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  • Sam Finnegan-Dehn

Writing a top-class essay: 3 tips

Updated: Apr 23, 2023


My name’s Sam. I’m a Masters graduate and an academic tutor in Humanities subjects.

After delivering over 100 lessons to students at various stages in their academic journey, from KS2 all the way up to the final year of their degree – I have identified 3 key tips that will undoubtedly get you closer to achieving the highest grades. While I discuss these at length, and in detail, with my students – I wanted to provide an overview that any student could access. They might seem obvious at first, but like with so many crucial pieces of advice, they are constantly overlooked. So, without further ado, here are 3 tips that will turbocharge the development of your essay writing.

Tip 1

Read the question.

Now, before you immediately close the webpage and curse me for wasting so much of your time already…hear me out. Of course, you read the question. I am not doubting that for a second. But my point is that there is a big difference between reading the question, and reading the question. Put another way, there is a big difference between outlining a problem, explaining a problem, describing a problem and evaluating a problem. The marks you will receive for your answer are conditional on the degree to which you have really read and understood the question. So, when you next have an essay or exam question in front of – I want you to take 5 minutes to breakdown the question into all of its constituent words and phrases. What exactly is the question asking? What is the key word in the question? What answer is the question hinting at? These are all accessible if you know how to approach it. I have had countless lessons in which my student has provided a genuinely excellent piece of work, but one that is totally irrelevant to the question they were tasked with. Don’t make that mistake; read the question.

Tip 2

Interrogate the marking criteria.

You might all have a slightly amusing image of a marking criteria sat on the opposite side of a table in a dimly lit room with a police officer aggressively shouting questions at it. And if you do have this image then that is exactly what I’d like you to do. Fundamentally, the marking criteria is the determiner of what grade you get. This is especially true if you are someone who is struggling to break out of a certain grade band. You need direction. You need to know what to strive towards; how to focus your writing and your points; and how to prove to the marker that you understand the question and the content. In my lessons, an examination of the marking criteria is always essential. I will test you constantly on what the exam board is looking for as your produce your answers. This is done to ensure that you learn to give appropriate responses to the question, and not just a response that you personally think is quite good. Doing this will really support your understanding of the course, and will give you a newfound confidence in your own abilities to reach the grades you want to reach.

Tip 3

Work smart, and work hard.

It would be an outright lie to say that you don’t need to work hard to get the grades you want (even with the phenomenal power of GPT-3). But, sometimes, working hard isn’t enough. You also need to work smart. This especially relates to understanding the content of your subject. Let’s say you have been tasked with learning about the inter-war Soviet period in Russia. You have been given the task, and 3 five-kilogram books to help you on your way. Working hard would be reading these 3 five-kilogram books over and over again until you know everything they have to say. Working smart on the other hand, is identifying the key subjects, periods, figures and themes in the history – and using a variety of different resources to cycle through the detail of the time period. This is something I teach to my students in order to prevent them from being overwhelmed by the length and complexity of the content they need to learn. When you do this – you cultivate your understanding, and in doing so, will actually enjoy the process of learning more about the history you have to study.


So, hopefully, these tips have been somewhat helpful in supporting your academic development. They really do make a big difference to your grade, and to your satisfaction with the subject. If you’d like to learn more about the detail of these tips, then get in touch using the button below, and we can put them into practice – and help you reach your academic goals.

Thanks for reading, and keep working!

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