This time of year, rather than January, always seems like the start of a new year to me. I suppose I was at University, then working at a University, then studying again, working in library supply where the renewal cycle was at this time of year, then back to working at a University. I’ve also started at University twice (undergraduate and postgraduate), and my partner, Matthew, undertook a Master’s degree a few years ago.
So, I’m going to talk today about some hints and tips for new students on coping with those first essays. I’d like to broaden this out, too – so if you have any questions on this topic that I don’t cover here, please either post a comment to this post, or contact me via email or via my contact form, and then I’ll write a follow-up post in a question and answer format.
Starting at University or College can be really daunting. You have to get to grips with a new environment, a new place to live, new people around you … and what’s likely to be a new way of doing academic work, too. I know some A-level courses encourage students to do some research in a bigger library, but I also know from running library tours at my part-time job, that many of you won’t have been in a big academic library before, and might need a few hints and tips. So, here we go!
Use all the resources you’re offered
Your library is the main place for this. At the beginning of term, you’ll have the opportunity to go on a library tour. Take that opportunity to familiarise yourself with the library, and with the staff and where to ask for help. You’ll find where the books are for your course, and how to operate the photocopier, self-issue machines and other bits and bobs of technology. If you miss the tour schedule, many libraries offer downloadable audio tours, or other ways to help you orientate yourself. Library staff may offer training sessions and hands-on work with databases and other resources you may not have come across before.
Seek out the support and information that’s been put together to help you. This may come from library or departmental staff. At my university, study skills modules are available on the student portal part of the website. This is quite common and gives tried and tested advice, in far greater detail than I can go into here, on how to maximise your study skills and learn how to learn, and write those essays.
Don’t fear your essay … or your library
Your university library might look big, and you may not have used a large, academic library before, or even have been inside one – but in reality, most of your books are going to be in just one or two locations in that big building. You’ll need to get used to the classmarks on the spines of the books – usually made up of letters and numbers, like PR 1234.A6, these are simply a way of making sure books on the same subject are shelved together. Your library should have paper or online guides to where books at a particular range of classmarks are shelved, and once you’ve looked up a book, checked its classmark and found it, you’ll find other books on the same subject shelved alongside it. Electronic resources are ever so easy: access them online whenever, and from wherever, you want to.
Regarding your essay … the tutors are not out to trick you. They want to see you succeed, not fail. Yes, they want to push you and help you learn, but the essence of University work is finding out, following your interests – it’s far more flexible and enjoyable than all the cramming of facts into your head that you did for your A-levels. If you get stuck, ask for help (see below). If the department offers more resources about writing essays, use them. If your tutor makes lots of comments on your work, don’t be downcast, but use them to learn for next time.
Plan, plan, plan
If you’ve just done your A-levels, you’ll be more used to doing coursework than I was when, fresh from batches of 3 hour exams, but no coursework, I suddenly had to learn how to plan an essay! It’s a cliché, but don’t leave it to the last minute. You will (believe me) remember the hell of pulling a 24 hour session on an essay on Middlemarch, but you won’t remember anything about the book or what you wrote, and you’ll go right off coffee for a bit. When you get each course outline, there’ll be a note of what coursework is due and when. Note all these down once you’ve chosen your courses, and then plan time to spend on each essay.
When you’re researching and writing your essay, write a plan. Just like you did in your exams (right?). Now it’s all on Word, type in the headings – introduction, conclusion, the bits in between. Do some mind-mapping or write out a plan, however you like to do it. But plan the essay, even make a note of how many words you need for each section, and it’ll be all broken down into bite-sized chunks that are much, much easier to face.
For more information on essay-writing, by the way, you might want to look at this post, which is mainly for those writing dissertations and theses, but has some useful points, too.
Use some different resources
When you were at school, you probably used textbooks, the texts themselves if you were studying humanities subjects, the internet (Wikipedia? Don’t use Wikipedia now, please!). Now you have a huge wealth of information at your fingertips: books, e-books, journals, e-journals, databases of articles … Make sure you use a range of materials. Your course reading lists will probably guide you here – they should have a mix of materials on them. I didn’t really get to grips with journal articles until my post-graduate course (but then again, in my day they were all indexed in big, fat books; online searching was only just coming in) but wish I’d learned about them earlier.
It shows initiative and differentiates you if you read around your topic and search out some interesting articles, etc. to quote in your essay. Most of the electronic databases and e-journals are really easy to search (the designers put a lot of work into making them user-friendly, and there are often tutorials within the source itself, or written by library staff and available on the library or departmental website).
If you get really stuck with a particular database, and think you’ll need to use it a lot, it’s worth finding out who your Subject Advisor, Library Tutor, Learning Support Staff – whoever it is who’s paid to help students find stuff – and booking a session with them to get some more detailed help.
Record your references
Now’s the time to start recording where you found the information you’re discussing and quoting in your essays. Academic writing is quite a rigorous discipline, and the academic world frowns on plagiarism, which basically boils down to passing other people’s work off as your own. I’ve written a separate article about this here, so I won’t go in-depth about it again, but basically, make sure you note down where you got that idea or quotation from, and make sure you state that in your essay. You might use footnotes or you might just put a note in the text and put together a bibliography, but you’ll be expected to do this from the start. Get in the habit, and it won’t be so bad when you come to do your undergraduate dissertation or extended essay, or if you go on to postgraduate study.
You don’t need to do anything fancy – a Word document or an Excel spreadsheet with the author’s name, article or book title, journal title and volume/issue if it’s an article, and date, and there you go. Start doing it now, and it will become a useful habit that will help later on.
If you need help, ask for it, or accept it
If you’re feeling a bit stuck or panicky when confronted with your first tranche of essays, don’t fret. Help is at hand.
For a start, as I said above, your tutors are not trying to catch you out or trick you. You should have a personal tutor, and there will be some sort of academic support, too. Go to them – they are there to help you. No one is going to think any worse of you for seeking help. After all, in the world of work later on, the bosses will prefer it if you ask what the big red button does rather than just pressing it! And, you’re paying fees, so the university needs to help you get the best out of your education. So, ask.
If you have a particular issue, whether English isn’t your native language, you are dyslexic or need to use voice-activated software, support should be in place at your University. You might need to contact the Overseas Students office, in the first example, or Disability Services / Accessibility in the second, but there will be something in place – as far as Accessibility is concerned, there are laws to make sure that’s the case.
If you feel happier getting some private support, using an academic coach or proofreader, be very careful indeed. There are a lot of companies out there who prey on students who need their services. Obviously I’m decent and ethical, and if you feel you need some support with your essay writing, do get in touch – I can always recommend another person or company with whom I have personal experience and contact. But beware companies who charge a high fee and then just run your essay through a spell-checker (it happens). You shouldn’t pay more than about £8.00 per 1000 words for proofreading, and try to find a company or coaching service that will tell you the person’s name who you’re dealing with, and has references on their website.
OK, so these are a few general hints and tips. As I said, I’m more than happy to answer questions – ask me via email or via my contact form or just pop a comment on this post, and I’ll post up the answers in a week or so. Good luck, enjoy your course and your University life, and if you like this article, please share it using the buttons below!