Essay and dissertation writing skills
Planning your essay
Writing your introduction
Structuring your essay
- Writing essays in science subjects
- Brief video guides to support essay planning and writing
- Writing extended essays and dissertations
- Planning your dissertation writing time
Structuring your dissertation
- Top tips for writing longer pieces of work
Advice on planning and writing essays and dissertations
University essays differ from school essays in that they are less concerned with what you know and more concerned with how you construct an argument to answer the question. This means that the starting point for writing a strong essay is to first unpick the question and to then use this to plan your essay before you start putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).
A really good starting point for you are these short, downloadable Tips for Successful Essay Writing and Answering the Question resources. Both resources will help you to plan your essay, as well as giving you guidance on how to distinguish between different sorts of essay questions.
You may find it helpful to watch this seven-minute video on six tips for essay writing which outlines how to interpret essay questions, as well as giving advice on planning and structuring your writing:
Different disciplines will have different expectations for essay structure and you should always refer to your Faculty or Department student handbook or course Canvas site for more specific guidance.
However, broadly speaking, all essays share the following features:
Essays need an introduction to establish and focus the parameters of the discussion that will follow. You may find it helpful to divide the introduction into areas to demonstrate your breadth and engagement with the essay question. You might define specific terms in the introduction to show your engagement with the essay question; for example, ‘This is a large topic which has been variously discussed by many scientists and commentators. The principle tension is between the views of X and Y who define the main issues as…’ Breadth might be demonstrated by showing the range of viewpoints from which the essay question could be considered; for example, ‘A variety of factors including economic, social and political, influence A and B. This essay will focus on the social and economic aspects, with particular emphasis on…..’
Watch this two-minute video to learn more about how to plan and structure an introduction:
The main body of the essay should elaborate on the issues raised in the introduction and develop an argument(s) that answers the question. It should consist of a number of self-contained paragraphs each of which makes a specific point and provides some form of evidence to support the argument being made. Remember that a clear argument requires that each paragraph explicitly relates back to the essay question or the developing argument.
- Conclusion: An essay should end with a conclusion that reiterates the argument in light of the evidence you have provided; you shouldn’t use the conclusion to introduce new information.
- References: You need to include references to the materials you’ve used to write your essay. These might be in the form of footnotes, in-text citations, or a bibliography at the end. Different systems exist for citing references and different disciplines will use various approaches to citation. Ask your tutor which method(s) you should be using for your essay and also consult your Department or Faculty webpages for specific guidance in your discipline.
Essay writing in science subjects
If you are writing an essay for a science subject you may need to consider additional areas, such as how to present data or diagrams. This five-minute video gives you some advice on how to approach your reading list, planning which information to include in your answer and how to write for your scientific audience – the video is available here:
A PDF providing further guidance on writing science essays for tutorials is available to download.
Short videos to support your essay writing skills
There are many other resources at Oxford that can help support your essay writing skills and if you are short on time, the Oxford Study Skills Centre has produced a number of short (2-minute) videos covering different aspects of essay writing, including:
- Approaching different types of essay questions
- Structuring your essay
- Writing an introduction
- Making use of evidence in your essay writing
- Writing your conclusion
Extended essays and dissertations
Longer pieces of writing like extended essays and dissertations may seem like quite a challenge from your regular essay writing. The important point is to start with a plan and to focus on what the question is asking. A PDF providing further guidance on planning Humanities and Social Science dissertations is available to download.
Planning your time effectively
Try not to leave the writing until close to your deadline, instead start as soon as you have some ideas to put down onto paper. Your early drafts may never end up in the final work, but the work of committing your ideas to paper helps to formulate not only your ideas, but the method of structuring your writing to read well and conclude firmly.
Although many students and tutors will say that the introduction is often written last, it is a good idea to begin to think about what will go into it early on. For example, the first draft of your introduction should set out your argument, the information you have, and your methods, and it should give a structure to the chapters and sections you will write. Your introduction will probably change as time goes on but it will stand as a guide to your entire extended essay or dissertation and it will help you to keep focused.
