Surviving First Term Assignments

                                                                   By Emma Sproul

As Christmas swiftly approaches, so does the pressure of first term essay deadlines. Whilst procrastinating over essays, and prioritising Netflix/sleeping/parties (insert as appropriate) seems to be the best distraction, it is possible to have a healthy relationship with Netflix whilst also tackling your essays. Preparation is key: use the limited time you have and broaden your use of resources to make the most difference.

The chicken or the egg?

Firstly, you will NEED to know the essay questions as soon as possible. Getting back into the first term is hard enough as it is so the earlier you have an idea of what your essay will be about, the better! Once you have received the questions, thoroughly read them. What makes sense? What doesn’t make sense? Write everything down. Please remember that what you write about in your essays cannot be used again in exams or any other work. My advice here is to use a question or material that you may have struggled with. You will have more time to prepare for an essay than an exam as you have the question beforehand. So study your text!

Don’t be afraid!

Once you have chosen a question, plan, plan, then plan some more! What is the question asking you? Is it a critical writing essay or close reading? Make sure you fully understand what is being asked of you otherwise you will lose important marks for irrelevant information and for not answering the question. Use your tutors here, remember that they WANT to help you and want you to get the highest mark possible! Don’t feel like you are hounding them – they would rather help you with the same question one hundred times over than see you fail once! Look out for extra classes your tutors may be facilitating in the run up to essay deadlines as these may help you with things such as essay writing styles, references and so on… These sessions are where you will get important help from tutors but also from other students as you won’t be the only one struggling!


Photocopy key pages from the text, write your life story over them if needs be as this will help you in times when you may not feel as focused. Sometimes just key words can help! Mind maps – remember these from school? I find mind maps can help open the possibilities of exploring the links between texts and questions we may not always find at a first glance.

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Moby Dick: Whale, or God?

Read around your subject. There is a lot of freedom within English Literature essays especially. This means, technically, there is no incorrect answer! If you can provide the correct knowledge and evidence to back up your reasoning for it, bizarre as it may seem, you could receive marks for it. If, for example, when reading Moby Dick, you found that the whale symbolised a higher power (such as God), then read about religion and weave this through your essay. You may find that you are not the only one who has explored this; meet up with your classmates, discuss the text and bounce around ideas. Not only will you broaden your mind by connecting literature with other subjects, you will also possibly be learning some knowledge which could win you that pub quiz on a Friday night!

If at first you don’t succeed, try again…

Whilst these are just a few tips to help you with essay writing, they are important. Always remember not to stress yourself out over essays. Talk to your tutors, department admin staff, other students, friends and family if you feel this is the case. Five minutes of distraction will mean more than you know. It is a daunting process, but it will all be worth it in the end!