Essays 101: Liberal Arts Style…
So you’re a Liberal Arts student, congratulations – you made it! The course that lets you follow your own interests, what a dream! Or so you think until they give you your first essay assignment…
I remember feeling daunted in my first year, not having had a lot of essay-writing experience at school it was hard being given the freedom to explore my own interests. What’s more, I remember feeling defeated when I received my first marks and they weren’t as high as I’d hoped. These first assessments brought with them a lot of self-doubt; having always been a fairly high achiever, it threw me off for further assignments. However, as the terms went on (and as the years have gone on), I feel much more confident in my essay-writing skills, and the thought of being able to pursue my own interests excites me! (I promise there’s more to student life than being excited by assignments, I’m not that boring…)
As a Liberal Arts student, you approach content through Problem Based Learning (PBL), this means we learn through adapting the content/theory to the real-world and the things which happen around us, hence why the most effective way to be assessed is to follow your own line of thought and interest, based on the things you’ve learned. When you come from a school environment where you’re told what to write about, to an environment where you create your own question, it can feel impossible. So, here are my top tips for writing your Liberal Arts essays (which you can also apply to other essays):
- Time – Leave yourself enough time to write the essay. Now, this isn’t always possible, so don’t beat yourself up, but always aim to be relatively stress free. Giving yourself enough time to write the essay ensures that you have enough time to research, gather notes, plan and write.
- Find your niche – Giving yourself enough time means you can think about the area of the subject that interests you. Even if it’s just a small part of the topics covered in class, pick out the bits that you like, and follow that!
- Skim-read – Leaving yourself enough time also means you can find yourself many sources which you can reference in your essay. You don’t have to read these all in detail, only pick out the important parts and make a note of them (Zotero is a really useful tool for referencing**).
- Just write! – I find the hardest part of writing an essay is actually starting to write it. I have all the information in my head but somehow I always struggle to put it into words on a page. My way of overcoming this is to “short-circuit” my brain, as my Personal Tutor put it: just sit down and write, don’t think about it. This really helped me to get over my mental block, and you write more than you think you can! If you’re interested in something, you’ll have all the more to say about it.
- Title – I usually perfect my title after I’ve started writing my essay. Obviously, it’s important to know what you’re writing about, but don’t spend countless hours trying to come up with a polished, clever, concise title. I like to include a quote or reference at the start, something which sets the scene for the type of essay I’m going to write, before writing my actual title. For example, in second year, I wrote an essay about the use of the cowboy figure in the Levi’s 501 Jeans advertisements, and its effect on masculinity. For my title I chose the quote “Is That You, John Wayne?”, referencing an old Western movie.
- Less is more, but more is better – It’s always better to be over the word count than under, because it means you can cut it down (which is easier, I think). Remember, you usually get a +/- 10% leeway for all your essays in Liberal Arts.
- Feedback – As Liberal Arts students, we’re lucky to have a small department, which means the quality of teaching and support is very high. Always read the feedback your tutors give you, and reach out to them if you have any further questions, they’re there to help you not hinder you. The feedback I’ve received has always been extremely detailed, and has helped me to improve my marks in subsequent assessments, so use it as a tool!
Of course, I’ve had times where I’ve cut it a bit close, or I’ve panicked because I don’t know what to write about. Whilst I can’t tell you how to write your essay content-wise, I hope these 7 tips help you to approach the essay in a different way, and not feel so daunted by it. Remember: just because your first marks aren’t as good as you hoped, this doesn’t mean you’re not good at what you’re doing. It’s a matter of perfecting the technique rather than knowing it all.
As always, don’t hesitate to reach out if you want to talk about anything further, I’m always happy to help 🙂
(**Zotero is a program you can download on your laptop/computer which I have found to be extremely useful for referencing. It creates a library of your sources and is even connected to Microsoft Word. A tutorial vlog will be up soon!)