The structure of extended essays or dissertations will vary depending on the question and discipline, but may include some or all of the following:
- The background information to - and context for - your research. This often takes the form of a literature review.
- Explanation of the focus of your work.
- Explanation of the value of this work to scholarship on the topic.
- List of the aims and objectives of the work and also the issues which will not be covered because they are outside its scope.
The main body of your extended essay or dissertation will probably include your methodology, the results of research, and your argument(s) based on your findings.
The conclusion is to summarise the value your research has added to the topic, and any further lines of research you would undertake given more time or resources.
Tips on writing longer pieces of work
Approaching each chapter of a dissertation as a shorter essay can make the task of writing a dissertation seem less overwhelming. Each chapter will have an introduction, a main body where the argument is developed and substantiated with evidence, and a conclusion to tie things together. Unlike in a regular essay, chapter conclusions may also introduce the chapter that will follow, indicating how the chapters are connected to one another and how the argument will develop through your dissertation.
For further guidance, watch this two-minute video on writing longer pieces of work .
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Writing the university application essay.
WUAE is available as a customized program, scheduled at your convenience, for groups of 10 or more students who are applying, or planning to apply, to undergraduate degree programs at U.S. universities. For more information, or to schedule a course, please contact University Connection Program Manager, Leah Greenspoon .
About the Course
Writing the university application essay is one of the most important and challenging parts of the US admissions process. It is your chance — and often your only chance — to show the admissions committee who you are, how you think, and why you would be a positive addition to their school and community. Writing an effective essay requires you to ask yourself some serious questions, think critically and reflectively about your life, and express yourself in a powerful statement that suggests a future of academic success, personal growth, and contribution to community.
Through our course, Writing the University Application Essay (WUAE), we offer international students a meaningful step-by-step process to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to write an effective and memorable personal statement. WUAE has been offered through our University Connection Program for over 10 years, and has helped hundreds of students reach their goals for admission . We're now excited to offer this course in a 5-week online format.
Writing the University Application Essay - Online (WUAE Online) is an online writing course intended for international freshman applicants to US colleges and universities. WUAE Online is designed as a practical process-oriented guide to writing an effective and memorable personal statement. The course begins by examining the essay within the larger application to reveal how it impacts admissions decisions. With an understanding of the admissions audience and expectations, students will work to identify engaging topics, analyze common application prompts, and craft an essay that avoids common mistakes and highlights students' unique strengths and personalities. The course will introduce expert advice, sample essays, editing checklists, and strategies for creative and effective writing. Students will participate in interactive writing workshops and receive extensive individualized feedback from instructors. By the end of the course, students will complete 3 full drafts towards a final essay.
WUAE Online is recommended for international students applying as freshmen (first-year students) to US colleges and universities. The course is intended for students whose first language is not English. There is no specific language requirement, but in order to achieve the course objectives, students must be able to write a clear, detailed, developed text of 500 words or more about familiar subjects and experiences. Recommended TOEFL iBT: 70+
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Welcome to the Purdue OWL
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The Modes of Discourse—Exposition, Description, Narration, Argumentation (EDNA)—are common paper assignments you may encounter in your writing classes. Although these genres have been criticized by some composition scholars, the Purdue OWL recognizes the wide spread use of these approaches and students’ need to understand and produce them.
This resource begins with a general description of essay writing and moves to a discussion of common essay genres students may encounter across the curriculum. The four genres of essays (description, narration, exposition, and argumentation) are common paper assignments you may encounter in your writing classes. Although these genres, also known as the modes of discourse, have been criticized by some composition scholars, the Purdue OWL recognizes the wide spread use of these genres and students’ need to understand and produce these types of essays. We hope these resources will help.
