A simple guide to writing a first-class essay
(Last updated: 30 March 2021)
A first-class essay is one that is categorised by a grade of 70 per cent or higher, though in some institutions the minimum requirement is 75 per cent. Whatever the case, for many students this benchmark seems almost impossible to attain.
Rest assured, however, that there are steps that you can take to help ensure you're able to write a first-class essay. We've put them together into an easy-to-read (and follow) list; read on to familiarise yourself with them.
Step 1: Understand the marking criteria
This seems quite straightforward, however you’ll be surprised to learn that many students aren’t well informed about the criteria they must meet to be awarded a first. It's a very important point, however; you must determine exactly what the marker is looking for from a first-class essay so that you can meet these points effectively. You’ll often find these criteria in your course handbook, or it may feature as an add-on to your essay question, so do look out for it. Bear in mind that a marker will generally outline various criteria for different aspects of the essay such as: content, presentation, referencing, critical analysis, technical knowledge, spelling, grammar, structure and coherence, amongst others.
Ensure that you understand what is required under each category – don’t just assume, as each essay you’ll write will most likely have a different set of criteria. When drafting your essay, focus on the criteria with which it will be marked and ensure that you address every one of them. This will not only make essay-writing a more straightforward process, you’ll be inching closer to the first-class essay grade you desire so much.
Step 2: Put some thought into choosing your question
It's imperative that you put considerable thought into choosing your essay question – don’t just pick a question because you are familiar with the topic or because it ‘sounds interesting’. Of course, this will ensure that you are genuinely interested in your essay question, but there are other important factors to consider as well. It is important to first ensure that the topic is manageable. Avoid questions that are too broad as it increases the likelihood that you’ll steer off topic, reducing your chances of getting a first. Also, check that there is enough literature on the topic you choose so that your essay can be supported by enough academic sources. Remember that a first-class essay must demonstrate the use of a high standard and number of reputable academic sources, so it's important to do a quick check to see if you’ll have access to plenty of these before you start your draft – you’ll save a lot of time in the long run by doing this.
"Avoid questions that are too broad as it increases the likelihood that you’ll steer off topic, reducing your chances of getting a first."
Some essay topics are extremely specialist, or maybe its just a new area of research—you’ll find that there’s very little literature for such topics and unless your plan is to conduct your own primary research, you might want to avoid these. Remember that first class essays must demonstrate methodological rigorousness.
Step 3: Understand the question
Being well-informed about the marking criteria for your essay is an essential starting point for inching towards a first, however this is of no use if you don’t understand your essay question. This sounds very basic, yet one of the main reasons that students perform badly in essays is that they simply don't understand the question being posed.
Essay questions are usually posed using ‘directive words’ such as ‘critically analyse,’ ‘outline’ and so on; try to familiarise yourself with these so that you know exactly what the essay question is asking you to do. For example, think carefully about the following questions:
For example, 'Assess the suitability of the UK government’s PREVENT anti-radicalisation policy for curbing home-grown terrorism in the UK'. 'Assess' always means that you must adopt a critical approach. For this particular example question, you should first outline the main features of the PREVENT policy and then, clearly, and devoid of bias, evaluate the extent to which it can effectively tackle the issue of home grown terrorism in the UK. In your evaluation, consider any viewpoints that are contradictory to yours as it demonstrates the critical engagement required of a first-class essay.
For example, 'Discuss the role of migration policy in shaping the outcome of the Brexit vote'. 'Discuss' is a very tricky directive word, as it is vague and requires you to think deeply about the exact question being posed. In this question, you are simply being asked to determine the role that migration policy played in influencing the Brexit vote. Did it play a role at all? If it did, in what way? Ensure that you back your position with evidence.
There are many other directive words that feature in essays and it's a good idea to understand these thoroughly, as answering an essay question wrongly will certainly decrease your chances of gaining a first. Clarify with your tutor if you have any hesitations or if you have any difficulties in getting a grasp of the question. Also, ensure that you do not try to rephrase or twist the question into one that you want to answer – if you're not answering the question that's being asked, it will critically impact your score.
Step 4: Quality of sources and referencing system
Now that you have properly understood your essay question, it is essential that you read widely on the subject, while remaining focused on the specific topic at hand. A first-class essay should demonstrate a good awareness of the available literature on the essay subject and it's always a good idea to show that you are conversant with both the theoretical and empirical literature if applicable. Textbooks are a great source, however journal articles provide the added benefit of being a good source for more current research because of the frequency with which they are published.
A first-class essay will demonstrate a balance between the use of both sources, however remember to check your marking criteria to ascertain the requirements. In all cases, a first-class essay will usually incorporate the robust use of academic as opposed to online sources from unverified outlets. In this age of technology, it is very easy to run quick searches on the Internet when in need of information, however be mindful that not all information online is reliable. As a rule of thumb, ensure that your sources are from reputable academic scholars and databases, or where necessary, you may need to include some primary research of your own. Credibility is key for ensuring that your essay appears well-researched, methodologically robust and scholarly.
Also, remember that your essay question may be accompanied by a recommended reading list. This is often a great starting point for researching your question and it's always a good idea to make use of this. Your reading list may however come under various categories:
- Essential reading - For some essay questions, all students are required to make use of specific books that are essential for completing the course or module. If a particular source has been categorised as essential, ensure that you use it, as failure to do so will lose you marks, reducing your chances of getting a first.
- Further reading - Sources recommended for further reading should usually be used as a starting point for wider reading on your essay subject. They are often a good source for gaining insight on alternative perspectives on your essay, so while it is not essential that you use them, they may prove to be very useful. Remember that sources provided for further reading may be very general and won’t necessarily apply to your essay topic, so it’s a good idea to narrow down your options as the scope of your answer becomes clearer.
