The first mistake you can make is to dive headlong into an essay topic, before you have a clear idea of what’s involved. An essay isn’t something you can make up as you go along. Planning and research are everything: if you don’t get this part right, the rest of the essay won’t fall into place and you’ll be left feeling panicked and confused as the due date approaches.
Let’s start with a few basic time management hints. The first thing you need to do is make a list of the due dates of your assessment tasks for all of your subjects. Just putting the due date in your diary may not give you enough warning unless you constantly flip through your diary ahead of time. The last thing you would want as you turn to the next page in your diary is to see that something is due tomorrow!
Assessment due dates for different subjects often occur around similar times, sometimes on the same day. Submitting a number of tasks in the same time period is part of student life. Therefore, it is important that you develop an effective system of time management, especially for essay writing. You should allow a few weeks to work on each essay, on and off. By giving yourself plenty of time, you avoid the mad rush for library books in the two weeks prior to the due date and are therefore more likely to get the sources of information you want. It will also give you time to consult your tutor if necessary, and allow for a few drafts of your essay before you submit the final version.
Students are often unclear about how much time and effort they should put into an essay. The actual figure will vary according to the discipline and the nature of the task, but a ‘ballpark’ figure for an essay of 2000 words at first-year tertiary level would be a minimum of 20 hours of work. Don’t panic! That time includes doing research, reading and note taking, as well as producing essay drafts and the final version for submission. Use this figure as a guide; it is a minimum. Ask your lecturer or tutor how much time they expect you to take to complete the task, as some may require you to do much more than others—even double the hours!
There are a number of other reasons why essays take time to write. You are expected to consult a variety of written sources so as to become acquainted with information, research, theories and criticisms; and to appraise the collected material: what is relevant or irrelevant, supported or unsupported, tentative or conclusive? All of this takes time. Furthermore, writing is a skill that improves with practice. By writing a few drafts, you will find that your expression and essay structure become clearer and more concise each time. You should allow enough time to produce at least three drafts of your essay.