Writing a university essay can be a bit complicated, especially if you haven’t done it before –  or not in English.  In this post I’ll share with you everything you need to know on how to write a great essay.  If you follow this step-by-step plan, I’m sure you’ll be happy with the results.

1.  Start With the Deadline

You may be surprised why I’m starting ‘at the end’, but if you want to write a great essay you have to give yourself enough time to do it.

Find out in advance when the deadline is for your essay.  Ideally, you should start working on your essay 4 weeks before your deadline, especially as you might have other essays and assignments due at the same time.

2. Analyse & Define

When looking at your essay question, you need to analyse it and define its key terms. So, how do you do this?

Take your time to really think about the essay question and to understand what the topic is about.   What is the meaning of all the key words in the essay question?  What are they asking you to do?

Once you understand the essay question, you can focus on including only the relevant information in your answer.  This will also make planning and writing your essay much easier.

3.  Plan Your Essay

Whether you have to write a short 1000 words or a long 8000 words piece – every essay needs a strong plan.

Start by writing down two or three sentences outlining the main themes of your essay.  This will help you come up with the main topics, and you can plan the direction you want to take with the essay.   It is important to do this, as your initial ideas will help you decide what research you need to do.

4.  Research Your Topic


It’s time to head to the library or get out your notebook and go online. Your research could include books, academic literature (papers, journals, archives), newspapers and other high authority media sources.

Make sure you include all the relevant literature.  A tip there is to start by looking at the reading list your department might have given you for your topic. But don’t limit yourself to it: to get high marks you will need to show you have independently researched other relevant sources.

5.  Read Around the Topic

As you find out about your essay subject, you may have to ‘read around’ the topic and subject.  Looking at the wider context will give you a better understanding of the subject.

Reading and understanding the material can take some time – maybe longer than you first expected.  So make sure you allow yourself enough time for this step.

6.  Take Notes


As you do your research and read the material, make notes all the way.  But don’t simply copy things word for word.

It’s best to summarise the author’s main point and to write down for yourself how this is relevant or how you can use this information.  Maybe you will use it to support your point of view or to disagree with the author?

7.   Use Citations


A related tip is to write down the book / publication and page number next to any note you make.  This way you will find it easier to cite the work in your essay – and you have to use citations and referencing in your essay to avoid plagiarism.

Make sure you find out from your department if there is a specific system that you need to use for your subject, for example the Harvard or Chicago systems.  Follow the style properly and speak to your professor or your university study support office if you’re unsure about anything.

8.  Start Writing


You have your essay plan in front of you and now use your plan and the research you’ve done to write your sentences and paragraphs.

But keep in mind, this is just your first draft, so don`t worry if it seems too long or too short at first.   Also, don’t worry too much about your wording and grammar at this stage.  What’s more important is to try and put all your material in a logical order to give your essay a clear direction and structure.

9.   Your Introduction & Conclusion


Your final essay must include an introduction, a main body and a conclusion.  Some students like to include their introduction and conclusion in their essay plan or in their first draft.  Whilst others prefer starting with main body of the essay and writing the introduction and conclusion at the end.  Do whatever you find easiest.

10.  Take a Break from Your Essay

Once you have written your first draft, you should forget about your essay for a day or two.

You will be surprised to find that returning to your work after taking a short break can be extremely helpful, as this can help you see things you may have missed before.  You will also be able to better develop the ideas you’ve written down.

11.   Work on Your Draft

By now, you should aim to include in your essay everything that you want include.  You should have fully formulated your theories, arguments and points of view.  Reading through your essay, ask these questions:

  • Does the essay answer the essay question?
  • Is the information I have provided relevant?
  • Have I missed out any important theories, arguments, or details?
  • Is my wording clear and are my arguments well-supported and therefore convincing?

12.  Get Academic Support

Remember, if at any stage you feel overwhelmed or lost in the detail, you can always speak with your lecturer or a staff from your university’s academic support team.  This can be very helpful as it can help you focus again, and give you some advice on what to do next.

13. Get a Second Opinion

Once have your final essay draft, it is always a good idea to have someone else look at it.  This could be a friend, family member, or someone that understands your essay topic.  However, you should never post your essay online or share it with someone who could copy it.

Who you ask really depends on ‘why’ you are asking them to read your essay – is it to comment on the content – or to give you their opinion on the style, flow of the text and whether your writing makes sense?

14.  Final Check

You will need to re-read your essay for the final time so you can make those last-minute small changes, correct any grammatical errors, remove any spelling or punctuation mistakes.

You will want to ensure that your essay best reflects your ideas and the good work you’ve put into it. When you’ve done this and you’re happy with the final result, your essay should be ready to hand-in.  If you have the opportunity to put your essay to the side for one day before, that would be great. If not, don’t worry – it’s more important to hand it in on time.

15.  Handing in Your Essay

We started with the deadline and we finish with the deadline as the final step in our essay plan is: hand in your essay by the deadline.

Whatever you do, do not miss your deadline.  If for whatever reason you’re unable to submit the essay by the deadline, speak to your professor BEFORE the deadline to see if he or she might give you an ‘extension’.

Finally, check how you need to submit your essay: in paper format, by email or upload it using the university’s online system – or a combination of any of these?

Final Thoughts

There is an English way of saying “Fail to prepare and prepare to fail”, which essentially means if you don’t prepare well, realistically speaking you can’t do well.

Which is why it’s important that you have a step-by-step plan for your essay. Preparation will also make writing your essay so much easier.

Now, some of the steps in our guide might take you longer than others.  This will depend on your subject and essay topic.  It also depends on you and what aspects of writing an essay you find easy, and which you’re less comfortable with.

Always give yourself enough time to write your essay in a way that reflects what you’re truly capable of. And NEVER miss your deadline.

About the Author

Freddie King is the Founder of Portfolio Coaching.  Currently living in io de Janeiro, Brazil, Freddie has worked as a freelance writer and English language coach for more than five years, working in a number of countries around the globe.

It was during the time he spent preparing his students for English exams, interviews and trips that he decided to focus his expertise on the British higher education system and began to specialise in university coaching.  Freddie is also a keen writer and regular contributor to feature articles and content.

Connect With Freddie on Facebook

Leave a Comment