Writing Powerful Essays

IMPORTANT: this article refers to the previous EPSO exam system before March 2010 and may only be partially relevant for the new one

12 secrets of writing a powerful essay

The written exam, which in most competitions comprises a multiple choice test in the special domain of your choice and an e ssay, is the part you can control best. Why? Instead of getting a multiple choice question with four options, you are generally given 3-5 topics to choose from, therefore you can pick the one you know best. Such topics may include broad titles like "The EU's neighbourhood policy and the way ahead" or an extract from a directive based on which you must "draft a background note for your Director General". By following these essential rules, you can easily get a high passing score.

1. Start with an outline: in EPSO exams, you are usually given 3-5 topics to choose from. This however also means you must carefully reflect on which subject you can elaborate to the best of your knowledge. Don't mind spending 10 minutes to pick the topic, and another 20 minutes drafting an outline with 8-10 bullet points on the most important issues you wish to cover. Nothing is more annoying than changing your mind halfway into the essay, not to mention the layout of your paper. Structured thinking and a coherent, logical approach requires a line you will follow. Getting the outline should be the most challenging part of the essay - filling it with content is then a piece of cake!

2. Do your homework: the best way to prepare for the written test is to draft at home and memorise 3 or 4 sample essays on topics that are most likely to appear at the exam. Do research, check Wikipedia, the Europa website, and all the resources you can think of. Add names, data and numbers you can memorize. How can you identify the main issues? Easy: just look at the last three European Council Presidency Conclusions and see which topics are "hot" in the EU. With a bit of luck, one of your essays will match a topic, and thus all you need to do is write down what is already fully prepared in your head.

3. Be linear: always have a clear idea from where to where do you want to get in your essay. If you write about the EU's policy on climate change, start with the background, the context and go towards the latest developments. Don't start with the goals on reducing greenhouse gases by 20% by 2020 and then jump to the Kyoto protocol. Stay chronological, structured and linear.

4. Keep the eye on the ball: you can see in English-language newspapers that each paragraph covers only one core concept or idea and nothing more. Whatever else you wish to convey can enter the next section only. The first sentence in the paragraph is the key and the rest of the paragraph expands it or provides more details. "The climate change policy has gone a long way since the early '90s", could be a great opening phrase that you may then expand in a few lines.

5. Avoid stating basic facts: "the EU has 27 Member States", "the EU enlargement was a great thing" – these are too obvious or too general statements that serve no value and only decrease the quality of your essay. On the other hand, adding interesting dates, names, facts and concrete ideas can si gnificantly improve your writing and add lot more credibility.

6. Layout, layout, layout: written exams, as their name suggests, are hand-written. Most of us are used to word processors where we can cut, edit, paste and delete text without a trace. In hand-written exams, however, you can only do one thing: cross out a word or a section and re-write it below. Not very beautiful. Though evaluators will not look at the layout as such, it will certainly affect their scoring to see a nicely structured essay with titles, headers, bullet points and underlined words, because it shows that the candidate has a clear idea of the topic he or she is talking about.

7. Too long, too short: the main question is how long should your essay be? In fact this depends on many factors, most notably your handwriting and the topic you have chosen. In any case, as a rule of thumb, it should be somewhere between 3 to 5 pages, though scoring is based on quality and not on quantity, so a two-page essay may sometimes be better than a six-page litany. Whichever you go for, make sure to be fully aware of the exam time: nothing is more annoying than missing a brilliant conclusion because the invigilators call the end of the exam under the threat of disqualifying you for disobedience.

8. Abbrev. & co.: a common mistake essay writers do is using unfamiliar abbreviations or not specifying the meaning of an acronym. "EU" is something you do not need to spell out, however, CFSP may be the most obvious thing for those dealing with foreign and security policy but it still has to be written as "Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP)" first before starting to use only the abbreviations.

9. Number your pages: a blunt but common mistake is to forget numbering your pages which may lead to an illogical essay or a false structure. Even if the greatest care is given when handling exam papers, your pages may be mixed up. Given that names are not used in the written papers, this may cause some headache to both the evaluators and candidates. It only takes thirty seconds to number the pages, so why not keep this in mind at the exam?

10. Be diplomatic: some essay topics may require "argue for or against" a certain issue. This is a challenging yet risky field where your diplomatic skills are tested. Imagine you choose to argue against the achievements of the EU's 2004 year enlargement and your essay will be evaluated by the EU official who had worked several years on making this happen: unfortunate, to say the least. If the topic gives you the choice to argue against a policy then you are of course free to do so; just make sure to be careful with judgments ("the 2004 enlargement was a mistake" may be a bit too harsh but "the 2004 enlargement has also resulted in a number of challenges in the free movement of workers, regional policy etc." seems sufficiently balanced).

11. Spelling without spell check: in the age of computers, we are spoiled when it comes spelling. Before you notice it, Word will underline mistakes such as "negociations", "constiencious" or "miscellaneus" but in writing these can harm your credibility and the quality of your work. A simple solution to this challenge is avoiding the use of words that you are unsure about rather than taking a risk. General rules of hyphenation, commas/semicolons, capital letters and others can be best memorised by reading English-language newspapers and websites such as The Economist, EUobserver or others.

