My First Essay

by Ella Gauci


F or many eighteen-year-olds, this summer marks the last time they will live at home before going to University. Two years ago, I left my home village of Kidlington in the hopes of securing my English Literature degree at the University of York. It was the biggest change I had ever experienced in my life and, with no older siblings or guidance, I didn't know what to expect.



University — I didn't know what to expect.

As an Eng Lit undergraduate, I am expected to write essays for my assignments. Many, many essays. Piles of them! My main concern when I had just arrived at University, was that the only essays I had experience to write were the ones I had been doing for my A-Levels. I felt sure that my sometimes poorly-argued compositions wouldn't make the cut here.

Four weeks into my first term of University, and I had to prepare my very first essay. Unlike school, there was no given subject or exam paper to choose a question from a list. As University students, we were expected choose our own topic, devise our own research, and eventually write and submit the essay itself. The possibilities for a title and subject were endless, and while this should have been an exciting challenge, I felt overwhelmed. Never before in my academic life had I been asked to choose my own topic. I quickly had to learn to think for myself.

But there was one piece of work that had stuck in my mind during the first month of lectures, seminars, and workshops. It was a play, by Jean Anouilh, a retelling of a story by Sophocles: Antigone. There was something about Anouilh's interpretation of the play that I kept thinking about. The piece had dark undertones. It was a retelling of the tragic story of a sister trying to lay her dead brother to rest, to rest him in peace. The emotion really came out to me. In Anouilh's retelling, the tragic passion of the original brought out a powerful sense of human despair and futility. The tragedy was tangible. I wanted to write about it myself. I've discovered that I love writing about stage plays, and this particular play was perfect for me to explore how so many subtle changes in the surrounding staging and the actors' tone of voice could affect the messages in the play.

I spent hours re-reading this play with associated pieces of commentary and criticism about it, before beginning to write my essay.

Most essays at my University are submitted anonymously to make sure that no personal bias can affect our grade. All my essays were word-processed and submitted online. This submission process was quite different from school where I had been expected to hand-write every piece of work for marking. So, my grade for my first essay was going to be based solely on my written words alone, not on what my examiner knew about me, or about any previous work of mine. I wanted everything to be perfect, so I put it through every spell-checker and grammar-assistant programme I could find.

I was pretty confident that this was one of the best pieces of writing I had ever done. I awaited my results.

The results were in.

I had barely scraped a 2:1 (around 60%). I was disappointed because at school for my essays I was routinely used to achieving an A-grade, 80% or over. But seeing 61% on my work was, well, disheartening.

But my tutor's constructive comments would go on to help me better understand what I needed to do in future essays. Her main piece of advice was for me to develop a tighter argument that was better structured and its central points set out early in the introduction. Reading back on my introduction today, many more essays later, I can see why my first didn't score highly for me, it was just too vague. My tutor also told me to elevate my argument: to push the boat out more about my thoughts and feelings. University is certainly the time to experiment with new ideas, even if they sometimes fall flat on their face (which even some of my later essays definitely did).

So, for those of you about to study English Literature at University from September, do not be afraid of being bold in your writing. But also remember to plan its structure and look out for its detail. Every successful essay I have written since has followed days of careful research trying to uncover the essesence in the subject. At University, it seems to me that it matters less about writing about high concepts or broad overview themes. Instead, it's all about detecting and explaining those small but significant parts of a text which pop out at you. It's about how you can join up those tiny observations to help your reader understand your own observations about the work.

It's perhaps these investigative and communication skills that will make English Literature a useful degree when it comes to me applying for jobs. The skills needed to prepare these essays are ones that I hope can be transferred into many different fields: journalism, teaching, even more.

SEE ALSO by Ella Gauci:
My First Essay
Going back to University
Home Again

Ella Gauci is a resident of the village of Kidlington, Oxfordshire. Ella attended secondary school in Oxford before moving up to University in 2019.

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