Ah, essays – the bane of all Singapore university students. We tend to associate essay writing with stressing out over what to write, suffering through all-nighters, dragging ourselves through mounds of research…
Love it or loathe it, the art of essay-writing is a big part of university education. So, while you can’t avoid it, there are definitely some strategies that will make your essay-writing years far less painful. Here are 5 study habits that can help you breeze through those dreaded 5000-word essays – in style.
1) Checking out the questions early
In university, it’s fairly typical for most lecturers to put up the list of essay questions well ahead of time. Some ultra-timely professors have them uploaded even before the start of the term, from my experience at NUS.
While many students don’t even glance at the assigned questions until the dreaded deadline draws near, checking them out isn’t just about being kiasu– it can give you a real edge over your peers.
If you think about it, the essay questions offer you a good sense of what key ideas and issues are central to the subject material. Just keeping them in mind helps you to zoom in on the most relevant points when you’re doing your readings, and process them in more depth. You can even expand on these key questions and concepts by jotting down any original ideas that strike you.
This means that when the time comes to write your essay, you won’t need to waste time re-skimming your readings to hunt the right points down. You’ve already highlighted everything you need, along with your pre-brainstormed ideas that can form the groundwork for your essay. As they say, the early bird catches the worm!
2) Writing summaries
Highlighting your readings in rainbow colours is all well and good, but have you ever thought of writing summaries of what you’ve learnt after each reading? Summarizing your learnings in your own words may sound like a pain, but it’s a nifty study aid that future-you will thank yourself for.
At the university level, citing arguments from other scholars is pretty much expected, and restating the points they’ve made is crucial to crafting your own ideas. Just imagine how much easier it would be if you wrote up mini-summaries right after doing a reading, with all the points still fresh in your head – so that come essay time, a quick “copy-paste” is all you need.
Besides speed, summarizing has the potential to boost the quality of your essay as well. Research has shown that summarizing improves meta comprehension accuracy, which refers not only to your ability to comprehend a text but to judge the extent of your own learning.
And according to Dr Robert Harris, an ex-college professor of English, the effort of sifting out important points and condensing them increases your critical thinking and mastery of the material. This means that summary-writing may help you craft a smarter and more sophisticated essay – in a faster time, no less.
3) Take organized notes
Have you ever wasted half an hour trying to track down a great point you remember reading somewhere, or squinting through your messy notes for the quote you absolutely need to back your argument?
Writing an essay is definitely faster and pain-free when you’ve got all your basic material organized at your fingertips. Whether you’re scribbling down stuff your prof says or jotting out useful points from your secondary sources, it pays to make sure your notes are in order.
For class notes, one great note-taking method you can check out is the Cornell method, devised by Cornell education professor Walter Pauk to optimise reviewing and understanding of notes. For secondary research, make it a habit to note down citation details like page numbers, and keep track of all your sources with tools like EndNote or RefWorks.
4) Use prewriting strategies
It’s always tempting to just dive into writing and figure things out along the way – especially if you’re pulling that trademark of college students, the last-minute all-nighter. In truth, however, a good essay outline is half the battle won. Getting into the habit of prewriting can make your actual writing go much more smoothly.
Prewriting refers to all the preparatory work you do to generate ideas, think up a solid thesis, link points and so forth. To get you started, here are some useful techniques recommended by the University of California Berkeley and the University of Kansas’ Writing Center. Chances are that you already do things like brainstorming and mind-mapping to get your essay-writing juices flowing, but you can always pick up new techniques like freewriting – writing in an uncensored flow – and looping – a freewriting technique that helps you to hone in on interesting ideas.
Once you’ve figured out what works best for you, you can develop a reliable prewriting routine that makes fleshing out your essay much easier.
5) Start early
This sounds like the most obvious advice ever, but hey, how many of us actually follow it? You know the routine: swearing to start earlier next time while chionging an essay at 4am… then putting the next essay off until a day before the deadline.
Procrastination ironically causes us way more stress and anxiety, which may be a factor contributing to our dread towards essays. Stress-free essay writing begins with fighting procrastination – some strategies you can use include breaking your goal into smaller pieces (aiming to finish one part of your essay rather than the whole thing, for example) and rewarding your progress.
With these handy strategies in mind, you can (hopefully) say goodbye to all-nighters, and be all set for the new semester ahead.