Oxford University English Essays For Secondary

Charlotte Gorman

Watch a series of short videos of students talking about some aspect of their time at Oxford.

Jack

'The real value of Oxford’s English course is its sheer scope, stretching from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf and beyond. Being guided through all the different ages of English literature means you explore periods and styles you may otherwise have rejected out of hand, discover brand new tastes, and even more levels to your love of literature!
The ability to sit and read some of the greatest works of prose, poetry and performance in a city steeped in its own near-mythological wealth of history and beautiful architecture gives you a sense of being lost in your own fantasy, your own realm of turrets, tutors and texts.'

Emma

The most unexpected thing about my course:

'The freedom I had to direct my own studies, from choosing the books I wanted to write on to developing my own specific area of focus within them. The course was a completely different learning experience from school because I was given the freedom to really work out what I thought about texts without having to worry about meeting assessment objectives or covering key themes. I've left Oxford knowing that I've really explored why I love literature so much and that I've contributed something individual to the study of literature, even if it ends up being just read by me.'

I wish they'd told me when I was applying to university...

'That you should pick a university (or college within one) that you feel at home and comfortable in, rather than on a purely academic basis. Whilst it's great to go to a top university, this is also somewhere you have to live and work for three years and it needs to feel like a place where you could do that. I chose a college at Oxford, St. Anne's, that is a bit more informal and modern than some other more historic colleges because I enjoyed the open day and had an intuitive feeling that I could live there. From my experience here, I think it is really important to pick a place to study where you think you will be happy, not just a place which will impress other people.

The best thing that Oxford did for me:

'Gave me courage. To trust my own opinions, to learn where I could push them further, to take risks in academics, social situations, societies, friendships and to feel like if I tried hard enough I could really achieve something of note. Oxford has been the best experience of my entire life. I never really felt school spirit, but at my college I feel like I am part of one big team where people really cared about me as a person, not just as a statistic on a piece of paper. Oxford gave me the confidence to believe in myself and the tools to understand my own biases and failings.'

My favourite Oxford memory is...

'Long lunches in Hall, laughing with friends, making obscure in-jokes and occasionally having conversations about books and the world that have completely changed my outlook for the better.'

I'd just like to add:

'If you love your subject or think that you could learn to with more time to focus on it then there really is no more exciting place to study it than at Oxford. You are given so much freedom to develop your own ideas and you are able to discuss them in one-on-one sessions with leading academics who take you seriously and care about you as a person and a thinker. You're surrounded by interesting people who will constantly challenge you: be it by their different backgrounds or different skills. If this sounds like an environment you would enjoy, no matter what school you come from or how good you think you are, then I urge you to give it a go and apply.'

Lottie

The most unexpected thing about my course:

'How much I love it.  It is totally legitimate to spend a day in bed reading a novel.'

I wish they'd told me when I was applying to university...

'Not everybody likes clubbing!  I was terrified that it was going to be like Ibiza, only colder.  Also, buy a printer before you arrive.'

The best thing that Oxford did for me:

'Playing ice hockey at midnight is legitimate.'

My favourite Oxford memory is...

'Going outside for a fire alarm at 3am and discovering that only about 2% of the college had been asleep.'

As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.

Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.

“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”

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Poke holes

The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.

“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”

But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.

“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?

“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”

Critique your own arguments

Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.

“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”

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Fine, use Wikipedia then

The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.

“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”

Focus your reading

Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.

Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.

You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.

“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”

There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.

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Look beyond the reading list

“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”

And finally, the introduction

The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.

“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”

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