Analysis: the heart of your essay

By now, you’ll be well-practised in putting together a structured paragraph. You know how it goes: topic sentence, explanation of the point, evidence and examples, analysis. Link on to next para. And so on.

All the parts of a paragraph are important: without a good topic sentence, your marker might not ‘get’ the main point of your paragraph; without a clear explanation, it’ll be hard for him or her to follow along; without evidence, he or she isn’t going to be convinced. Getting these bits right are crucial if you want to pass your essay.

If you want to ace it, though, you need to also master the ‘analysis’ section. This is the part of the paragraph after your evidence, in which you decode, unpick, evaluate, compare and contrast it, and explain what it means in relation to your argument. It’s where you show that you’ve researched and carefully considered all the information before reaching your own conclusion; it’s where you acknowledge that there are two sides to every argument.

While a killer analysis gets you the top grades, it’s the hardest part of your essay to write: it’s hard to know what to say, how to sound, and what to consider. Here are a few questions that might help you analyse the two main types of evidence that you’ll use in your BA essays: quotations (direct or paraphrased) and examples from texts or real life.

QUOTATIONS

  1. In plain English, what is he/she actually saying? What’s his/her main point?
  2. What does he/she not say in this quote? What parts of the issue does he/she ignore/overlook?
  3. What might have influenced him/her to say this (think of how the things we say reflect the things we feel, which reflect the things we’ve been told or experience)?
  4. What does his/her quote therefore suggest about his/her beliefs/bias/agenda?
  5. How might this statement affect those who hear/read it? What might be the wider implications of him/her having said it?
  6. What deeper message might he/she be trying to convey in this quote?
  7. Who else has said something similar about this issue? What might this suggest?
  8. Who has said something totally different about this? Where might the truth really lie?

EXAMPLES 

  1. Whose perspective does this example support? How and why does it do this?
  2. What other examples are there that support this perspective? How are they similar/different to this one?
  3. Whose perspective does this example challenge? How and why does it do this?
  4. What deeper issue or idea does this example represent?
  5. What issues or ideas are not represented by this example?
  6. What effect might this example, and ones like it, have on those who read/see it? How might this, in turn, affect the wider world?
  7. Why is this the most convincing example for the point that you’re making?
  8. If you could imagine a better example, what would it be? Why have you not found this example?

Don’t suffer in silence

Seriously. No matter how tedious the lecture, how incomprehensible the reading, how overwhelming the assignment, never say, ‘I can’t do this’. Ask, ‘who can help me?’ You’re not alone, you can do this, and life’s way too short to feel hopeless.

Get it in writing

I can’t remember the number of times I’ve had to provide references since I left high school. If I want someone with status to believe in me, it’s not enough to be able to say that I’m a good person, and to describe the good things I’ve done. I need to prove it by getting someone who’s more good (or at least, more powerful) than me to say so as well.

For the indefinite future, your mission is to collect evidence of your goodness. If you’re in Year 13, get a principal’s testimonial before you leave and ask your favourite teacher to back you up in writing, too. If you’re at uni already, remember to ask your favourite lecturer. If you think you’ve made a good impression in your job, ask your boss before you leave.

It’s a little awkward now, but you’ll thank yourself in the future. No one ever made it to the top on their own, so make the most of the people who you can help you get there. Don’t worry, they’ll understand; anyone who’s anywhere will have gotten there with references.

Managing your money

Being poor is one of the defining student experiences. Budget brands. Op shop clothes. Switching the plugs off at the wall. ‘Going out’ funds that run dry after a starter and corkage fee. Swappa-crates. Warning light on the petrol tank. Wearing beanies to bed. Walking home to avoid the taxi fare. 

And yet, despite all this penny pinching, at the end of the month there’s always a gaping hole where your money should be. On the days before your next payment, you find yourself raiding the back recesses of the pantry because you’ve literally got NO money left for groceries. Every month, you wind up feeling cold, getting hungry, going without. “I don’t know where it all goes,” you say.

The only way to find out is to graph it. Go onto your Internet banking and select a month – pick one without any random purchases or unexpected expenses. Look through each of your purchases and write down the 10-15 categories that they fall into – ‘Rent’, ‘Power’, ‘Phone/internet’, ‘Petrol’, ‘Groceries’, ‘Food/drinks bought while out’, ‘Alcohol’, ‘Entertainment’, ‘Beauty products’, ‘Clothes’, ‘Stationery’, etc (your list of categories will reflect whatever you tend to spend your money on). Then, transfer the value of each purchase into one of the categories. Be honest: those daily coffees/energy drinks/muffins go into the ‘Food/drinks bought while out’ section, not the ‘groceries’ section!

