Trying to get a 1st class grade, in general, is as difficult as it sounds. Getting a 1st class grade in your law essay is even tougher. There’s no long or short about it. But today is your lucky day because I will be sharing with you my TOP tips on how to plan a 1st class essay!
By way of introduction, I studied Law in my undergrad and I graduated with an Honours Law Degree with a 1:1. Throughout my time in university, I was consistently achieving a first-class grade in my assessments from 1st year to 3rd Year. But it was not without a few lessons learned along the way.
For example, one of the most underrated tips that I wish more students knew about is to ask for feedback from tutors on your papers and then ask them how to improve your grade.
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Take a trip down memory lane with me …
I remember travelling into Dublin City before a coffee date with a friend just to get feedback on one paper I wrote. Now, I don’t know what that says about me but sure look – I got the feedback I needed and had a really nice coffee date! But you’re not here to listen to me talk about coffee dates – let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of how to get a first-class grade in your essay.
But first, a little *disclaimer*; regardless of the grade that you achieve in your course work, they are not a determining factor in your ability to succeed as a successful lawyer. Grades don’t and won’t ever matter. It’s true.
I’m writing this blog post because I know that you want to know how to get the best results that you can achieve. I don’t want you to think that you need high grades to succeed in your career aspirations – not at all!
However, if this is something that you desire then look no further because here are my top tips for achieving that first-class grade!
But we have some housekeeping to do so let’s go through that now.
Essay v. Problem question.
Before we go into the juicy details of how to plan a first-class essay, we first need to understand what types of assessments are out there. Why? Depending on the type of question that you get, this will determine what approach to take and what tools to use to ensure that you will get that 1:1 grade.
A problem question does exactly what it says on the tin: we are looking at a problem that requires solving. The easiest way to spot a problem question is to look at the question either at the top or bottom of your paper. You’ll see something along the lines of ‘Advise accordingly’ or ‘Advise X in these circumstances’ or something similar. The question is now asking you to consider the factual scenario that you have been given and using the law that you have been learning, apply the law to the scenario and give your best advice in those circumstances.
This will be the centre of our attention in this blog post today but in a nutshell, an essay question would be more academic and opinionated to a certain degree. You can identify an essay question as it will usually have a quote from a leading or seminal case and the question might ask you ‘In light of the above passage, do you think that X law should be replaced with a more objective/subjective approach?’ or something along these lines.
You’re not being asked to advise or to apply the law to the scenario (if you do this in your essay paper, that’s a clear indication of a lack of understanding of the question – so do be mindful of that!)
Now that we have settled on the differences between an essay v. problem question – I have kept you on your toes for too long (sorry!)
Now it is finally time to share these top tips for planning your essay!
You NEED to understand the question in order to plan your essay.
The person marking your paper wants you to look at the law and question the law. It’s not about being in favour or against a certain aspect of the law, it’s about looking at the law, analysing what the current law is and/or other current trends and forming an opinion.
Out of all of the tips that I will be discussing in today’s blog post, this is probably the most important one. If you don’t understand what is the underlying theme in the question, it is evident that you don’t understand the question. Your tutor will pick up on this and your chances of obtaining a first-class grade automatically diminishes.
The best way to tackle your understanding of the question is to do the following;
Grab a blank piece of paper and write out the title of the question across the page. Circle or underline the keywords in the question in a different coloured pen. Ask yourself, ‘What is the connection between all of these words – do they relate to a contractual issue? Has a crime been committed? Are we talking about a breach of statutory duty?’ Ask yourself these simple questions to ensure that you understand the topic of the question.
Next – ask yourself simple questions such as who are you addressing this question to? What kind of sources do I need to refer to? Do I need to form an opinion? Essentially, you are doing a brain dump of all of the simple questions and facts that first came to mind when you saw the questions.
In a nutshell, what is this question about and write it all down?
It’s time to brainstorm
This goes without saying, you need to brainstorm your ideas. I know it seems simple, but it is so important.
