Depending on what university, department or school you study at, chances are there’s a set list of marking descriptors that are used to determine your essay grade. They are usually publicly available (google your institution and ‘essay marking descriptors’), and detail what your essay needs to do in order to achieve a C or B or A. The descriptors of the school I currently work at, for example, Edinburgh University’s School of Social and Political Science (SPS), can be found via this link. What you are probably not aware of, however, is that hidden within them is some really sound essay marking advice.
This blogpost is also available as a PDF download, so it can be stored on your desktop and used as a checklist before submitting your essay.
The following is a condensed overview of the most important features of social science essay writing. Its aim is to cut through the noise, and focus on the most essential (and important) elements of essay writing. Read it carefully, and use it as a check-list once you have completed your essay.
Good introductions and conclusions are common, but great ones are rare. Intros and conclusions are also among the most misunderstood elements of essay writing. They are often underestimated in their importance for the overall essay. And they are best discussed together, as to some extent, they are mirror images of each other. In short: There’s so much to talk about! These blogposts make some simple-to-follow suggestions for great introductions and conclusions for every time you write an essay, and shows how they are key to essay writing success. They come in two parts: Part 1 focuses on the introduction, part 2 on conclusion.
One of the most sought-after, and yet misunderstood, attributes of a social science essay or dissertation is originality. To achieve a grade in the 90s range here at Edinburgh (that is, an A++, an exceptionally good mark), for example, according to our marking descriptors, your essay needs to display ‘an exceptional degree of insight and independent thought’, ‘flair’, and indeed ‘originality’. Independent analysis and originality, however, should not just be a consideration for the higher grade ranges. Rather, this blogpost suggests to think of it as a scale ranging from complete unoriginality (to be avoided) to very high degrees of originality (to be pursued, but within the limits of good scholarship). Below are suggestions how to avoid the former, and how to work towards the latter.
Studying any social or political science, you will inevitably come across the idea of a critical analysis, a critical approach, critical thinking, a critical awareness, or simply critique. Indeed, the title of this website is a play on it. But while the concept of critical seems to be omnipresent in the social sciences, there is not always much of an explanation of what it actually means. This blogpost attempts such an explanation, and makes suggestions for how to integrate critical-related skills into your essay writing practice. I suggest two components for this, a common-sense-plus element, and a social-science-proper component.
One issue that can be confusing in social science essay writing is whether or not, and under what circumstances, you can use non-peer-reviewed, non-academic sources such as news articles, blogs, podcasts or youtube videos. Your lecturers and tutors are quick to point out that you shouldn’t, but then there always seem to be exceptions. This blog post looks in more detail at what these exceptions are, how to make use of them, and what pitfalls to avoid.
Possibly the most frequently asked question when it comes to social science essay writing (certainly in first and second year courses) is how many sources should be used in an essay. This is a very legitimate question, especially if you don’t have much essay writing experience to start with. But the answer is not very straightforward. It depends. Rather than providing a fixed number, this blog post lays out what it depends on, and what kinds of parameters play a role in determining the number of readings.