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The Department recommends that students write a total of four to six essays per paper over the course of Michalemas and Lent terms.

This equates to two or three essays per paper, per term. Since students take four papers, and terms are eight weeks long, two essays per paper would work out at one essay per week (if distributed evenly). Regardless of how many essays students choose to write, they will still receive six supervisions per paper over the course of both terms. This means three supervisions per paper, per term.

For two of these supervisions, the Sociology Department has a policy that allows students to prepare in another way besides an essay for the supervision, such as with a blog post, or a presentation on a reading or related current event. This should be agreed ahead of time with the supervisor in question.

Essays are expected to be around 1,500 to 2,000 words, which may sound like a lot to new students, but it is crucial practice for honing the skill of making a detailed, coherent and concise argument. The upper word limit is also important, as writing to wordcount (and deadline) are key academic skills, and this takes into consideration the marking workload of your supervisors.

Essay writing is one of the main means of study as well as a form of preparation for the exams, in which students are expected to draw on lecture material, supervision work, and independent reading. Over the course of the HSPS programme, students will be increasingly encouraged to supplement supervisors’ suggested readings with the sources they have encountered using their growing research skills.

Essay Writing FAQs

The sections below provide some answers to help students approach their essays. Students are encouraged to reach out to their peers, supervisors and/or Directors of Studies if they are having trouble with essay writing.

How do I access the required readings?

When you write an essay, you’ll need to find the suggested reading list provided in the paper guide. A reading list will usually contain a mixture of online resources like journal articles and Ebooks, and physical books which can be requested from the libraries; in 2020-21, however, given the coronavirus pandemic, we have adjusted our reading lists so that all texts are available electronically. Most of the readings you need for sociology are available via the Seeley library (Sociology, Land Economy), and you can find out how to access them on our Study Resources [link] page.

There are multiple copies of most of the books in the Seeley library so you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting hold of a text. Often you can request a book even if it has been taken out, in which case the student who has the book on loan will be expected to return the book in three days. If they’re not available at the Seeley library, the iDiscover website can show you all the locations where a book can be found in other university libraries.

Many College libraries also have undergraduate reading list collections, and it’s always worth emailing either the SPS or your college library if you’re struggling to access a text. Finally, if you can’t access a book or find an Ebook version online, Google Books often has parts of books - such as selected chapters - available to read for free. Your lecturer may also give tips for finding certain texts.

How much am I supposed to read?

You will find you get much faster at reading and condensing arguments as you progress through your degree. Rather than trying to read everything, focus on the readings that the lecturer has marked as particularly important, and then use the additional recommended readings to gain a broader understanding and add more nuance to your essays.

What matters is that you’ve got a grasp of the key concepts and theories as portrayed in the available literature on a topic. When you’re first starting out, it may be better to focus on a few readings and give yourself more time to think and write. Another way of tackling reading lists is to split the workload with other people doing the same topic. Sharing notes and ideas not only helps consolidate your learning, it also makes life much, much easier.

If you’re assigned an entire book without chapter or page number suggestions, don’t feel you’re expected to read them cover to cover. Start with the introductory and concluding chapters to get a feel for the arguments. You can also check the contents page for sections or chapters that are especially relevant. Sometimes useful summaries, reviews, or commentaries on books are available online; for example, you can search for book reviews via Google Scholar.

How do I write a good essay?

Key to writing a good Sociology essay is a clear argument based on a careful and critical reading of the material relevant to the question. In the first instance, this will be the books and articles the paper organiser has indicated you should read in the paper guide. Pay careful attention to the language a particular author uses and attempt to situate the work in the social and intellectual context of the period in which it was written.

A good essay will provide an introduction that explains your interpretation of the question and how you intend to answer it, namely your essay’s structure and argument. As part of the process of building the argument, the body of the essay will outline, and critically evaluate, the different positions you’ve considered on the topic of the question (e.g. a question on class may discuss Marx, Weber and Durkheim’s differing understanding of the structural organisation of class and/or the subjective experience of class). This critical evaluation may include how well arguments are supported with empirical examples of events (including contemporary events not yet analysed in the literature), studies or statistical data.  Specifically, you can use the theory to help us understand an empirical case of your choice, and then use that empirical case to shed light on the strengths and weaknesses of that theory.

Here you can show further knowledge by referring to material beyond the reading list, as long as you demonstrate its relevance. The essay should conclude by summarising your argument and the justifications you have offered for it, as well as indicating the relevance of your argument in the broader theoretical and/or empirical context. Always try to justify your arguments by reference to concrete examples, studies, research or new work. Reference all your sources consistently and systematically. Finally give yourself time to re-read, edit and re-edit your essay. Often the process of re-reading and editing will improve an essay immensely. This process will, of course, be aided through discussions in supervisions and the further reflections they inspire for you.

When supervisors mark your essays (and indeed, your exams), they will be guided by the marking criteria, so it is best to familiarise yourself with these criteria. You can ask your supervisor for advice on how to interpret these criteria, which can be downloaded via WHERE [link].

Where can I get help with essay writing?

The university and the faculty libraries have lots of guidance on essay-writing, which you can ask them about or find on their websites. Some colleges run workshops or have academics who provide support for essay-writing; your Director of Studies (DoS) should be able to point you in the right direction. This is especially useful for students who want to develop their academic writing skills, and can help build confidence for those who might feel a little out-of-practice.

Finally, it’s always good to share essays with friends taking the course to get a sense of their approaches. You can learn from your fellow students just as you can learn from university academics. Chatting through an issue that you’re finding confusing with a friend can have great results, because just by talking through your difficulties or thought processes, the path to the answers you need can become clearer.