The lost art of essay writing
In an open letter to Education Guardian I make reference to the article on students arriving at university without the requisite study skills (‘The lost art of essay writing’, 26 April 2011). I arrived at university with an adequate knowledge of writing the essay, albeit confusion of the procedures of academic referencing standards. I had not heard of Harvard referencing until that point, but I was proficient in my standard of written English when drafting and producing an essay-style document. Why? Because I had passed GCSE English – nowadays a standard entry requirement for most courses – and I would have been refused a place on my chosen course if I had lacked the bare essentials and quality of constructing an essay featuring the elements of argumentation, style, grammar and the ability to paragraph compound sentences.
I find it baffling that students are ill-prepared to have the ability to construct a half-decent essay prior to higher education, as this is a basic skill learnt and acquired through coursework assignments, portfolios and examinations which, through moderation, approve a candidate who achieves a grade C or above in English language to be competent in this important skill. However, it must not go unnoticed that some schools or colleges fail to treat this fundamental skill as a priority and, in the process, do not provide guidance and structural commentary on how to improve. Some colleges run essay writing classes of an evening for a small fee, but the majority of schools merely expect students to understand how to construct an essay-style response with very little assistance of the main processes involved.
If a student has the ability to construct essays using correct English and grammar, an awareness of sentence structure and compound sentences, and understand the rules of paragraphing and the technicalities of formatting – prior to university – then this will be a huge weight off their shoulders. I brushed up on my essay writing skills a few months prior to my first day at university, and consequently this allowed me to focus on getting to grips with referencing and the enormous workload I faced during my first semester without having to accommodate extra tutorial in such a basic skill. My university ran several essay writing classes, and I was encouraged to attend them but declined due to earlier reading and revision.
If a student fails to write a concrete essay, or at least show potential in its construction, then what does that say about the standard of GCSE English language? Nobody attending university in their first year will construct the perfect essay assignment, but past qualifications should formulate the platform for such an important aspect of academia. Mature students who have been out of the education system for years, but who wish to return through a higher education route, should also brush up on these skills as soon as possible; it will make life at university during the first year more bearable, and allow you to focus on the theory and production work set by tutors and lecturers.
I think from an early point in their lives – perhaps GCSE or the final year in sixth form – young people should be reminded of the emphasis of writing essays in addition to exam techniques already taught in schools. There is, however, little focus on essay writing technique, perhaps because teachers expect students to be capable of writing and producing a response, viewing this practice as almost natural. I struggled with the procedures of essay writing several years ago, and now understand its importance to higher education students considering the majority of assignments are based around these concepts – higher education academia is very different from A-level, and the crucial fundamentals need to be taught in accordance with the syllabus.