How boosting my originality led to a first-class degree

In the final year of my undergraduate degree I was desperate to make the jump to first-class. I asked my tutor about the different between a second and a first-class essay. She said:

  • “A second-class essay is controlled by other peoples’ insights on the evidence. A first-class essay is controlled by YOUR insights on the evidence … with help from secondary sources of course …”

In terms of assessing the evidence to add creative original insights while making a cohesive argument throughout your introduction, main section and conclusion, the most important factor is to embrace the exceptions to any overarching answer. It is crucial to acknowledge the gaps in the evidence, which limit your certainty about a conclusion.

Click on the highlighted words for Purdue Owl’s clear definition of the purpose of an Introduction and Conclusion.

That is why originality is such a bonus if you want to improve your grades. In this article I will explain why originality is useful, the best consistent methods of making original insights, and an example from my highest scoring essay to show how these methods work in practice.


How to make creative original insights:

It can sound intimidating when thinking about making original ideas. For my first three years I did my best to understand the arguments of the recommended texts and cram them into the maximum word count.

However, it is much easier to be original than you think. I would spark my creativity after I had examined a primary source by writing the first 5 things about the subject which popped into my mind. Even if they did not seen relevant initially, putting them down on paper could lead me to another creative thought and spark new ideas which would support and enhance  my argument.

(Post it notes!!!)


Methods of making original creative insights:

When you see the conclusions made in an article, look at the primary evidence that the authors have used, because primary evidence or raw data has to be the fundamental basis for any strong argument. It is the primary evidence which allows you to show that you understand the arguments that have previously been put forward or that your original argument has genuine substance to it.

Of course the first place to look for a list of primary data sources should be in your course handbook. However, you can also find the name of the evidence in the footnotes on the page, at the end of the chapter, or at the end of the book.

If you cannot locate the primary sources in your own University library or archives then try typing in the author’s name or the people described in the primary evidence into your University library database. This can help you in addition to the methods I outlined yesterday on producing a first-class essay in the “Primary Evidence” section.

Now it would be a marathon task for a student to study the same amount of primary evidence for an essay that an academic would for an article. But you do not have to. All that you need is to have sufficient grounds on which to challenge or reinforce conclusions


Example from my experience:

In my final essay as an undergraduate at Stirling University in February 2016 I had to write about how rival Protestant denominations affected party politics in the pre-1707 Scottish Parliament.

However, it became clear that party politics in the pre-1707 Scottish Parliament was too fluid to categorise absolutely and so I could not simply assign a YES or NO answer.

I employed the techniques shown above, which would allow me to cite rival academics work and critically challenge and reinforce some of their claims and take control of my argument.

The one thing which I could clarify was that in the specific time period that I was researching was that rivalry between Protestant denominations was consistently present. However, in order to answer the question properly I had to acknowledge how it fitted in with other factors which divided voting parliamentarians into rival factions.

I listed the occasions where rival Protestant factions actually broke ranks, and read over the list to categorise what factors were most frequent and what exactly would compel large numbers of parliamentarians to vote with rival Protestant factions – which was most frequently the threat of violence from government forces or the financial benefits of a royal pension.

So instead of saying that rival protestant denominations were the most important factor in party politics, I used the evidence that I had gathered to show that it was a consistent factor which was only broken by certain exceptional events, and specific causes such as the stability of a Protestant royal line against the exiled Catholic royal line.


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