Turning the uni essay on its head

I’ve done it. You’ve probably done it. Spend weeks and weeks with great intentions to start an essay, and in the end just smash it out over a couple of sleep-deprived days, dangerously close to the deadline.

The result? Hopefully you’re like me and you end up getting a decent grade anyway. Good enough for an upper first? So what was I doing with all my time and money if I could have done this in a fraction of a semester!

I realise this isn’t the story for some courses that are continually assessed, such as a history degree in Oxford where freshers will write sixteen 3000 word essays in the first eight weeks. Just for fun though, let’s imagine that we START with the essay.

“Welcome to university. Okay you miserable maggots, 4000 words on the internet marketing strategy of an organisation of your choice. Here’s a few sources. You have three days.”

What a rush! There must be people whose work involves a lot of scenarios like this – wouldn’t it make sense if the university experience tried to recreate it? After that, a provisional mark on the essay and into teaching, before the student has to rewrite it for a final submission. More work for the examiner yes, but the outcomes might be way higher.

How about collaborative essays? My masters course has given us a few goes at group presentations which has obvious relevance to the business world, but only one standalone written group assignment. Working together to structure written work is a challenge in itself that I feel is a bit underrated.

I’ve also seen what happens when people are thrown into a group without getting to know each other. Not pretty if you’ve not anticipated its possibility. This happens in the real world too!

I’m not saying we need to throw away traditional essay writing, just mix up the context a bit. What else would you throw into the mix?

Procrastination is (mostly) bollocks

I know exactly how late I can leave something before I have to get it done, to a standard acceptable to me.

If you don’t work for it, you don’t really want it. You can’t make yourself want it.

On the other hand, there are a few emotional barriers to doing something that everyone should overcome. The one really useful tip I got from Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit is simply: stop worrying about finishing. Focus all your energy on starting. If you start enough times, you will finish.

It’s been a good three years since I read the book, so I don’t remember if he talks about the nature of gratification in the human brain. Human brains are not wired to consider very long lengths of time into the future. The best you can do is to form a positive habit cycle that rewards you now for behaviour that’s conducive to your long-term goals.

Again, James Clear gives it such a good explanation that I’d just be stealing his content to say the same thing. I did steal this image below though, because some of you are lazy and won’t click through yet.

Stop beating yourself up for procrastinating. Just form a habit of starting, and you’ll get where you want to be. Unless you don’t want it, that is.