10 Ways to Get a First in Your Next Essay

Getting a first at university can be incredibly challenging, and the only way to achieve it in a humanities subject is to be great at writing essays. If you’re studying a subject such as English Literature, History, Philosophy, Theology, Politics, Economics, Anthropology, or Geography, then you’ll almost certainly have to write essays throughout the university year, getting assessed as you go. If you’re taking one of the above subjects, or any other subject that involves essay writing, then getting a first in them is something you should absolutely aim for. Here, we’re going to take a look at the 10 ways to get a first in your next essay.

Essay Writing Tip 1 – Read the question carefully and make sure that you understand it.

There’s only one thing worse than realising you’ve misunderstood a question half-way through writing you essay, and that’s realising you’ve misunderstood it after you get your marks back. Some people like to jump into an essay as soon as they’ve found a question that they think is interesting. However, by being too eager, students can end up either making more work for themselves when they have to re-write their entire essay, or lose marks because they didn’t fully understand the question.

Having a strong understanding of your essay title will help you write the best answer possible. Pay attention to the scope of the question, such as time-frames. Additionally, make sure that you understand exactly what the question is asking of you. It’s never a good idea just to throw everything you know at an essay. Think about what’s relevant to the question being asked, then cater your knowledge to it.

Essay Writing Tip 2 – Take planning seriously.

The best essays tend to come about from meticulous research and planning. Some people spend only a little amount of time on the planning stage of their essay. Then, they leave the bulk of the work for the writing stage. While this may work for some people, what you’ll likely find is that you’ve forgotten something when planning and now have to find a place for it in your essay. This can result in a messy structure, and your essay can lose focus.

The best way to avoid this is to devote more time to the planning stage of your essay. Your plan should be as robust as possible, briefly detailing each section and paragraph. This way, you’ll probably end up doing most of the work in the planning stage of the essay-writing process.

Once your plan is finished, and you’re happy with the flow of it, then you should start writing the essay. You might find that the actual essay-writing part is easy – all you’re doing is turning all of the points you’ve made in your plan into full-sentences and paragraphs. This also means that you can spot any problems with your essay in the earliest stage, before you’ve done the bulk of the actual writing. Finally, a strong essay plan will let you know where your argument is going before you’ve started writing, meaning you can tighten up your ideas rather than just make things up as you go along.

Essay Writing Tip 3 – Make your essay laser-focused.

Don’t literally write an essay on lasers. Instead, make sure that your essay is incredibly focused, since this will stop your work from trying to take on too much. Make sure you answer the question, but don’t be afraid to take a narrow focus. It’s almost always better to go in-depth on a small number of issues, rather than have a shallow analysis of lots of issues. At degree-level, your work needs to have depth, so be willing to sacrifice breadth in order to get it.

For example, if a question requires you to use case studies to support your argument, consider looking at just one in more detail, rather than many in brief. This will also help you from going off on a tangent if you force yourself to narrow your focus.

Finally, having a very narrow focus gives you the opportunity to be original in a way that doesn’t make sweeping generalisations. A very specific scope gives you the opportunity to go into detail on a minute area, which in turn might give you the chance to say something truly unique.

Essay Writing Tip 4 – Be concise.

Flowery language and long words aren’t always the most appropriate when writing an essay. Of course, you should have some kind of writing style, but this doesn’t mean that you need to become incomprehensible. You should aim to make your language easy to understand, with sentence structure that doesn’t spiral out of control. As a general rule, short sentences are preferable to longer ones, since you can prevent run-on sentences and a general lack of focus. The goal of an essay is to convey an argument, not to show off with fancy sentence structure. Be sensible and cut through nonsense.

Essay Writing Tip 5 – Avoid clichés.

One of the most important things to remember when trying to get a first in your next essay is to avoid clichés. This is vital because whoever is marking your work doesn’t want to be bored by the same ideas, phrases, and rhetorical devices. For instance, grand-standing is a cliché which detracts from the focus of an essay, and makes it more generic.

