1. Oxford Essay Rule One: There Are No Rules
Writing a good university essay begins with changing your mindset from, "how do I write a good essay?" to "how do I write this good essay?"
I remember getting my first Oxford PPE essay, "Does Descartes’s “evil demon” thought experiment show we cannot know anything about the external world?"
Excited to go about it like I did all my A-Level essays, or perhaps like the TSA essay, I remember dashing to the PPE website and looking for a Philosophy essay mark scheme. There was no mark scheme.
I then remember looking for a model Oxford PPE essay. There was no model Oxford PPE essay.
I remember then frantically searching for some essay-writing guidance. I needed answers to so many questions:
- How many words?
- How much general knowledge?
- What exactly should every introduction and conclusion look like?
- How many points?
And I just couldn't find any of these. That's when I realised I needed to completely change the way I thought about essay-writing.
Here's What Changes With an Oxford Essay
At A-Level, essays were marked to really specific criteria. As a result, you're given model answers, a perfect way to write every essay every time, and loads of assistance on what every essay should look like.
A good Oxford PPE essay isn't one that meets any specific criteria. A good essay is one that does the specific job. What does this mean? It means what you need to do depends on the subject. It can even depend on the module. It will always even depend on the specific question.
There is no universal formula. There are no universal rules. The most important difference is that there's no such thing as the "perfect way to write an essay." Writing a good university essay begins with changing your mindset from, "how do I write a good essay?" to "how do I write this essay well?"
2. Everything in an Oxford PPE Essay Comes Down to Content
From structure to number of points, to how many counterarguments to include, only matter if they help effectively answer the question.
At A-Level, you're often given specific marks on how well-organised your essay is. Or how much knowledge you included. Or how much analysis you included. Sometimes even how many different arguments you included. You're always given guidance on what your word count should be.
At Oxford, there is no such mark scheme. You're always trying to answer the overall question as well as possible, and all of these things are means to an end.
The point about making an Oxford essay well-organised is that it makes your point easier to understand. General knowledge is necessary to answer specific questions, but isn't marked like it is at A-Level. I couldn't answer my first Oxford Philosophy essay without knowing what the evil demon thought experiment was.
But that's the point. I only need general knowledge to answer the question. So how many points do you need? How much analysis? How much to write? As many as needed to effectively answer the question.
For example, in Oxford Philosophy we're roughly given questions than can be answered in 1800 words. But between my PPE cohort at Trinity College, we've handed in essays ranging from 1400 to 2300 words. As long as you write enough to effectively answer the question, the length isn't overly important.
This applies to everything. From structure, to number of points, to how many counterarguments to include – these things only matter if they help effectively answer the question. There's no such thing as a universal "model Oxford PPE essay structure". Understanding this is the first step to writing a great university essay.
3. Your Subject Makes All the Difference
If you know, not just what the Oxford PPE course requires, but also the subtopic, you'll be tailoring your structure, knowledge, analysis, and so on for the demands of PPE. This is how you write a great Oxford PPE essay.
So if there's no universal way of doing things, how exactly do I know what I need to do? The best start is your subject. All those soft-skills and buzzwords that are on the subject page on the course website? They matter.
Let's take a look at what's on the Oxford PPE website:
Reading this, the admissions criteria, and the course handbook will give you an idea of the skills your PPE course is looking for. You can read more about what first year Oxford PPE is like here.
Let's Get Philosophical…
With Oxford Philosophy for example, "analytical rigour", "logical reasoning", and "arguments" are phrases repeated often. Doing Philosophy comes down to evaluating arguments carefully and making your own arguments even more so.
Therefore, an Oxford Philosophy essay introduction has to be precise in what key terms mean. You'll almost certainly need paragraphs of counterarguments. My Philosophy essays are 1800-2000 words, whereas my Economics essays are a lot shorter, because you need to spend more time closely analysing arguments in Philosophy.
Very often for Philosophy in particular, the first thing I do is break down an argument into its simplest form like this:
And it's only Philosophy essays I'll do this for, because they demand the closest focus on arguments.
