent answer.

Good Luck