I read a lot of essay every semester. Some of them come out of the marking process figuratively dripping in red ink (most of the marking's done online so no more red pen - waah!) and some of them pass through with hardly a mark. In the last batch, I had to write a little note at the bottom of the marking sheet explaining that I wasn't going to return the essay file with comments (as I had done with all the other students) because it just would have been just been punctuated with 'excellent!' or 'great argument!' the whole way through. She received the first perfect score I'd ever given. The highest distinction.
After 10 years of marking essays (holy crud, 10 years!) as well as my experience writing quite a few of them and one mother of an essay (all 100,000 words of it) myself, I think I know a thing or two about writing a good essay. I certainly know one when I read it. And I can pick a bad one in about a sentence or two.
1. Participate. Go to your damn lectures. You enrolled in the subject; you're certainly paying for it. So turn up. Listen. Take notes. If your parents are paying for it - do them the courtesy of turning up, listening and taking notes. If there are tutorials, turn up to those too. Do your damn readings before the lectures and tutorials so if you don't understand a key idea or theory, you can ask there and then. And if you still don't get it, you can keep asking until it's explained to you in a way that you do. The people who write the best essays are generally the ones who ask the questions in class.
2. Be prepared. Read through the essay questions at the start of the semester so you can highlight or make clearer notes about the relevant topics as they come up in your lectures. Start researching hardcopy texts early - all the good stuff that hasn't been digitised is going to be gone if you wait until the week before the essay is due. When there are more than a hundred students competing for the same resources, someone wins and quite a few more miss out.
3. Read the question - all of it. Read through all of the instructions for the essay - not just the essay topic but all of it. Most lecturers include additional information that can help you navigate through the process. Figure out the key verbs in the essay topic - are you being asked to compare and contrast, to critically analyse, to discuss, to debate...? Those terms are signposts for how to address your topic and structure your argument.
4. Do your research. Unless you're specifically asked not to, you are being asked to go beyond the readings you've been given. Don't just rely on database searches, electronic books and journals. Go and find the relevant Dewey or Library of Congress call number and browse through the hardcopy titles in that whole section. Pull them off the shelves and read through the contents and the index. A huge problem with student research is that most only look for sources that support their own ideas rather than casting a wider net to see if they're actually right or wrong. Your own fundamental assumptions shine out of your essay like a beacon. Especially when they're wrong.
5. Think about your sources. Go to the original sources where you can rather than relying on text books that summarise, paraphrase or quote out of context. Don't take the author at face value - being published doesn't make them right or valuable. Interrogate their ideas before you use them. Take meticulous notes and make records of everything you read or look through so you can't possibly mistake someone else's ideas for your own.
6. Have a plan. After you've done your research, figure out what your argument is and stick to it. Unstructured essays sprawl. They stop answering the question and go off on interesting but essentially useless tangents. Take advantage of lecturers who are amenable to checking essay plans. I won't tell you if you've got the right answer (if there is one) but I will tell you if it looks like you're making a logical argument or not.
7. Don't just summarise. Even if you agree with your sources, you still need explain why they're good, trustworthy or "correct". If you've just pointed out their flaws, explain to me why their flaws are less severe than the other sources you could have used. In all of the graduate destination surveys I've ever read, future employers are looking for evidence of critical thinking. They don't really care about practical training because it's almost guaranteed you've been taught the wrong techniques or systems and they'll show you the right way on the job (this is true even in medicine and engineering, etc). They want to know you can think. I do too.
8. Check your writing. This is especially true of international students with English as a second (or third or fourth) language but domestic students often get tripped up here too. Written expression is usually only a small component of the mark but, in reality, if you can't express your ideas clearly, you're going to be losing marks in the other categories as well. When you've been working on a written piece for a while, you become blind to the errors in it - so read it out loud or copy edit backwards (checking each word or sentence for errors). Give it to someone else to read, especially someone who isn't doing the same subject. If a non-interested party can understand your ideas, you've done a good job. Spell check can only do so much for you - it won't pick up that you've used wether instead of whether. There should be no castrated sheep in any of my essays.
9. Hand it in on time. At the right place. There is nothing more demoralising than calculating the late penalties for a great essay handed in late. If you need extra time - ask for it. Nicely. We understand stuff goes wrong and I'll bend over backwards to help genuinely unwell or distressed students get across the line. But I'm not going to give you extra time because you were in Europe for the last three weeks of semester. Or you were in a wedding the weekend before the essay was due. If you misread or failed to read the instructions on when and how to submit - that's your problem. I don't check the offices for hardcopy submission when I've clearly explained it's a digital only submission.
10. Don't be an arsehole. If you are a disruptive jerk in my classes, I'm saving your essay for last. By the time I've read what feels like a million essays, I'm going to come at your essay with all the righteous indignation and raw fury of a lecturer who feels half the class didn't listen to a word she said.