New Arts or Social Sciences student? Here are 5 tips for surviving your first ever assignment

So it’s come to this: time to write your first assignment. Make that mountain into a manageable hill with these handy tips…By Thomas Bray

So, you’ve bonded with your flatmates, mastered beans on toast, and conquered the ravages of the freshers’ flu. Nothing can stop you now. But then one of your lecturers starts talking about deadlines and headlines, writing and citing, and before you know it, your first ever university assignment is looming over you…

…but fret not! In this article, I shall offer you fellow Arts and Social Sciences students a crash-course in surviving this ordeal, and living to fight another day and write more essays (they’re endless, like embarrassing photos and delayed Unibuses). If you are of a more scientific bent, more accustomed to dirty test-tubes than to dusty books, then I refer you to the fine words of Charles Hand, scientist extraordinaire. He’ll take good care of you and your science-type needs.

Anyway, for those of you still here, here are five ways to avoid the fate of first-year-me, frantically typing away an hour before the essay was due, writing every word I could summon which had something to do with the Industrial Revolution. Never before and not since have the phrases ‘coal imports’ and ‘yummy gummy bears’ appeared in the same sentence.

 1. Give yourself plenty of thinking time.

Your brain needs time to cognate and consider, so make sure that you give it plenty of space to do so. Decide on your topic as soon as the assignment is announced, make sure you know what’s required, and then familiarise yourself with the basic elements of the task. And then…wait. Just…wait. Don’t rush in, oh no, no no, step back. Get your brain humming in the background, like the engine of my much-loved-but-admittedly-terrible first car.

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You should find that insights and inspiration will begin to hit you, in the shower, on the dance floor, even running away from territorial geese. Then when you finally sit down (far away from geese) and begin, the thought-process will be well underway.

2. Gather your materials.

It also pays to have an early look at which materials you can use. Do a search on JSTOR and try a few key word combinations on Library Search, the Library catalogue. Crucially, take a good look at the materials used by other scholars. Scouring the bibliography of a recent work is a good way of getting a sense of what they key texts are.

It may sound obvious, but you should get hold of the most sought-after books as soon as you can. If it’s a short loan, then grab it for a few hours and make the notes while it’s still available. If you are having any trouble accessing, well, anything, be it journals, images, or the library’s dog bowl (go on, search for it), then a member of staff will have the answers.

When you have everything assembled, dump it all into a folder, be it electronic or physical, and have a browse for the key arguments. Compare opinions, and always, ALWAYS…

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3. … Read critically.

Whatever you read (or watch, or listen to, or eat [note: don’t eat library books, fibrous as they may be]), always think: do I agree? What does this leave out? How would I improve it? What does it assume? What is the author trying to achieve? Why?

More often than not, you’ll find a gap in the literature, something which you think everyone is getting wrong, or just ignoring entirely. This is a great place to root your argument, your contribution, the kernel of the bag of popcorn which is your assignment.

4. Take a stance.

This is perhaps one of the greatest shifts between the kind of assignments you have been doing for years, and the assignments you will find yourself doing at university. Here, you are expected to get yourself off the fence and put forward some opinions.

By all means represent both sides of the argument, tip your proverbial hat to the issue in all its complexity, but the best work is often that which identifies the most salient points and makes a convincing argument. Marshall the evidence, use a pinch of rhetoric, resort to interpretive dance if you wish…but make sure to engage with the other scholars in your chosen field and make a stand.

Oh, and also very important: do not be afraid to narrow the question down. Maybe you were once expected to cover huge topics in two thousand words, but that becomes impossible with a university-standard essay. Instead, identify the key issues, and take ‘em on.

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5. Take a break.

A simple point, but one which has alluded any number of people completing their first assignment (including me): if you burn yourself out in the process, there’ll be no-one but a smouldering pile of ash that was once a fresh-faced student to hand in the end product.

Take a break once an hour. Have a good laugh with some mates. Eat some healthy food, maybe even cook if it won’t distract you from the assignment. Do some exercise. Hunt for amusing pictures of cats wearing tutus (I should point out that funny pictures of cats were few and far between when I was a fresher: this is how far humanity has come). Above all, take a step back and keep your mind refreshed.

With the right approach and a bit of planning, you will get through the challenge of your first assignment. Do not underestimate the magnitude of this achievement: the transition to writing critically-engaged, articulate and erudite pieces of work on complex topics is a tough one. Above all, recognise that it is a process, and that you will make mistakes and learn an awful lot along the way. The satisfaction, though, of handing in your first ever assignment, your first contribution to the field, well, that takes some beating.

Sit back, reflect on an essay done. And, then a few weeks later, do it again. No biggie.

Image: Books/Chris/CC BY 2.0

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