Why you should improve on your essay writing, even if you scored an A for General Paper

Photo by Paul Worthington

In Junior College (JC), we learn General Paper (GP) to write academic essays. GP prepares us well for university as essays (including those in exams) typically form a large part of your grade. However, even with an excellent grade in GP, it does not necessarily mean we will fare well in university. It simply means we are well prepared for university essays, which are much more difficult than GP essays.

Why you should improve on your essay writing, even if you scored an A for General Paper
photo by Anthony Chang

Most university courses have a writing module at the start to prepare us for this. This may be a burden to some while others would simply breeze through. In any case, it is a good revision and chance to practise writing, especially for guys after army. Also, you can get a good idea of what is expected in university essays. Here are some types that you may encounter.

Typical Essays in University

Research Essays

This is common in science-related modules. You will be given a topic to research on and a question to answer about it. Compared to a typical GP essay question, you have to write up to 2000-3000 words on it and back your arguments up with credible data. Supporting facts, figures and examples are expected but this time, you have to link each one of them to a credible source, be it scientific papers or government websites, or you may be penalized! Credible data, written by serious scientists, can be found here: http://scholar.google.com.sg/. Go ahead and try looking for a topic.

Note that most work are handed in typewritten and at the end of your essay, you should have a list of all references, or what I like to call sources that I consulted. The good news is you are usually given several weeks to learn about the topic and source for credible data. However, you are expected to produce well-supported arguments and be prepared for challenging questions.

For instance, my first research essay is on “ocean acidification”, a worrying problem like global warming. It comes with a quote from a research paper, probably as a starting point of research. The question is

“Given the potential seriousness of this problem (as highlighted by the authors), why have we done and continue to do so little in response?”

Notice that the question has two parts: little response in the past and today. So it requires some digging about the issue in the past as well as some research about it currently. Google-ing the question didn’t help much either; I had to think on my own and before I could, I had to read and consult books and papers. And hence, the name “Research Essay”.

Analyze sources and critique

The second type of essays you may get is something like a research essay. This time, instead of sourcing for materials, you will be given sources, like a book or a research paper or a combination of both. Then, you will be given another big question about them. Usually, it asks you to say whether you agree with the author or not, and back your opinion with credible data. Not only do you need to digest what is given, you also need to conduct your own mini research to answer the question.

Open book examinations

You have probably heard of open book examinations in university. Sounds too good to be true? Imagine bringing in your textbooks and notes and simply finding the page number to copy the “answer”. However, the answers usually cannot be found in the textbook. The emphasis of open book examinations is to test your understanding of concepts rather than your memory of them. The challenging questions will usually ask you to apply them in a never-taught-before case study or your opinion about concepts. So rather than just remembering facts and figures before an exam, you now need to know where to find them and form arguments on the spot.

Note that you don’t have all of the time in the world to read your notes again because it’s still a timed exam. Questions ask for your opinion and answers cannot be found in the notes so sometimes, whether it’s open book or not doesn’t make difference. But since you can practically bring any notes into the exam, I usually have a game plan by preparing my opinions about key concepts as well as bringing in recent examples about them. Doing a mind map or summary is also a good idea to prepare for the mysterious open book exam.

Open book examinations
Photo by Trinity College

This can get even more difficult when you get randomly assigned group mates. Even with friends, you need to work together as a team to write a report about a topic. Not only do you need to write your own part well, everyone’s work must flow together as one coherent report. This is a complex process that is dependent on your group’s culture. Often, it’s easier when individual parts cover the required scope well and are easy to understand, which comes with good writing skills, before a skillful writer merges everything together and proofreads it.

In university, writing is not as simple as just a normal GP essay anymore. You need to learn how to do research (not just google-ing), deal with multiple sources, decide your game plan for open book exams, and work together with people to write a group report. Fortunately, you can still improve on your essay writing in university even though you do not have a GP tutor to nag at you or review your essays anymore.

Improving your essay writing skills in University

Free Writing Help Center

Visit NUS writing centers
photo by NUS

If you are in NUS, take advantage of the Writing and Communication Hub. Seniors will be there to help you improve your essay. They will offer to read your essay, spot any errors you might have missed, and even give you comments on how to improve it. I have been there several times, and I notice that very few people take advantage of this free service here in NUS. Yes, it is free!

So do go for it before a queue starts forming. Essays have to be clear in meaning, and having a reader who is probably not from your module, tests whether your essay is indeed clear or not. This is effective help for take-home essays like a research essay, or your group’s report.

More info at http://www.nus.edu.sg/celc/writinghub/. NTU has a writing centre too.

Take a free online course on essay writing

A glimpse on the Standford website
course website

There are several online courses taught by professors from renowned Universities in the world. Learn from them and apply it in your essays! In essence, you get the same exposure as an actual student there. Some courses teach common logical fallacies that you should avoid in your essays while others offer tips to craft convincing and watertight arguments. In this Stanford one, you even get to learn “tricks for writing faster and with less anxiety”, which may come in handy in timed exams.

 Most courses are taught real time with real students around the world, and you get to submit real assignments, which means a chance to practise writing! The more you practise writing, the better you would perform under timed conditions in the exam. Think about what you would do from today to the exam day. You can’t improve your writing by doing nothing.

 A good place to start is https://www.edx.org/ or https://www.coursera.org/courses. These websites also help you make an informed decision about what subject to major in.

Exchange essays with your peers after you get back your essay

When you do so with many of your friends, you would see generally, what makes the difference between a good and mediocre essay. Reading how others write and exchanging ideas help you become a better writer for future assignments.  In rare circumstances where the essay assignment is to write on any topic, peer review will greatly help you in the same way it does when you visit a writing hub. Talk to your friends about how to write better and discover new ways and new ideas that you might even find useful.

Learn how to interpret and cite sources

Learning how to include sources in your arguments helps to put them to effective use. Most citations usually end up in a bracket after a sentence like this. Compare the following:

“The oceans are more acidic today (David, K., 2014).”

“In a study published in Nature, a reputable scientific journal, David, K. (2014) found the oceans to be more acidic today over a ten year study.”

This puts the emphasis on the source of data and it helps to convince readers of a bold claim when it is a credible source. It also allows you to give more details about the research to strengthen your arguments.

It is also helpful to learn how to use a citation software like Endnote or BibTeX. Most writers use one to properly link data to the sources, which is a strict requirement in university. The software takes care of the formatting so we can focus on the essay itself.

Writing is an important skill that we need in almost every course of study in university. Being a good writer helps in most assignments, be it group or individual work. But don’t be complacent even when you can craft a decent essay now. University essays demand much more and learning how to write up to standard takes effort but fret not, as you can still improve your writing skills in university. The best method I would recommend is to check out online courses. They offer tips and methods that you can immediately apply in your assignments and prepare you well for future ones.




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