When transitioning from VCE to University, understanding the new style of assessment can be challenging and stressful! As a student who has been through this just 1 short year ago, I hope to arm other first year university students with the knowledge that I gained. You’ll be on your way to the marks you desire before you know it!
How is a university essay different from a high school essay?
The biggest difference between a high school and a university essay is the strictness. In high school, you are provided with a clear outline of what you need to write about. In university, it is largely up to you. In the words of one of my lecturers: “The essay question is a creative platform for you to show us your capabilities.”
Therefore, there is often NO specific way to respond to a question, as long as you stick to the topic. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule.
Secondly, you’ll find that university essays require clear referencing and are much longer than what you are accustomed to. Referencing and the length can be a little intimidating at first, but trust me – you WILL be fine! Get used to thinking about the value of sources, their academic merit. This will put you in good stead for research. Finally, length does not mean MORE sources, what it means is more detail. Keep this in mind.
The essay question
Most of you will have just walked out of year 12, where you were being asked to memorise mountains of content to regurgitate in an exam. Now, you are being presented with a very different task that requires a lot more critical thought. A very broad essay question, with very little guidance as to how to approach it. The best place to start is with the question itself.
What is it actually asking of you?
With most university essays, you will be expected to formulate some kind of argument in response to the essay question, but it is a good idea to seek clarification from your tutor on this. Tutors are usually very happy to answer questions of this type, but you can’t bombard them like you may have your teacher – they have hundreds of students! Therefore, when you are asking questions of them, ensure they are valuable questions.
Let us practise by unpacking the following essay question from a subject called ‘Law in Society’ that I studied in Semester Two of 2017:
Remorse could play an important role in reform/constitutional change for Indigenous Australians. Discuss.
Broad, hey? But let’s have a closer look.
‘Remorse’ was a key topic in this course, and most essay questions you are provided with will be on such a topic. At this point, it is useful to go back to the lecture on the topic, review your notes and the slides. This will help you in having a broad understanding of what is expected of the question.
Next, what is being asked of you? Here, you have been told to ‘discuss.’ Therefore, you must explore both sides of the essay question and consider counter arguments. If you do discuss counter arguments, it is important to explain why they are weaker than the argument that you are making.
Finally, consider where you stand with the essay question. Do you agree with it? Do you disagree with it? Do you sit on the fence? What do you want to argue in relation to it? This is the step that will allow your work to become uniquely ‘yours’ rather than a mere reflection of the lecture and course material. Perhaps for the above question, you could state that you ‘agree’, but only on the condition that the remorse is ‘real’ rather than ‘symbolic.’ Here, you have provided a platform to define the terms in the essay question in your own way!
After unpacking the question, it is time to start planning your essay. You must have an introduction, a body and a conclusion, just like you are used to. Try to think of three elements to the point that you will be arguing. What are the dimensions? What are the steps to you argument? This is how you should go about planning. Your introduction should outline the steps that will be taken to make your argument. The body will be a normal paragraph structure, one idea per paragraph.
When it comes to your conclusion, university essays offer some freedom. Rather than a mere summary, you can consider what the implications and relevance of your argument may be. Don’t be afraid of mentioning something new here, which I understand is contrary to what you are told all throughout high school!
Engaging with theory
When engaging with theory in your essay, it is important that you use it to enhance your own voice rather than substitute it. Your must make your argument, use the theory to reinforce it, and then draw your conclusion. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of the theory you are discussing, and ensure you explain its relevance to your overall argument very explicitly. This can be achieved with an extra sentence, often! This is where the importance of proof reading your essay comes in, because you will be able to pick up on these deficiencies. A good trick is to try reading the work to someone, like a parent or friend, and then ask them to tell you what you have just read to them in their own words. If they can do it, you know you have explained the theory and its relevance with clarity. These are the sorts of things that tutors are after when they ask for a ‘critical analysis.’
How many sources?!
There is no magic number when it comes to sources. However, you can consider a reference for every 100 to 200 words is usually sufficient. It may be less, it may be more, all depending on the requirements of the assignment. I have found that the above is a good rule to follow. For a 2000 word essay, 10-20 sources will offer a broad enough scope and provide enough detail. For a 3000 word essay, 15-30 is a good range of sources. This may sound intimidating, but you’ll find that you’ll naturally look at a lot of works throughout the research process.
Now, go write some amazing essays!
Keen to get High Distinctions at uni? Check out this "How to get HDs" video!
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