How to Study at University

Practical tips and general thoughts on how to study at a Western university

Imagine a perfect essay

Posted on | October 27, 2011 | No Comments

Point: Imagine your essay before you research or write it 

When you look at a red dress or a blue shirt can you imagine yourself wearing it?

When you look at a room can you imagine what it would look like with different coloured walls and different furniture?

Can you, like Robert Kennedy, “dream of things that never were and say why not”?

I sometimes have trouble doing this. When people have good ideas I usually recognise that they are good, and can sometimes – but not always – even imagine the ideas in reality. But I find it much harder to come up with original ideas myself, to dream of things that never were.

I blame my imagination. But only a little, because even imaginations – even my imagination – can be trained.

Imagine your essay

When you get an essay topic, can you imagine what the final essay will look like? Can you imagine what will be in the essay?

I don’t mean can you imagine the details – the actual facts and figures you will put in the essay. I mean, can you imagine the kind of facts and figures that you need to put there to answer the question?

Some people write an essay in this order.

  1. Look at the essay question.
  2. Do some research and find some information on the question.
  3. Write an essay based on the information.

These people do not do focussed research. They read whatever seems related to the question. Then, when they think they have found enough sources, they write their essay based on those sources. If they are lucky they might have found some good information. But what usually happens is that they try to squeeze barely related information into an essay with a quite different focus.

A much better order is this.

  1. Look at the essay question.
  2. Imagine the essay. What specific information do you need to write it?
  3. Do some research to find that specific information.
  4. Write the imagined essay.

This is focussed research. No luck is involved here. You are looking for specific information and if you don’t find it (and if you still have time) you continue looking until you do.

Imagining what a good essay should look like is a great help in deciding what research you should do.

For example …

Let’s look at some examples of steps 2. and 3.

1. Explain the differences between direct network effects, indirect network effects, and tariff-mediated network effects.

Imagine the essay. What specific information do you need to write it?

  • Descriptions of the differences between the three network effects.

So what research do you need to do?

  • You need to find discussions and examples of the differences between the three network effects.

2. With reference to the literature, evaluate the impact that a particular life stage may have on an individual.

Imagine the essay. What specific information do you need to write it?

  • Writers and theories on life stages (the literature)
  • Examples of the impact of one life stage on an individual

So what research do you need to do?

  • You need to find writers and theories on life stages. (You will then need to choose one life stage.)
  • You need to find examples of the impact of your chosen life stage on an individual.

This is much more focussed research. You are not just reading anything on life stages, you are only reading about the theories on and the impact of one life stage.

One more.

3. Which would you favour in terms of an antipoverty tool: an increase in the minimum wage or an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit?

Imagine the essay. What specific information do you need to write it?

  • The effects on poverty of an increase in the minimum wage.
  • The effects on poverty of an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

So what research do you need to do?

  • You need to find research or authoritative comment on the two effects on poverty.

And then you need to compare the effects and decide which you favour.

Be easy on yourself

Imagination is a wonderful thing.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the brilliant German author, said, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it.” I wouldn’t go that far myself (although I admit I am a little less brilliant). There are some things that I can imagine that I know I will never achieve. Like flying to the moon.

But I would say that if you can imagine it, it is much easier to achieve it. So if you spend a little time imagining your essay before you do anything – imagining what information you will need, and how it will look on the page – it will be much easier to research and write it.

Imagine that!

(Idea go)

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