Why you should write more weird essays
Stem students… this one isn’t for you
Originality is god in tripos. The immediate path to easy marks is to say something nobody has said before. But that is much, much easier said than done.
Thousands of far more qualified people have written on the same topic as you for hundreds of years. People with more degrees than I have fingers have dedicated their lives to topics that we spend less than a week on.
We are, to quote one of my friends in a supervision, “only little undergrads.” How can we, university students writing a two thousand-word essay on about four hours of sleep, be expected to contribute something new to academia?
The answer is simple. Be very, very odd.
Arguments don’t have to be right
The key thing to remember about humanities essays is you’re never really going to be completely correct. Most topics are far more nuanced than you can cover in an essay.
The odds are, even if you are convinced you’ve found the right answer, somebody’s master’s thesis written in 2001 completely disproves your entire argument (and your supervisor will, obviously, have read that thesis.) So don’t aim for perfection. Aim for satisfaction. Aim for an argument written with supreme confidence, not because it’s right, but because you’re convincing.
Degrees are (*shock, horror*) supposed to be enjoyable
Write about what interests you. My crowning achievement at Cambridge will not be whatever degree class I end up with but the fact that I managed to write about TikTok witches and Lana Del Ray in an exam essay on popular religiosity.
Find what you love and the essays will come far more easily. Reading about demographics in Early Modern England was only made bearable by an article on historical contraception while the only reason I managed to survive studying Tudor politics was by convincing myself it’s basically the history of gossip.
Structure an essay with your heart
A-Levels train you badly for university degrees. We are told to keep ourselves within a lovely, clear, three-part structure. This, as you swiftly discover in Week 1, is not what they want at university. I’ve had several freshers desperately ask me for some (any!) advice on how to structure an essay. The answer is… just vibes.
I’ve written essays where the structure is literally me pressing return when I feel like I’m done with a point. I’ve written highly-planned essays based on different ways you could interpret the question. I’ve written one essay where I argued that the Roman Empire carried out “accidentally-assisted suicide”, which apparently made my supervisor laugh out loud. Follow your heart.
Write your intro last (trust me!)
If you, like me, truly commit to the concept of writing the oddest, most niche essays possible then the best advice I can give you is to accept you won’t be able to predict the end of your own essay. So don’t try to. Save your introduction to the end.
Your overall argument might, as it normally does for me, come as a bit of a surprise. Make it look like it didn’t, make it look like you’d planned this all along, by writing your introduction once you’ve actually worked out what you think.
This advice might not get you top marks but it does make me enjoy my degree, and hopefully can help you enjoy yours!
Featured Image Credit: Ella Sheddick