As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.
Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.
“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”
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The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.
“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”
But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.
“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?
“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”
Critique your own arguments
Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.
“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”
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Fine, use Wikipedia then
The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.
“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”
Focus your reading
Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.
Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.
You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.
“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”
There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.
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Look beyond the reading list
“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”
And finally, the introduction
The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.
“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”
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I think Part III is quite common amongst US students nowadays, and is thus well-known to graduate admissions committees. Probably the effect on your application will be good, since if nothing else it shows you are serious about studying mathematics; a school can also reasonably expect you to be considerably better prepared coming after a year at Part III than when you finished your BA. So if one of your issues was a weak curriculum as a BA student (as opposed to poor grades or weak letters), then Part III could help quite a bit. On the other hand, I wouldn't count on a dramatic change in your graduate school admissions, in part because as you note, you won't have your grades or a strong recommendation from Part III in hand when you apply for graduate schools the next time around. I wouldn't worry about the fact that Part III is not research based; obviously doing research before starting graduate school is great, but most graduate schools in the US are not really expecting you to have done much in the way of it beforehand, or to be even close to ready to start when you enter.
I think if money is no object, then Part III is probably as good as anything else you might do for having a strong graduate application in the coming cycle. EDIT: I should probably also say that a matter of substance (as opposed to application strategy), Part III is probably on average better than spending a year as a grad student at a random respectable grad program in the US, since it will bring you into contact with a wide variety of other students and ideas.
However, I think you should weigh that next to the possibility of starting graduate school at one of your lower preferences, and then trying to transfer after a year, or when you get a master's degree. There's no guarantee this will work, but the same can be said of Part III. If you've been offered funded admission at a respectable school in the US, and would have to pay your own way at Part III, I would look hard at whether you think it's worth the money.
EDIT: I wouldn't count on the "glamour" of Cambridge itself to have a strong effect. I honestly don't know how selective Part III is (maybe someone who knows can comment.), so I wouldn't rely on assuming that admissions committees will consider it as such. There's some psychological "band-wagon" effect where getting one prestigious position reinforces getting others, but it won't work if the substance isn't there. Getting a BA from Harvard or MIT is helpful for getting into graduate school (if you have a strong record) because an admissions committee is more confident that getting an A in math class at Harvard really means something, and that a professor at Harvard has a lot of experience with talented undergraduates and thus can speak with some certainty about what it takes to succeed in graduate school. So, if you went to Part III, got good scores on your exams and got a strong recommendation from a professor there, that could strengthen your application a lot as a "second opinion" reinforcing the recommendations and grades you have from your BA. However, as discussed, those would only be available for the fall 2016 admission cycle, not 2015. One possibility is to see about accepting one of your safety schools with a deferment to go to Cambridge, going to Part II in 2014-5, going to the safety school in 2015 and applying for transfer in 2016 or 2017 if you're unhappy there.
One piece of information we're lacking is what your "lower preferences" are (don't put too much stock in USNW rankings, but they help to be concrete in a discussion like this). It makes a big difference whether we're talking about a school in the rank ~25 (like UCSD), ~50 (like UVA) or ~100 (for example, South Carolina). In the former case, I'd say it's a waste of time to try to try to move up unless you go and are miserable, whereas in the latter it makes a certain kind of sense.
LATER EDIT: Incidentally, yes, given that your undergraduate grades are already "baked in," the main things you can still hope to change are your letters, and also your GRE scores if those were bad.