top of page

There are some people who can read incredibly fast and write polished essays effortlessly, but that’s not the case for most of us. Maybe you were forced to take English as a requirement, pre-requisite, or signed up for it as an elective unprepared for the reality and need a little help. That's what I'm here for! Here are some tips to help you survive first year university English.


Tip 1: Forget What You Learned In High School

High school English covers important topics but they are simplified and the bare minimum as you will learn. It is important to come into university English with an open mind to absorb the new and to not be afraid to ask profs questions when you need to (profs aren’t that scary, most of the time).


Tip 2: Don’t Get Discouraged

Don’t get discouraged by low marks on early assignments. Think about the percentage your assignment is worth. Percentages start low and get higher because you are going to improve. You will get better and to get better you are probably going to submit writing you think is good but actually isn’t. That can be a harsh reality to face but don’t let your marks get in the way of doing the next assignment. Ask for help if you need to and know that by writing the assignments you will get better.


Tip 3: Do The Readings

They can seem long and boring, I know, but in order to write about poems, books, plays, or short stories you have to have some grounding in what they are about. Read pages that will be discussed in class before that class. If you get behind, think about the lectures as you catch up. Still having a hard time? Try an audiobook so you can listen on the go or read along to keep your place in the book. If a book is over 100 years old, you may be able to find a free audiobook online. Don't worry if you don't understand the deeper meaning of the text as you read it. Read so you know when things happen, who the characters are, and have an overview of the plot. This will give you context for the lectures, which is where you will learn how to close read the deeper meaning. Knowing basic plot will also help you find quotes for writing assignments.


Tip 4: Go To Class

It might be a surprise to you but you don’t have to know how to perfectly analyze a text when you start the class. Through lecture, you will get examples of how to analyze a quote for essays and close readings. By explaining important quotes and themes in the texts, the professor is actually giving you a jumping off point for your own arguments.


Tip 5: Written Assignments

Take a look at “10 Steps To Help You Write When You Don’t Want To” for more tips.

Figure out what you might like to talk about: Sometimes your prof will tell you what they want you to write about but if you get a choice, write on the literary text you enjoyed the most because it will be easier to write on. Once you have your text, think back to lecture or look at your notes for the themes and ideas that came up in class discussion. Choose the theme that is the most interesting to you and move on to the next step.

Gather quotes: If you are unsure where to begin, start with the quotes you discussed in class that are related to your topic. Think about other instances in the book where you might find something similar and keep all your quotes in a word document for easy access while writing.

Analyze the quotes: Read into the quotes you gather. Look at word choices, reoccurring imagery, and elements of literature that your prof covered in class. Make notes on what you find so you can look back and use your notes to start forming your argument.

Make an argument: Your thesis should say what specific part of a text you are talking about, your argument, and why it is important to the greater context of that text. A thesis can be more than one sentence if it needs to be. Write out your argument as many times as it takes to find a wording that works for you.

Write: Now take all of the pieces you have already gathered and smooth them together into sentences, paragraphs, and finally an essay. You should NEVER edit while you write. Writing is how you get everything out on a page with no judgement.

Edit: Editing is when you make sure your writing makes sense, that you have a solid argument with sound evidence, and your spelling, grammar, and punctuation are correct. If you need more words, look at a quote already in your essay/paragraph and see if you can say more about it rather than adding another quote. Common mistakes for beginner writers are over describing plot, making quotes longer than they need to be, or saying the same thing twice in different ways. Correcting these things will make your writing stronger and help cut down on the word count.


Tip Six: The Exam

Do not write off the English exam and at the same time don’t fret about it being worth 30%, 35%, or 40% of your grade. If you are prepared, an English exam can boost your grade. Look at the format for the exam before you go into it and adjust your preparations to fit that format. You can plan for quote identification by looking at the quotes discussed in class and how they relate to the text as a whole. If an exam wants you to analyze passages not covered in lecture, remember that you have been practicing this all semester and think about the greater themes within each text as your jumping off point for your analysis. For the big essay, find themes that overlap between texts as they will be the ones you will most likely have to write on. First year English professors want to know that you learned something about the texts (use specific examples), that you learned how to close read, and how to structure an argument. Because you have less time to write and polish, exams aren’t usually marked with as high a standard as a written assignment.

I hope these tips were helpful. You can do it! 

 — Chef Amy

Survival Guide To University English

bottom of page