Essay papers require you to form an opinion, it’s’ even MORE important that you brainstorm rough ideas that you have in mind. At this stage, we are not trying to write down anything yet. It is very similar to the first tip which is to write down everything that comes to mind. The difference, however, is that now we can actually do a brain dump of ideas on how to answer the question.
You are getting your mind used to seeing the question and analysing it and taking it apart.
Forming an opinion in law isn’t as easy as it sounds but it’s certainly doable. Most students shy away from essay questions because they involve a little bit more brainwork but more often than not, they are a great opportunity for you to test your in-depth knowledge of the area.
How do I brainstorm, you may ask?
Let’s say that you are writing an essay paper on ‘whether the current test for negligence is adequate.’
An example of how to brainstorm
Ask yourself what are the first few words that come to mind when you think about the test for negligence.
- Donoghue v. Stevenson , Duty of care? Who owes the duty of care?
- Should the standard of care be lowered?
- Causation – factual or legal causation?
- Damage/harm? What kind are we talking about here?
- Do I think we need to reform the negligence test? Do I agree with that idea? Or is it sufficient the way it is?
- What issues currently stand with the negligence principles?
- Why should the negligence test NOT be reformed? Is it insufficient? lacking – in what?
- Are there examples where the negligence test was inadequate?
- Is there academic commentary on the negligence principle?
TIP: Try to consider all angles before coming to your own conclusion. Consider both sides of your opinion before writing. This will give you a well-rounded answer that is supported with strong evidence (and examiners give lots of love to students who do this!)
To plan your essay, you need to structure your answers – it saves time.
I know, I know. “Structure your essay” – I have heard it many times as well.
But this is what distinguishes your essay from a high 2nd-class grade to a 1st-class grade. Although it seems like a simple idea, it’s so important to plan out the structure of your essays to a T.
Not only does it provide you with a guide on how you will plan your essay but you can visually see how your essay will start and you can work out whether your essay actually answers the essay title and if the flow of your essay makes sense. After all, answering the essay title is what’s important – this is crucial!
This is a sample structure you can follow
When structuring my essays, I follow a simple plan. It’s a simple plan that I begin all of my essays with and it’s a good start. This is it:
- Introduction – include a short introduction to the topic and introduce your viewpoint i.e. ‘I agree/disagree with…’
- Historical background – be brief but introduce the current law. Show the examiner that you know what the law is.
- Positive aspects of the law – YOUR opinion + WHY. For example: ‘Contrary to what X may believe, the response to the development of this law has been positive for X group in society’. Be specific with your opinion; it shows that you have done your research!
- Negative aspects of the law – YOUR opinion + WHY. ‘However in light of this, there has been very little development in the area of X in the wider context of Y’.
- Critical analysis – this is where your viewpoint will shine through. Bring home your argument, and reveal to the examiner that you think/don’t think that X law is adequate. For example, ‘In light of the above, this paper is grounded on the idea that X is…’
- Conclusion – sum up your argument and end on a strong note! Remember: leave a lasting impression on the examiner and evoke emotion.
This is a very simple, easy-to-follow format I use to plan my essay questions. The most important thing to remember is to be consistent with every sentence you write. If you disagree with the essay title, maintain your disagreement with the statement and consistently refer to it throughout your answer.
TIP: Don’t overwhelm the reader with ‘I disagree with this aspect of the law’ sentences in every paragraph. I suggest revisiting your opinion after every second or third paragraph.
And that, my dear friend, is how we structure a first-class essay!
If you have gotten this far, it means that you now have my top tips for planning out a first-class essay! If you follow these tips, you are going to do very well in your essay! When I’m planning out my essays, I like using pretty pens and sticky notes to allow my creativity to flow.
Check out my blog post on the top 5 stationary essentials that every university student needs! I share my favourite stationery items that I believe will help you excel in law school – in a beautiful way!
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Until the next blog post,
Disclaimer: Featured Image designed on Canva.com