12. Give examples: making your essay powerful requires concreteness. Vague statements or even simple facts cannot convey as much information as a well-chosen example. For example: if your essay mentions the co-decision procedure and the conciliation committee, you may recall the role of the European Parliament and the Council, but mentioning "as an example, the regulation on substances destroying the ozone layer was adopted in the third reading by the conciliation committee". A concrete and simple example can demonstrate your sound knowledge of the subject and it may earn you enough points to proceed to the oral exam in the selection procedure.

Writing an essay often seems to be a dreaded task among students. Whether the essay is for a scholarship, a class, or maybe even a contest, many students often find the task overwhelming. While an essay is a large project, there are many steps a student can take that will help break down the task into manageable parts. Following this process is the easiest way to draft a successful essay, whatever its purpose might be.

According to Kathy Livingston’s Guide to Writing a Basic Essay, there are seven steps to writing a successful essay:

1. Pick a topic.

You may have your topic assigned, or you may be given free reign to write on the subject of your choice. If you are given the topic, you should think about the type of paper that you want to produce. Should it be a general overview of the subject or a specific analysis? Narrow your focus if necessary.

If you have not been assigned a topic, you have a little more work to do. However, this opportunity also gives you the advantage to choose a subject that is interesting or relevant to you. First, define your purpose. Is your essay to inform or persuade?

Once you have determined the purpose, you will need to do some research on topics that you find intriguing. Think about your life. What is it that interests you? Jot these subjects down.

Finally, evaluate your options. If your goal is to educate, choose a subject that you have already studied. If your goal is to persuade, choose a subject that you are passionate about. Whatever the mission of the essay, make sure that you are interested in your topic.

2. Prepare an outline or diagram of your ideas.

In order to write a successful essay, you must organize your thoughts. By taking what’s already in your head and putting it to paper, you are able to see connections and links between ideas more clearly. This structure serves as a foundation for your paper. Use either an outline or a diagram to jot down your ideas and organize them.

To create a diagram, write your topic in the middle of your page. Draw three to five lines branching off from this topic and write down your main ideas at the ends of these lines. Draw more lines off these main ideas and include any thoughts you may have on these ideas.

If you prefer to create an outline, write your topic at the top of the page. From there, begin to list your main ideas, leaving space under each one. In this space, make sure to list other smaller ideas that relate to each main idea. Doing this will allow you to see connections and will help you to write a more organized essay.

3. Write your thesis statement.

Now that you have chosen a topic and sorted your ideas into relevant categories, you must create a thesis statement. Your thesis statement tells the reader the point of your essay. Look at your outline or diagram. What are the main ideas?

Your thesis statement will have two parts. The first part states the topic, and the second part states the point of the essay. For instance, if you were writing about Bill Clinton and his impact on the United States, an appropriate thesis statement would be, “Bill Clinton has impacted the future of our country through his two consecutive terms as United States President.”

Another example of a thesis statement is this one for the “Winning Characteristics” Scholarship essay: “During my high school career, I have exhibited several of the “Winning Characteristics,” including Communication Skills, Leadership Skills and Organization Skills, through my involvement in Student Government, National Honor Society, and a part-time job at Macy’s Department Store.”

4. Write the body.

The body of your essay argues, explains or describes your topic. Each main idea that you wrote in your diagram or outline will become a separate section within the body of your essay.

Each body paragraph will have the same basic structure. Begin by writing one of your main ideas as the introductory sentence. Next, write each of your supporting ideas in sentence format, but leave three or four lines in between each point to come back and give detailed examples to back up your position. Fill in these spaces with relative information that will help link smaller ideas together.

5. Write the introduction.

Now that you have developed your thesis and the overall body of your essay, you must write an introduction. The introduction should attract the reader’s attention and show the focus of your essay.

Begin with an attention grabber. You can use shocking information, dialogue, a story, a quote, or a simple summary of your topic. Whichever angle you choose, make sure that it ties in with your thesis statement, which will be included as the last sentence of your introduction.

6. Write the conclusion.

The conclusion brings closure of the topic and sums up your overall ideas while providing a final perspective on your topic. Your conclusion should consist of three to five strong sentences. Simply review your main points and provide reinforcement of your thesis.

7. Add the finishing touches.

After writing your conclusion, you might think that you have completed your essay. Wrong. Before you consider this a finished work, you must pay attention to all the small details.

Check the order of your paragraphs. Your strongest points should be the first and last paragraphs within the body, with the others falling in the middle. Also, make sure that your paragraph order makes sense. If your essay is describing a process, such as how to make a great chocolate cake, make sure that your paragraphs fall in the correct order.

Review the instructions for your essay, if applicable. Many teachers and scholarship forms follow different formats, and you must double check instructions to ensure that your essay is in the desired format.

Finally, review what you have written. Reread your paper and check to see if it makes sense. Make sure that sentence flow is smooth and add phrases to help connect thoughts or ideas. Check your essay for grammar and spelling mistakes.

Congratulations! You have just written a great essay.

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