Here’s an example of grand-standing:

“Since the dawn of human civilisation, scholars have discussed what it means to be human…”

While this might be the case, it’s very unlikely that opening your essay with this phrase will be of any use to your argument. It doesn’t shine any light on what you’re going to say – all it does is wastes space which could be spent on meaningful discussion. Clichés like this don’t come across as confident – it looks clumsy. As we mentioned previously, try and keep your argument to the point, rather than relying on rhetorical devices.

Essay Writing Tip 6 – Paraphrasing is better than writing quotations.

At school, you might have been taught to quote from sources very frequently. While it’s vital that you back up any claim that you make with evidence, a quote often isn’t the best way to do so. Let’s take a look at why.

When you use a quote as evidence, you’ll probably be using it in the following format:

Using a Quote

1. Introduce point you want to make.
2. Give quote to support the point.
3. Explain what the quote is saying.
4. Explain how this is relevant to your point, as well as the essay question.

When you explain what the quote is saying, you’ll probably end up repeating some of the things that have been said. Therefore, you’ve wasted some space by writing the quote, then putting it in your own words. Instead, you can save space (and look more sophisticated) by ditching quotes and just paraphrasing instead. Not only does this save space, but it also proves that you understand the quote and know what you’re talking about.

In some cases, however, it might still be relevant to include the full quote. For example, if you’re quoting a line from a Shakespeare play, then the structure of the line, as well as the exact wording, is relevant. In these cases, you should opt to provide a quote.

Essay Writing Tip 7 – Make sure your referencing is correct and presentable.

When writing an academic essay, good referencing discipline is vital. Find out what system your university prefers (e.g. Harvard referencing, APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian) and then stick to it strictly. There are plenty of referencing guides online which will show you to reference every kind of media possible – from written journals to YouTube videos. Go through your entire essay, and make sure that you’ve cited all of the sources you’ve used properly. This is an easy way to stop yourself from dropping some marks.

Essay Writing Tip 8 – Be original.

Originality is a tricky area when it comes to writing an essay. The likelihood is that you’re not going to be able to change the world in a single essay. Scholars devote their whole lives and thousands of pages to even the smallest of advances in their own fields. You’ve probably only got a few weeks and maybe a few thousand words.

Likewise, it probably seems as if all the big ideas have already been made. If you find yourself coming up with a radically new idea when writing an essay, the chances are that someone has already written about it. Being original can be incredibly difficult.

However, if you make your focus in an essay extremely narrow (as previously mentioned), you have a bit more room to work in. In a few thousand words, you aren’t going to come up with a whole new theory. However, you might be able to make a small but meaningful difference within a narrow field. Trying to narrow your focus in your next essay in order to show some original thought.

Essay Writing Tip 9 – Be confident.

Like originality, it’s important to show confidence in your essays. After all, an essay is an argument, and the marker wants to see you get behind your ideas, rather than sit on the fence. Don’t come across as foolhardy or blind to criticism. However, don’t be afraid to make strong claims if you have evidence to support them.

If you have space and time, try to address possible criticisms of your own argument. You can either address criticisms as you go, or devote a section towards the end of your essay on all the possible issues one might have with your ideas. Awareness of criticisms (as well as the ability to refute them) will show a level of sophistication that will put you far ahead of the competition.

Essay Writing Tip 10 – Avoid lengthy introductions and conclusions.

Getting started on an essay is possibly the hardest part. Figuring out what you’re going to say in the opening sentence can be a stumbling block, and it might be tempted just to start writing mindlessly. Try to avoid this since you’ll most likely ramble on, rather than getting to the point of your argument. Try to save introductions and conclusions for the very end of the writing stage of your essay. Once you know what you’ve said in the main body of your argument, you’ll know what to write in the introduction and conclusion. This will help you to keep your introduction and conclusion to the point.


There you have it – 10 ways to get a first in your next essay. We recommend that you try and incorporate all of these tips into your next essay if you haven’t done so already. If you would like more tips for acing your next essay and increasing your chances of getting a first at university, keep an eye out for our upcoming guide: How to Get a First at University.

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