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Essays As Personal Development: Five Tips to Improve Your Relationship With Essays

Updated: May 15, 2023

Final-year Governance, Economics, and Development (GED) student at Leiden University College in The Hague, the Netherlands

How different would your student life be if instead of scrambling to meet deadlines you could ensure timely quality work that substantially contributes to your intellectual growth? Essays, when properly executed, can be an incredibly enriching aspect of the university experience. They incentivise us to deepen knowledge gained by obliging us to evaluate content in our own words. What's more, they are often the most flexible part of the syllabus. Yet, for many students, they represent a significant source of stress which often engenders procrastination and as a result, we experience even more stress. It is a vicious cycle if there ever was one. Thus, instead of fostering curiosity and critical thinking, essays can impair both our social and academic lives. There are many pragmatic tricks to meet deadlines. However, for students who lack motivation rather than strategy I present five tips to recode your relationship with essays. I hope that this helps in transforming your essays from dreaded obligations into meaningful experiences of the day.

Tip 1: Love the topic… marginally.

All essays involve a degree of choice: even if you cannot choose the topic or question you are writing on, you can still control the narrative. Therefore, the most universal thing that improves the essay-writing experience is interest. Students often choose the first feasible essay prompt they see. As much as this is not a bad thing if you actually find the theme engaging, it is also okay to give yourself some breathing room. In the end, you will be more likely to properly plan the essay if you care about it. However, do not be a perfectionist, some assignments will of course be less interesting to you. Yet, as you make essays your own they should all provide you with some satisfaction.

Tip 2: Integrate your thoughts into the conversation.

No one is an island: even if we are committed to curiosity, some essay topics may elude us. When overwhelmed, it is important to recognize that stubbornly staring at the screen will not help. This does not mean the essay is beyond reach: very often, daunting essays can become manageable when discussed with engaging people. This is not to say that you can replace personal intellectual work with that of others. Still, an honest conversation can remind you of the merits of a given topic and kick-start your personal reflection. If you are open to diverse perspectives, you can reframe the most difficult assignments into the most fruitful ones. They may ignite conversations you would have never experienced with people you do not often speak with. Everyone likes talking about their interests. So why not broaden your horizon while making someone’s day?

Tip 3: Create a ‘web of learning’.

Talking to others is rewarding, but sometimes this is not feasible. During my years at university, I have found that a possible solution may lie in the reflection of past work. Consequently, a personal strategy to enjoy my essays is to link them explicitly or implicitly to my past work. The loose ends of past papers or weaker arguments often provide fertile soil for my new work. Moreover, this ‘web of learning’ strengthens the ties between your academics and your personal development - so it is not only a good strategy for interdisciplinary thinking but ensures that your education is more than worthwhile!

Tip 4: Engage in class.

A bit on the practical side, but still relevant to our purposes, are attitude shifts: your engagement in class not only boosts your grades but saves you time. Ambiguity and uncertainty can either be solved over days with emails or in five minutes within the classroom. This investment is often the difference between a work crisis and an enjoyable experience. What's more, active participation not only improves your concentration and maximizes your time, but it is a benefit to everyone around you. I guarantee that if you are uncertain about aspects of an assignment, it is likely that someone else is as well in that class.

Tip 5: Tolerate imperfection.

Last but not least, it is important to put everything in its place. There is only so much work you can pour into an essay until you face serious marginal returns – after candid effort what we all deserve is empathy and compassion. If you are reading this, it is clear that you value both your time and your work. At the end of the day, each essay is simply no more than just another assignment: every single one does not have to be perfect. The imperfections of each paper do not reflect your quality as a student or as a person; they are rather opportunities to improve in the future. When enough is enough, press submit, go outside, and be proud of your work.

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