This is the first of a three part series giving advice on the essay writing process, focusing in this case on reading.
Daniel is a first year BA History and Politics student at Magdalen College. He is a disabled student and the first in his immediate family to go to university. Daniel is also a Trustee of Potential Plus UK, a Founding Ambassador and Expert Panel Member for Zero Gravity, and a History Faculty Ambassador. Before coming to university, Daniel studied at a non-selective state school, and was a participant on the UNIQ, Sutton Trust, and Social Mobility Foundation APP Reach programmes, as well as being part of the inaugural Opportunity Oxford cohort. Daniel is passionate about outreach and social mobility and ensuring all students have the best opportunity to succeed.
History and its related disciplines mainly rely on essay writing with most term-time work centring on this, so it’s a good idea to be prepared. The blessing of the Oxford system though is you get plenty of opportunity to practice, and your tutors usually provides lots of feedback (both through comments on essays and in tutorials) to help you improve. Here are my tips from my first year as an Oxford Undergraduate:
- Skimming and scanning – when approaching a new reading, have a quick glance through. See if there’s any keywords you recognise or that particularly link to your question focus and try to just get a general idea of what the text says.
- Use the first and last sentences of paragraphs – when put together, these should summarise the key points of the text (also keep this in mind for essay writing). Use this to build a general understanding.
- Don’t hesitate to read it more than once – it can be a good idea to get a general understanding on your first glance over the text, before focusing on particular paragraphs and points which are pertinent or seem interesting.
- Not all readings are as easy to understand as others – don’t worry if you find it challenging to understand what the text is saying as I also sometimes struggle with this! Just try your best to get what you can, as you are really just looking for their viewpoint and possibly a few case studies so don’t be concerned about every detail. Do look into words you don’t know, but if a detail doesn’t seem important to your overall understanding then sometimes it makes sense to just move on.
- Manage your time – undue pressure to read everything is unnecessary and may detract from your focus, but being aware of other texts you need to read is important. If you have got enough information from one text, move on, or even if you are struggling another reading may help you to understand the text later on. You also may have time during the holidays to come back to things, so if a particular text is posing a challenge then it is not a problem to leave it for the time being.
- Look for the argument – at least with the papers I have selected, I am reading to see what interpretation the author(s) have come up with, so make sure to spend your time really understanding that.
On reading lists
- Don’t panic – I know this may seem obvious, but I certainly did panic when I received my first reading list! Unless your tutor has specifically said so, you are not going to be expected to read everything on the reading list, so do not overwhelm yourself.
- Look for indications of priorities – some tutors may star important readings (the more stars, the more important it is), others may underline or put readings in bold, where others may write short summaries of what the readings will cover and what to look out for as well as the best authors to read. Try to take this as a guide when approaching the reading list.
- Journal articles are your friend (are at least in my case they were!) – I really like journal articles to get a general understanding of a topic before moving onto a few book chapters. I find them very succinct as they have to outline their full argument, where book chapters are only snippets of a wider theoretical framework.
- You do not need to read full books – while this may be slightly different to what you are used to (it was in my case), you don’t have the time and you don’t extract enough value out of reading whole books. In my time at Oxford, I’ve only read 3 full books so far, and all of these were during vacations when tutors specifically requested it. My advice is to read the introduction and possibly the conclusion to get a general understanding of the argument before focusing more closely on one or a few book chapters for instance. For reading, it is as much about depth of an issue as breadth in terms of different viewpoints.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help – sometimes I see reading lists and I am not sure where to start (particularly if I’ve had a busy week with other essays for example,) so make sure to reach out to your tutor if you need a little more guidance. I always advise to have a go yourself first, but at the same time you want to make sure you are using your time efficiently and tutors are there to support you so don’t be afraid to use them as a resource.
- Cover the core themes – usually topics for study will cover a few key themes, so make sure to read on each one so you understand the general bounds of the question. You may not get a chance in an essay to write about all of them, but it helps to know about them all as a theme you didn’t write about may come up in an exam. It also gives you the opportunity in your essay to choose the themes you find most interesting or pertinent to your argument. I always read one text from each theme, and then build from there to ensure I know I have covered the core content. I find it is a good way to ensure I stay focused and relaxed when working on an essay.
- Familiarise yourself with the abstract – papers may come with an abstract, and books come with an introduction so use that to get a general understanding of what they argue. You may not have time to read all you want to for a question, so if you know a journal article or book covers something you end up writing about you can very quickly know where to look, and if you know what they cover it gives you a steer when planning your revision in the holidays.
- Take some time to relax – it is always good to take the holidays to recharge, but particularly the summer holidays before coming to Oxford. Taking time away from work may give you a new perspective – I find leaving something for a little while and then coming back leads me to think of new ideas and allows me to come up with new approaches, so don’t see time away as unproductive. Also I can find Oxford terms quite full-on – it is not all academic work, to the contrary there are so many societies to get involved with among many other opportunities so it is worth conserving your energy!
- Reading what you are interested in is valid – you don’t always get the opportunity to freely explore your interests, so, if you want to, make sure to take vacation time to read what interests you. You never know, it may link to your studies and give a new viewpoint or perspective on future material. It is also good to keep yourself intellectually challenged so you can hit the ground running when you come to Oxford.
- Reading lists are a menu, not a shopping list – unless the reading list clearly states you need to read everything, then you don’t need to worry about reading it. Pick what looks interesting, or challenging, or different, or what sparks your curiosity and see where it takes you. Don’t worry if you don’t cover everything (or anything apart from compulsory reading if you choose) as if you need to read something your tutor will tell you during term, and many of the books I chose to read in summer I have since re-read. Saying that, I did find the pre-reading I chose very helpful, and I feel it set me up well for my first year modules.
- You may not get a reading list at all, or it may come after results day – don’t panic if you don’t have one; if you really want to make a start, don’t hesitate to get in touch with your College to see if they have any suggestions. Your College website or the Faculty website may also be a good port of call first. Equally, rest is so important which I can’t underline enough.
- Get an impression, not the detail – you don’t need to know all of the case studies covered so don’t think you will be grilled on every single line or that you have to learn every book word for word! If you do read, take the time to enjoy it, and just get a general understanding of what happened in the period or what the topic is about.
I hope this will help as a toolkit to get you started, but my last piece of advice is – don’t worry! You get so much practice at Oxford so there’s plenty of opportunity to perfect your reading. Don’t think you need to be amazing at everything straight away. Take your first term to try new methods out and see what works for you – don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Good luck!