Make sure that you have a printed copy of the essay question. Isolate the following three components:

  • The topic(s) – what must your essay be about? Can you reduce the areas of law into a few words?
  • Your task – what do you have to do?
  • Any limits – what’s the scope and focus of your paper?

Spend some time picking apart your question further.

  • Using some blank paper, try to brainstorm related words and phrases. They will come in handy when you need to enter search terms into law research databases to locate relevant primary and secondary materials.
  • Rephrase the question. Does this help you to spot any other issues?

Plan your approach to the essay:

Classify the task.

  • What subject area does it fall into?
    • Make sure that you understand what parts of the course are relevant to the essay
  • What types of learning is it testing?
    • Brainstorm or use the assessment criteria – most essays will be testing problem solving, reading comprehension, research, and synthesis

Determine how the essay is relevant to your goals and interests. Think about a time that you have written an essay or a similar piece of writing before (efficacy).

  • According to Michael Hunter Schwartz, author of Expert Learning for Law Students, the ability to invoke self-interest and invoke self-efficacy is strongly correlated with successful students.
  • Michael Hunter Schwartz says that students can invoke self-interest by: being curious and excited about learning for its own sake; recalling the interest in law that lead to them attending law school; appreciating the excitement and challenge of studying law; or imagining how they will use the knowledge at present or in the future.
  • Students can invoke self-efficacy by recalling past successes in similar tasks. For example, have you have received a good mark on an essay before? What skills did you use that you can apply to the next task?

Think about your goals for the essay. What grade do they want or expect to receive? How much work do you think that will require?

  • Effective goals must be concrete, short-term, and challenging but realistic. You must break down the larger goal (write an H1 essay) into weekly (write the first paragraph) or even daily tasks (read two articles) that will allow you to work towards the broader goal.

This resource is partially based on Michael Hunter Schwartz, Expert Learning for Law Students (Carolina Academic Press, 2nd ed, 2008), available in the library.

See the Guide to Academic Success for more great information on legal essay writing.