After you have identified your sources, it's equally important that you reference them correctly. Failing to do so will cost you some marks and as such, you may lose out on achieving a first. It's a good idea to confirm the referencing style required for your essay so that you can become familiar with it. Properly referencing your essay will score you the points needed to move closer to gaining a first and more importantly, it will ensure that your work is not plagiarised. Remember that plagiarism is a very serious offence; a first-class essay should always clearly indicate the academic scholarship that has been used to formulate its arguments.
Step 5: Depth of knowledge
This point is similar to the last, however here, the emphasis is on knowledge as opposed to the quality of sources used. It's all well and good to have a great collection of sources for your essay, but markers want to also see that have you read these sources thoroughly and not superficially. They will want to ensure that you have a very advanced, nuanced and thorough understanding of your essay's subject matter. First-class essays will not merely regurgitate the arguments available in the literature; they will engage critically with various viewpoints and will demonstrate that they are well aware of any key debates or conceptual challenges concerning the essay subject.
Read widely and selectively but refrain from putting everything you know or every interesting piece of information that you come across into your essay. Always return to the question that the essay is asking and filter through the information you have collected by focusing on the data that is most relevant to what you are writing about.
Step 6: Frame your argument coherently
After going through the available literature concerning your essay subject, it's likely that you'll form an opinion of your own based on the research available. Remember to keep the essay question in mind so that you can tailor your viewpoints and arguments to answering this. Present one idea at a time in a structured and coherent manner. This helps to build up your argument and will allow the marker to gain insight into your thought process and thus, your reasoning and logical thinking skills. A first-class essay will demonstrate a high level of reasoning and logical thinking skills, and reading widely about your subject is very important for achieving this as it helps you to form your own coherent opinions about a topic.
"To achieve a first-class essay, it's important that you situate your arguments within the available literature, or within a theoretical or conceptual framework."
Remember to keep the opinions of other scholars in mind, as this shows that you have done your research and that you are critically engaging with the question. A first-class essay is not descriptive and rather, is critical and well-focused. A descriptive essay will merely summarise and/or describe the key arguments of the essay, but a first-class essay will reflect on the available data by criticising or defending it.
In a first-class essay, you might also want show that you are aware of any opposing views to your key arguments, and then you can argue why you still stand by your viewpoint. This shows a high level of reflection and it also indicates that you have done a lot of background research. To achieve a first class, it is important that you situate your arguments within the available literature, or within a theoretical or conceptual framework. Remember that an essay is an academic piece of writing and not an opinion piece. A first-class essay will demonstrate your viewpoint clearly in the context of a theoretical or conceptual foundation.
Step 7: Structure carefully
Having a well-thought-out essay structure is important for presenting your argument logically and in a linear manner. Ensure that you present your argument in a step-by-step manner so that the marker can follow your logic easily. A first-class essay will have a clear structure including the introduction, body and conclusion, but there are further points to consider if you are aiming for a first. Read on to find out more about this:
Step 8: Clarity and style
Now that you have the basic structure of your essay in place, it's worth emphasising that your writing style is fundamental to achieving a first-class grade. A first-class essay makes use of a writing style that engages the reader, that uses appropriate technical terms (to demonstrate knowledge of the subject) and that makes use of appropriate academic terminology. Remember that in academic writing, you are expected to use formal as opposed to informal or colloquial language. It may be a good idea to familiarise yourself with reputable journal articles in your field – try to mimic the writing styles you come across and you'll certainly be on the right path to writing an essay that's of a high academic standard.
Just for clarity purposes, you’ll find that language in academic papers tends to be very formal, thus words such as 'argue', 'propose' and 'posit' are used to replace the word ‘says’, for example. Reading widely will help you to familiarise yourself with some of these academic terms. Ensure that you write in the third person – using the term ‘this paper’ throughout your essay is a good substitute for using the first person pronoun ‘I’.
A first-class essay will contain a solid argument, a coherent structure, and will also demonstrate a high level of technical knowledge – ensure that you do not forget these points. Ensure that you reference your sources properly in the appropriate academic style and always cross-check with the essay criteria to ensure that you are adhering to university requirements. As a rule of thumb, you should always remember to convey your arguments in a professional and academic voice and ensure that your paper is well-balanced by considering opposing views. Furthermore, ensure that your paragraphs are clearly linked and that your argument shows progression, as you’ll achieve a higher grade for the clarity of your writing style.
Step 9: Proper presentation
Failing to present your essay in an organised and academic manner will certainly hamper your efforts in achieving a first class. Refer to the marking criteria, as it will often clearly indicate instructions for presentation and formatting. There are usually specific instructions for the font size, line spacing and margins that you must use, so be sure to adhere to the requirements to inch closer to achieving a first. Also, while this appears to be an obvious pint, ensure that your work is free of any spelling or grammatical errors.
Step 10: Originality
A first-class essay will demonstrate a high level of originality that is linked with critical reasoning skills. Yes, it's important to be conversant with the literature, however, you also need to demonstrate your own ability to think both critically and independently. Remember to always have a well-thought-out and original argument. Express your argument formally, concisely and clearly.
It's important to be confident, as well. You'll want to demonstrate to the marker that you can express your own opinions clearly and ensure that you back up any new arguments or viewpoints with data or examples. Don’t just make a generalised claim and leave it at that. Again, remember that an essay requires an academic style of writing – it is not an opinion piece.
Keep in mind that originality is key for first-class essays and refrain from simply summarising the arguments that are already available in the literature. You won't score any extra points by taking this approach.
Now that you are familiar with the steps required to write a first-class essay, we hope that the process of drafting one is much easier than before. Don't hesitate to get in touch for help if you're unsure about any points and lastly, good luck! In reading this, you have certainly inched closer to achieving a first on your next essay.