Beyond PPE essays – Oxford Medicine essays offer a contrast
Medicine focuses on developing lots of knowledge and understanding of major systems of the body. Oxford medical essays are therefore more descriptive. They don't often require a consistent argument throughout, you don't have to refute arguments, and definitely don't have to lay out premises and assumptions.
But what do you need? Lots of knowledge and demonstrations of understanding. A Medicine essay tends to be shorter than Philosophy essays are, but packed with knowledge, key terms, and so on.
You don't need whole paragraphs for counterarguments and your introduction won't necessarily signpost arguments like in writing a PPE Philosophy essay. Instead, it might for example be a summary of a process you're about to explain, to showcase your understanding.
Know What They Want…
This is the trick to writing a good Oxford essay, whether a Philosophy essay, Politics essay, Economics essay, or Medicine essay. If you know what not just your course requires, but the subtopic, you'll be tailoring your structure, knowledge, analysis, and so on for the demands of your course. This is how you write a great university essay.
4. It Comes Down to the Question
The way you structure, analyse, and even how much you write will come down to your efforts to meet what the question demands. Everything you do is simply a means to answer the question as best possible.
However, I'm afraid, this is simply not enough. Within the same subtopic questions can differ hugely. Here are two examples I had for PPE Economics essays:
- "Incentives work"
- "In the future all human jobs will be done by robots, and hence firms will not exist."
Here's what a paragraph looked like for the first Economics essay:
And here's an excerpt of the second Economics essay:
See the difference? There's just a lot more Maths in one of them!
Incentives in microeconomics is a subtopic that's mathematical, and to answer the question that "incentives work", I needed to explain why the Maths works. My structure therefore involved laying out the Maths.
The second Economics essay? It's a far more contested topic. This was an essay I knew I had to present a consistent argument, address counterarguments, and would have to bring up more specific subject knowledge. My structure more closely resembled one of my Philosophy essays. Unsurprisingly, it was also 200 words longer than the other Economics essay.
Oxford PPE Essays Really Do Come Down to the Question…
Even if you think you have an idea of what the subject demands, at the heart of every essay is the title question. Each question has its own goals, and part of getting better at university essay-writing is figuring out what these goals are.
They're always tied to the broader aims of the subject. Even in my argumentative Economics essays I don't lay out premises and conclusions because there's not as close a focus on arguments as a Philosophy essay.
The way you structure your PPE essay, analyse the question, and even how much you write will come down to your efforts to meet what the question demands. Everything you do is simply a means to answer the question as best possible. Getting to grips with this idea is essential, and totally different from A-Level.
5. Even the Tutor Can Matter
Tutors often have their own individual preferences, which is important to note for handing in Oxford essays.
Everything said beforehand is at the heart of what makes essay-writing so different at university. However, because of this ambiguity, tutors often have their own individual preferences, which is important to note for handing in essays.
As long as you can recognise what your tutor or professor prefers, and what matters for answering the question well, this should not be an issue. It can be anything from a long conclusion that lays out the rest of the essay in detail, to an interesting 'twist' included at the end of every essay.
If there is any guidance you'll get from your tutor/professor, it'll likely be the things they in particular are looking for. Because I'm afraid…
6. Lots of Guidance? I'm Afraid Not…
Because there's no "perfect" way to write any university essay, there's not huge amounts of support on how to write an essay. For my first PPE essay, we were explicitly told they wanted us to just have a go at it. They told us that it'll almost certainly not be a good essay, but we'll improve.
That ended up being entirely true. My first Oxford essay was poor. I had no idea what I was doing. But I quickly learned all of the above. With every piece of feedback you get, you get better at knowing how to approach every specific question.The support you do get is on developing those subject skills in the first place, and it's in developing these skills you write better essays.
This odd, new, skills-based approach to essay-writing is a big jump from the good old days of model answers, explicit specifications, and clear mark schemes. But once you understand this, you'll begin writing fantastic PPE essays in no time.