An essay is usually an extended piece of written work (undergraduate essays vary in length from 1000 to 5000 words), and is supposed to involve analysis, clear argument, and research. In the essay you bring these elements together. You are supposed to respond to your question or task by researching as widely as time and resources allow, in order to be able to come up with evidence, and perhaps different viewpoints, which you then analyze or subject to critical thought. An essay is not just about providing a ‘right answer’, or demonstrating what you know. In most cases what is being assessed is the process – of researching, analyzing and evaluating your material, and producing an argument which reflects both the evidence provided and your ability to think critically about it.
The essay is probably the commonest form of assessment at universities. It is now used more than exams, and it is not specific to any discipline area: you will be writing essays if you are doing subjects in economics, business, health science, tourism, engineering or education. Essays are such a popular form of assessment because they are useful for determining how well you have understood – not just memorized. Whereas exams of the short-answer kind assess the ability to learn facts, essays allow you to demonstrate important literacies, such as being able to research, select evidence and use examples, and evaluate different points of view. In essays, you demonstrate your ability to use the discourses of the discipline. These kinds of literacies are those which university students are supposed to have, and employers want.
Usually essays will be returned to you with written feedback from the tutor. They differ in this respect from exams, which can be marked more quickly. There are two main problems with written feedback:
- Students may not distinguish between the comments and corrections referring to relatively minor errors of style and language use an comments on more fundamental aspects, such as the quality of the argument, structure, and depth of understanding.
- Students are mainly interested in the mark awarded. They may not take much notice of the comments, nor make use of them to improve their next assignment.
Essays Have the Following General Structure
- Introduction. This prepares your reader for what is to come. It orients your argument to the set topic (e.g. by explaining what you understand by the question).
- Main body. This is where you bring in the evidence of your research, and put together your argument’s.
- Conclusion. This brings the essay to an end. The reader is reminded in some way of every major point you made or issue you considered.
- Bibliography. Any piece of work that contributed to your essay should be included. This does not include only books – films, magazines, and newspapers should be included if you made use of them, even if you don’t quote them directly.
You will need to find out what requirements there are about format and style in the particular discipline (or unit). For instance, you will probably be told that you must have a separate title page and use a certain referencing convention (e.g. the Harvard system). Some disciplines, notably the humanities, tend to disapprove of such devices as subheadings or lists using numbers or bullet points.
Note that oral presentations, too, should have a distinct introduction, body and conclusion (in your mind, even if the transitions between them are not noticeable to the audience). Oral presentations do not have bibliographies, but you should not use other people’s ideas-or provide contestable facts and figures-without briefly indicating their source.