Last week I did an overview of sorts about my experience in exam-taking, but I did hint that I much prefer essays. I also made the blanket statement that everyone else does too, which I certainly don’t have the stats to justify. Today I’ll talk a little bit about essays, not dividing them into categories but rather comparing university essays to school essays, and saying why I think they’re cool.
Essays are cool because no matter what the question is, or how specific the question is, you can always twist it to your advantage and talk about what you want to talk about. As long as you keep looking back at the question and making sure you’re answering it — the essay is yours. You can do the same with exams, but without the time to research you’re much more limited. Time is money.
I only used footnotes in sixth form for history essays, but they’re absolutely pivotal to a university-level English essay. In many ways the first year of uni (for which the grades do not contribute to your overall degree) is about learning to cite your sources, and knowing when to just … let a footnote go. This learning process will follow you throughout your degree, sure, but whereas in the first year you might be dealing with low-tier problems like ‘how do I cite a play in my footnotes?’, by final year you can expect Mega Level queries such as ‘how do I cite a certain volume of an collection of anthologies by sixteen editors that includes a poet who’s citing a certain line of a manuscript that’s written in translation that has a typo in it and nobody knows the poet’s name’?’ Just remember that footnotes are your friends.
I’ve seen my essays improve greatly in quality over these four years. It’s hard to reconcile myself with the me who was writing essays in first year. In the past I was known to make unsubstantiated generalisations, throw in critical quotations just to fill some invisible quota, and avoid reading any texts by the author apart from the one I was writing about. But look at me now! Today I make substantiated generalisations, throw in critical quotations because I’m embarrassed that the critics beat me to the subject, and read shopping lists by the author just to see if they reveal any amazing insights into the work (or at least their brand of coffee). I know so much about George Orwell’s eating habits they really should put me on a government list.
Let’s see: my essays include an analysis of the character of Death in Renaissance poetry, a dissertation on medieval portrayals of the Devil, a look at the violence of the countryside in Sherlock Holmes, a reading of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories using the critical framework of Gilbert and Gubar, a study of sunset imagery in 1890s literature, the subject of loss in Graham Greene and Philip Larkin, and what must have been a very dodgy examination of marriage in Pamela and Jane Eyre.
It’s now in my final year that I feel the most satisfied with what I’m writing, which makes a lot of sense. In secondary school, essays for me were a straightforward intro/pros/cons/conclusion flow chart. There’s a lot that we learn from taking this approach as a basis, but it’s also enlightening to step away from such a robotic format and remember that we’re writing an argument about a piece of literature, not a government inquiry into whether or not a fish pond should be installed. Everything in the essay goes towards your primary objective, which is to prove that your argument is right.
So give a thought to your essay today.