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Essay Writing: A-level vs Undergraduate

  • Posted 4 months ago
  • University

Progression from A-levels to an undergraduate course at university is a big step for lots of reasons. There are so many new things to get used to; from finding accommodation, to getting a sense of the campus, to the sudden onslaught of student societies vying for your attention.
And that’s before giving due and proper attention to freshers week!
Academically speaking, you will also notice that the norms and expectations around essay writing will shift too.

At this point, it seems important to say that this only really applies to essay writing subjects. Having said that, essay writing is an invaluable skill for more than just English Lit! All sorts of academic disciplines rely on essay writing for assessment. Nursing students need to be almost as capable of writing high quality essays as philosophy students!

It’s counterintuitive, but your first year of an undergraduate degree is probably going to be less intense than A levels. At A level, you are studying multiple subjects, and marking is standardized, which means you need to learn multiple disciplines and follow inflexible marking criteria.
In your first year at uni, a lot of courses give you space to acclimatize to your speciality, so you can think of your 1st year as a ramp into your chosen area of study.

That’s not to say that you can afford to slack. One area that requires some focus is the shift from A-level essays to university essays. They can be quite different in how they are marked, which of course means that the strategy needed to get top marks changes..

Research vs Textbook

Essays at A-levels tend to be more formulaic and descriptive. Often, if you can master the formula, you can do well. It’s different at the university level. As an undergraduate, your lecturers’ expect you to write analytical and argumentative essays based on research.

The evidence of that research will be reflected in your essay writing. Researching a topic from many different sources takes time; therefore, essays at the university level can take longer to prepare. 

Each essay needs to be approached according to the discipline and the question you aim to answer. In other words, the goal posts are more prone to moving about the pitch at Uni as the Essay writing at university is essentially marked by the strength and depth of your argument rather than box ticking!

Essential and Further Reading Lists

During your A-level studies, you primarily rely on textbooks approved by a board, which contains almost all the content you need to write your essay. At the university level, there is no textbook from which you can extract all the required information.

You are expected to make your argument based on various academic sources. This can include books on your subject area and research papers written by researchers and specialists in that field. Your university professor will guide you in the right direction by providing you with an essential and further reading list.

You will be exposed to more than enough information from these sources to extract the content you need to write your essay. Another consideration is that the lecturer is God when it comes to deadlines. You’ll generally lose marks for handing work in late.

Evaluating your work

Revisiting your essay after a day or two of writing it with a fresh mind can give you new perspectives to include in your essay. You should try to build a network of peers on your course so that you can learn from and support each other. Your peers can offer insights and suggestions that you might have missed, or point out weak or undeveloped points. This is the start of an invaluable academic practice- peer-reviewing. 

If you’ve gotten comfortable with writing A-level essays- it’s not as though you will have to learn a whole new skill set. However, you should be open to allowing your academic writing to evolve. If you are the sort of person that likes to be prepared, then the best thing you can do is work through the reading list! At degree level, style over substance will stand out like a sore thumb.

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