The prospect of my first essay at university terrified me. I had the loveliest tutor who was really encouraging, but I felt like whatever I wrote would make me seem stupid. As with much of first year, imposter syndrome kicked in. I found myself reading through whatever wrote over and over and changing the smallest words to try and sound more sophisticated in my writing. I also struggled getting the actual reading for the tutorial done, an essay a week on top of daily language classes and trying to make new friends was really overwhelming.
I found that going to the library to do a lot of my reading helped keep me concentrated. I also organised my week so that I was as time efficient as possible. I found doing my grocery shop and picking up my library books from town after classes in town much more efficient and meant I was able to focus when I came back to college.
I managed to submit my first essay on time and completed it. My tutor reassured me that I didn’t have to read all the books or articles she had listed; I just had to find the reading which best helped me.
If I could go back in time and reassure myself of anything, I would tell myself that the first essay isn’t as important as I thought it was. Over a term, we write so many that we just naturally become better at forming arguments. The first essay is a challenge, but it isn’t really an indicator of the kind of work you will produce all through term or the year. The first essay is a chance to have a go, make mistakes and get feedback so you can learn from it.
Some advice when faced with an essay and a long reading list:
1) Read and understand what the title of the essay is asking of you; if you study a literature subject, think of what primary texts you would need to read and understand
2) When you have a reading list that is quite long, you must be selective in what you read. I found that reading more general chapters of books that explained the topic as a whole was a good way to start and then once I found themes/ ideas that I really liked, I searched for related/ opposing ideas in the reading list.
3) Locate where the reading is! Some books your college library will have, others you will have to use the Bodleian Libraries for. I chose to start with reading in college because it meant that I didn’t procrastinate and say, ‘I’ll go into town tomorrow!’ (Luckily, much more reading will now be online.)
4) Even when it is scary, just start writing your ideas out onto the page— you can always go back and edit it later so just start somewhere.
5) If you have the time, leave the essay for a few hours or a day and re-read it when you have had a break from it when proof-reading.
6) Make sure to rest and take breaks, essays take a lot of time and concentration, so you must rest before the next task!