Next, bust into an Excel or Word document and make a pie chart. Then look at it. Compare how the slices size up to each other. Look at the segments of the pie that are disproportionately fat. That’s where all your money is going.

Tutors

By now, you should have experienced a range of tutors. Hopefully, you will have realised that some are awesome, and can be the difference between you just ‘getting by’ and succeeding in a course. Regretably, you’ll probably have also realised that some simply aren’t up to the job.

Tutors are a great example of my main point – that your BA is entirely what you make of it. Let’s look at my favourite tutor at uni. She was not only knowledgeable about the course; she was passionate about it. She didn’t just tell us what sorts of essays would get the best marks, she told us how she was using her BA every day to learn about the world. One day, she came into a tutorial wearing makeup, because she’d been asked to do a TV interview about the findings of her post-grad assignment. She was organised, helpful and – best of all – infectiously passionate about learning.

My least-favourite tutor didn’t seem to give a damn. She recapped the main lecture points with apathy. She never gave clear answers about what she wanted us to do in the essays, explaining that we would simply have to ‘work it out’ like she had been forced to. She groaned when we handed our essays in and she groaned when she handed them back, explaining with satisfaction that we had made all the mistakes that she knew we were going to make (presumably the same mistakes that she’d made when she did it).

These two tutors demonstrated to me that a BA can either be an opportunity to inspire and educate, or an excuse to be cynical and tired. It can be the best thing you ever did, or it can be a waste of three perfectly good years and many thousands of perfectly good dollars. It is whatever you want it to be.

So, no matter what sort of tutors you have, use them as an opportunity to reflect on what your BA means to you. Any tutor, inspirational or not, is an opportunity to remind ourselves what sort of BA graduate we want to be. So, rather than complaining about your tutor, show them why their job is a priviledge, and prove to them that a BA is first and foremost about curiosity, open-mindedness and empowerment.

Hang in there

I love my job. It is absolutely the most awesome job that I could imagine. I spend my days playing games, talking about zombie movies and analysing the origins of rap music. I teach young people about stuff that I’m passionate about, and watch as they get passionate about it too. I show them that they can achieve whatever they want. I observe as they realise incredible things about the world and themselves. My working days fly by.

It’s all because of my BA. My incredible job is my reward for all the hard work that I put in during my time at uni. Every essay, every exam, every late night and long day was worth it because it helped to get me here.

Although your ‘here’ will be different from mine, you will get there all the same. Hang in there. It will all be worth it.

Proofreading

You’ve reached the word count, you’ve answered the question and you’ve included all the right references. You’ve finished your essay, right? Wrong. You’ve moved onto the next stage of writing: proofreading.

Proofreading is the difference between a B and an A.  To do it justice, you need to proofread your essay at least five times, in both electronic and printed form, over the course of at least a couple of days. We all have our own weird writing habits, but this checklist should alert you to some of the most common ones.

Spelling
– Have you run your essay through a spell-check, accepting when the computer is right and ignoring when you know better (like when it suggests American spelling)?
– Have you scanned for and fixed typos (like ‘as’ where you meant ‘at’)?
– Have you fixed misplaced homonyms (like ‘there’ where you meant ‘their’)?

Punctuation
– Have you included commas to: indicate where your reader should pause, separate words in lists, and enclose non-essential information (the parts of a sentence, like details, that the sentence would still make sense without)?
– Have you used semi-colons to link short, connected sentences (semi-colons are useful; they show that you know your punctuation)?
– Have you used apostrophes to show ownership (New Zealand’s first Prime Minister), but not in random word’s ending in s (see what I did there)?

Structure
– Does each paragraph has a clear topic sentence that conveys its main point?
– Do you explain each point before heading into relevant examples?
– Do you properly analyse your examples before moving on to the next paragraph?

Style
– Is every sentence complete? Does each sentence make total sense on its own?
– Do you have a mix of longer and shorter sentences, without any really long ones?
– Is your essay fun and easy to read? Think: catchy opening line, clear sentences, links between paragraphs, thought-provoking closing sentence.