The essay is a commonly assigned form of writing that every student will encounter while in academia. Therefore, it is wise for the student to become capable and comfortable with this type of writing early on in her training.
Essays can be a rewarding and challenging type of writing and are often assigned either to be done in class, which requires previous planning and practice (and a bit of creativity) on the part of the student, or as homework, which likewise demands a certain amount of preparation. Many poorly crafted essays have been produced on account of a lack of preparation and confidence. However, students can avoid the discomfort often associated with essay writing by understanding some common genres.
Before delving into its various genres, let’s begin with a basic definition of the essay.
What is an essay?
Though the word essay has come to be understood as a type of writing in Modern English, its origins provide us with some useful insights. The word comes into the English language through the French influence on Middle English; tracing it back further, we find that the French form of the word comes from the Latin verb exigere , which means "to examine, test, or (literally) to drive out." Through the excavation of this ancient word, we are able to unearth the essence of the academic essay: to encourage students to test or examine their ideas concerning a particular topic.
Essays are shorter pieces of writing that often require the student to hone a number of skills such as close reading, analysis, comparison and contrast, persuasion, conciseness, clarity, and exposition. As is evidenced by this list of attributes, there is much to be gained by the student who strives to succeed at essay writing.
The purpose of an essay is to encourage students to develop ideas and concepts in their writing with the direction of little more than their own thoughts (it may be helpful to view the essay as the converse of a research paper). Therefore, essays are (by nature) concise and require clarity in purpose and direction. This means that there is no room for the student’s thoughts to wander or stray from his or her purpose; the writing must be deliberate and interesting.
This handout should help students become familiar and comfortable with the process of essay composition through the introduction of some common essay genres.
This handout includes a brief introduction to the following genres of essay writing:
- Expository essays
- Descriptive essays
- Narrative essays
- Argumentative (Persuasive) essays
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Janice holds a PhD in German studies from Duke University. She also earned an MA in Library Science and a BA in German and Linguistics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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In 2009, she began working for the admissions office of her alma mater, where she focused on reviewing applications and interviewing prospective students.
Today, she finds inspiration in learning about students’ interests and helping them craft a story that draws people in. She is a musical theater librettist, an avid baker, and a world traveler.
Alexandra earned an Erasmus Mundus MA in cultural narratives and a BA in English from Emory University.
As a teacher, editor, and writing coach, she has spent nearly a decade helping students find their voice and express their ideas. She especially enjoys helping English language learners: she wrote her thesis in a foreign country and knows first-hand how challenging it can be to formulate complex ideas in another language.
She lives in Italy and enjoys writing and reading, hiking, and cooking.
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Yes! Our essay coaches can help you reduce your word count by up to 25%. You can choose to receive this feedback through direct edits or suggestions in comments – just select your choice when you upload your essay.
When you submit your essay to our College Essay Editing & Coaching service, you’ll be asked to indicate what type of content feedback you would like to receive. You can choose from three options:
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If you choose this option, we’ll challenge you to write the best possible essay – no content suggestions are off-limits, including reorienting your topic or reframing your story. Students who choose this option aren’t afraid to go back to the drawing board if it’ll increase their chances of getting accepted. You may have to roll up your sleeves and do some more work on your essay, but your essay will be much stronger because of it.
Select this option if your priority is to have the best possible essay, even if it requires some extra work on your side.
We’ll strike a balance between “dig deep and challenge me” and “tread lightly.” We may suggest changes to your structure and narrative, including removing weak content, elaborating on certain sections, and adding content to strengthen your arguments. You may have to rework sentences and paragraphs, but we won’t suggest major content changes.
With this option, we’ll focus on improving your essay in a way that requires little additional work from you. We’ll provide you with targeted suggestions for how to refine your essay’s structure and narrative, but we will work within your current structure and topic. While you may have to make a few tweaks here and there, we’ll aim to return you a polished draft that’s ready to be submitted to your chosen colleges.
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