Essay Writing For Mature Students

Mature students

The Department of English and Related Literature takes great care to ensure that applicants with unconventional educational backgrounds are given the chance to compete on equal terms for an undergraduate place at York.

Such candidates will not necessarily have the A-level grades we demand from recent school-leavers, but we would expect them to be of the same calibre and to show clear evidence of their interest in and aptitude for studying literature.

Preparing for University

Candidates who have been out of education for a significant length of time, or left school without taking A-levels or equivalent qualifications, are strongly advised to engage in an appropriate pre-university course of study. This will enable them to develop or refresh their essay-writing skills and their ability to discuss literature in critical terms (important at York, where teaching is mostly seminar-based), and it will also ensure that they have an academic referee plus some essays to bring with them if invited for interview.

Suitable preparatory courses would include an A level in English literature, an Open University Arts Past and Present course or an Access to Higher Education Diploma with a strong literary emphasis.

Recently qualified candidates

Candidates who have taken A-levels, or equivalent examinations, in the last two or three years should contact their former school or college to ask them to provide a UCAS reference. While we take the academic reference very seriously, we also pay particular attention to what candidates tell us on the UCAS form about their intellectual interests and relevant life experience.


While applications are initially assessed on the strength of the UCAS form, promising candidates may be invited to interview, and will be asked to bring a minimum of two literature essays of at least 1,500 words each.

All interviews take place in the Spring Term, so candidates should ensure that they have written work ready for submission by the middle of January. Combined course candidates may be given a joint interview covering both of their proposed degree subjects.

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You may be used to writing at work, but will find writing at university quite different. You need to learn this new genre - just as you would need to learn how to write thrillers if you usually wrote romances.

Answer the question

To answer the question, you must be sure that you know what the question means! So spend time thinking carefully about this before you start writing. What is the big overarching topic? What smaller sub-topic/s are you being asked to look at more closely? What methods are you being asked to use? While you're writing, stay focused. Keep asking - does this answer the question? Show your reader how it answers the question.

Plan your work

If your work doesn't have a structure, it will be hard work to read and difficult to understand. You know what happens if you go shopping without a list -you wander round desperately trying to remember what you came in for, it takes twice as long to do, then you get home with ten things you didn't need and no loo roll. Make a plan and stick to it - it can be as detailed or as brief as you like. Using a spidergram or mindmap can help to get your ideas organised at this point. If you're writing a report, think carefully about the function of each section you have to include - organise your information according to the job it has to do. If you're writing an essay, you need to select - and be ruthless. Choose only three or four points, themes, or arguments to discuss in detail - any more will be confusing. Put them in order and frame with an introduction and conclusion.

Develop your argument 

Don't worry about searching for an 'original' idea - combining your research with your own thinking and interpretation will naturally produce an original synthesis. Start from your own ideas about the question. What do you want to say about it? (This will give you a thread that links all the parts of your work.) Then consider what it is that makes you think that. What other views might there be? Why do you think differently? Now use your research as evidence to prove your arguments.

Beginnings and endings

Introductions make a focused start from which to expand your ideas. Conclusions draw things back together. A good introduction gives your reader clear directions and contexts in which to read your arguments. It should explain three things - what the work is about, why it's interesting to discuss, and how you're going to discuss it. (In reports, the 'how' may be partly explained in your Methodology section.) A good conclusion summarises the arguments and evidence presented, shows how it answers the question, and makes the final answer explicit.

Write in paragraphs

Thinking of your work as a series of paragraphs helps to keep it focused and under control. Each paragraph should concentrate on one idea or argument. Treat them as mini-essays with a sentence introducing the idea, and one showing how it answers the question at the end. Inside this frame, place arguments or statements; for each, include some evidence (what makes me say this? Reading? Personal experience? Results?), and some critical thinking (do I agree or disagree? Why?).

Find your voice

You may worry that you will be expected to write in the same dense and difficult style as some of the academic texts you are reading. However, the best academic writing is that which clearly and persuasively communicates an idea to the reader. Keep your expression simple. Don't cut and paste from notes - write it out again in your own words. Avoid colloquialisms and contractions (like 'don't' and 'isn't). You may not always need to write in the third person (check your dept's guidelines), but never say "I think", "I believe" or "in my opinion". Speculation may be good, but belief without evidence doesn't belong in academic work.

Integrate evidence and personal experience

You may have practical experience in your subject before you start to study. You can integrate this into your writing by treating it as another kind of evidence. Consider it critically. Are there reasons for believing it is the same or different to other people's experiences? What were the circumstances and how did they affect the outcome? You may also be asked to relate your experience to relevant academic theories. Theories are a structure or outline of a concept, and they provide a framework for understanding your experience from a wider perspective. Consider both the theory and your experience in a critical manner. How does your experience map onto a relevant theory? Is the theory a "good fit" or is it limited in some way? Why might your experience be different to the theory?

Why reference?

As a student you are part of an academic community. Good referencing shows how your work links you into that community. You should give a reference for everything in your work that arises from someone else - direct quotes, paraphrases, and ideas. Many students worry about how to balance their reading with their own ideas. The key is to use references as a tool to support your own arguments - not a replacement for them. So if you use quotations explain in your own words how they relate to your arguments.

Avoid accidental plagiarism

Plagiarism is the deliberate misrepresentation of someone else's work as your own. You can avoid accidental plagiarism by following a few simple principles. Avoid long quotes (i.e. whole paragraphs) unless really necessary. Your work must be your work, and not just a patchwork of other people's. Always start from what you think about the question and why - it doesn't matter if it turns out to be the same as someone else if you can show how you came to think it. Be scrupulous in your notes - make it clear which are your ideas and which are from your reading, and always include details of author, year and page number while you're writing - don't wait to add them later.

Effective proof reading

Proof reading can be the difference between an okay mark and a good mark. Use your computer's spell and grammar checks, but don't just accept the suggestions - check they don't change your meaning. Look out for mistakes you frequently make. Try reading your work aloud - see if it's fluent, or if the expression's too complicated. Offer to check a friend's work in exchange for them checking yours - it's easier to spot mistakes in work you've haven't already read five times!

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