Just remember: if you suspect something might be unclear, it is. If something doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t. If you’ve got a nagging feeling about your essay, it’s not finished.

Brain training

Ever stepped inside a cafe, only to suddenly realise that you were hungry? Ever felt tired the moment you got into bed? Had a compelling urge to watch TV as soon as you sat down on the couch? Our brains are organs of habit. They adopt different roles in different environments, depending on what we usually do when we’re there. Different spaces are charged with different memories, which all come flooding back the moment we step back into them.

That’s why it’s so important to have a study space. It doesn’t really matter whether you have a whole room, or a desk in the corner of the room, or a corner of a desk in the corner of the room. All that matters is that the space is used only by you, and only for the purpose of studying.

So, if you haven’t got yourself a study space yet, sort one out, then spend a good few hours there getting stuck into some research, revision or writing. Every study session you have there will become a memory that will encourage your brain to feel like studying again once you go back there. Invest time, and train your brain.

Lecturers

They’re a strange bunch. Over the course of your BA you will meet all sorts: the crazy, outlandish lecturer with the jokes; the timid, bumbling lecturer who you can’t even hear; the ancient, wise lecturer; the trendy, young, funky lecturer; the techno-savvy lecturer; the lecturer who still uses OHPs. There will be lecturers who spend hours trying to help you, and there will be lecturers who don’t give you their time of day. There will be charismatic lecturers, and there will be goofballs. Some lecturers you will establish fantastic working relationships with, and some you will struggle to get a one-line email response from.

Yes, lecturers come in all shapes and sizes, and ticking each sort off your list is a central part of the uni experience. Some lecturers will inspire you to sing their praises to everyone you know, while others will leave you feeling frustrated and cheated. Some will make lecturers fun, others will make them an endurance test.

Go with the flow. Part of your job as a student is to do your best to adapt to the different teaching styles that you come across – remember, lecturers aren’t trained as teachers, they’re just really smart people who get paid to research and report back their findings to the student masses. Unless you feel that your lecturer is not actually teaching you what the course outline promised (in which case you need to contact the Programme Coordinator or Student Support Services), you need to do your best to accept and make the most out of their classes.

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of constructive criticism, though. Most lecturers will distribute feedback forms at the end of the course, but don’t wait until then to have your say on what you think they could be doing better. Tearing your hair out due to no feedback on your assignments? Politely ask for a bit more feedback on that essay. Totally in the dark about yesterday’s lesson? Request that additional notes be put up. Three weeks in, and you feel as though you still don’t get it? Book in a time during their office hours to have a chat.

And, if they’re doing a great job – let them know. Like the way they play a song at the start of every lecture? Tell them! Love how they put things in terms that you understand? Let them know! Appreciate the amount of constructive feedback they write on your assignments? Thank them!

They’re a strange bunch, but their knowledge is indispensable. We need to adapt to their styles, but we also need to help them adapt to ours. It’s our job to help them to help us.

How to ace any exam

It’s possible. You can ace any exam. But you have to study, and you have to study right.

If there’s a secret to exam success that doesn’t involve hard work, I don’t know it. Sorry. But I can assure you that you can kick ass in your exams, provided that you’re willing to put in a week or two of solid effort. Here’s a (very) abbreviated version of my chapter on exams from BA: an insider’s guide:

1) Start by sorting out your notes. Retrieve, organise, file.
2) Read over everything, and make notes of the important bits.
3) Work out your exam questions (through a combination of research, hints and common sense).
4) Pre-prepare some general answers in whatever form you’re going to be assessed in (e.g. essay, short answer, etc). These need to cover the basic info that your markers will want, but still be flexible enough to adapt to the particular way in which they’ll ask for it.
5) Write/type your pre-prepared answers until they’re lodged in your head. This may take a few days, a few pens, and a few bouts of cramp.
6) Practice applying your ‘foundation’ answers to a range of possible questions (old exam papers, practice papers from your lecturers, etc).
7) Keep practising until you feel you can answer anything. Remember, you usually can’t just spit out a memorised essay; you have to engage with and answer the question.
8) Look after your body (sleep properly, eat well, drink water, stay off everything else) and keep your mind focussed.
9) Get in there and ace it!
10) If you’ve got no more exams, kick back and relax. If there are more to come, take a few hours off and then get back into the study. Remember, a few weeks of anti-social study is a small price to pay for a lifetime of good grades.

Go well!