So, you thought coursework was bad? I present to you: quarantine coursework! We are all struggling, but no need to despair: I'm bringing you ten tips to rock your essays, the lockdown edition!
1. "A good house starts with a good foundation"
I know it might be a bit late for this one given that most of us have deadlines coming up in t-minus a number in a couple of weeks, but if you’re a first or second year or a third going into your masters this one is for you. Write about something you care about or interests you - try to find the good in what you’ve been tasked with.
Brainstorm how you can link topics to things you love or talk to your supervisor to see if you can there is an angle you can find in pre-set questions that you would enjoy writing about. I messaged my supervisor and here I am writing an essay about the ecological worlds of Studio Ghibli and let me tell you, researching an essay has never been so fun!
2. “At first we started slow, we started real slow, and you know that’s okay because sometimes in life you’re gonna start slow, that’s okay” – Apollos Hester
I will admit motivation is a rare currency when you’re stuck inside all day and you can hear Animal Crossing calling you from across the room.
Most of us would be going to the library to shelter us from constant distraction, and not everyone has the luxury of silence, a separate office or desk to work from: that’s why extended deadlines can be a blessing. You have more time to write your essays so take it, break up your workload and it’ll be much easier. Instead of trying to emulate reading 20 articles like you would in one all-day library session, read 10 today and 10 tomorrow. The university knows conditions aren’t ideal for most of us and acknowledge that many of us also spend a lot of time worrying about the situation that’s why they’ve extended deadlines. You’ll feel so much less stressed when you feel like you’re getting some stuff done. But in this, be realistic: the work has to be done, so make sure you set your mini-goals in a way that means you’ll get it all done. All-nighters without a library are a nightmare you don’t want to encounter.
3. Oh hi, friends!
This one will sound silly but some (obviously not all of them) of my best university memories come from times when I’ve had essays to write and that was because when things got tough I would look up from my computer with my burning eyes and see my friends grinning at me or I would walk around the library at 7 PM and bump into all my classmates and we would bond over how tough this essay is. Be it a quick snack break or an hour chat that was meant to last 10 minutes, there was always someone I loved (and now miss) around essays. That’s an experience I can’t live in the current situation and being a masters student maybe never again.
So, I’ve asked my friends to have skype study sessions with me. Yeah, it sounds super goofy and kind of lame but it’s the closest thing we can get to library sessions. I also try and text my classmates often so that I don’t have to miss out on the “I haven’t finished either” relief and the comradery that comes with being in this together. Give it a go, it might be fun, just make sure you’re wearing headphones because no one wants to hear your keyboard tapping.
4. What is a pomodoro?
When time-zones make studying with friends difficult or it's just not your thing, a Pomodoro timer has been a gamechanger for me. No, it's not some magical breed of study tomato that’ll make you be more efficient. it’s a time management system where you work 25 minutes, rest five minutes, and so forth until you’ve reached 2 hours at which point you take a 30 minute break.
The one I’m using is an app called Flow for Mac which is quiet and not distracting, but there are also some cool ‘Study with Me’ youtube videos if you can handle or maybe even miss background noise, or productivity apps for your phone like Forest. Be careful with phone apps, though, because they do mean you have to have your phone close and unmute which can be super distracting. If all fails, just whack on a timer through your search engine and see where that goes.
5. Too many playlists with crazy names
Some people can work on essays with music, some people can’t; some can only do instrumentals, some listen to the top 100. If you’re anything like me, your relationship with studying and music ranges from essential to impossible background noise. Normally it totally depends on the situation whether it is the former or the latter but since the beginning of quarantine and all of my neighbours deciding to renovate simultaneously, I’ve had to force myself to work with it.
But music is a double-edged sword and can be more distracting than you think. That’s why I definitely recommend only listening to songs you know well enough to drown out. I feel like if it’s a brand new song your brain will find ways to subconsciously want to listen to it or just be sort of latently distracted. I found what really works for me is making playlists of instrumental pop covers, video game music (strongly recommend the Ace Attorney, Breath of the Wild or Animal Crossing soundtracks if you’ve played those games) that you’ve most likely listened to for HOURS while beating a game or film soundtracks (here I recommend Ghibli soundtracks).
6. Highway to backpain
“Hi, I’m Noelle and I have back problems.” I feel like at the end of all this, that’ll be my new catchphrase. I don’t think I’ve ever moved as little as I have during this period even during essay season. I used to at least have to walk to the library whereas now the maximum distance between my bed and space of work is two flights of stairs. But that’s why it is important, now more than ever, that you take breaks while writing your essay and move around. I use my five Pomodoro minutes to do a little walking around (or dancing around… I tend to put a jam on and just use the minutes to grove) and then go for a walk in the 30 minutes in addition to doing my usual physical activities. I used to even get up and go for a 40-minute walk and pretend I’m walking to uni and then 40 minutes after I finished studying to tell myself I’m walking back but that became less and less feasible (would still do it otherwise though!) It doesn’t matter how you do it but schedule in movement breaks
Another super important thing is how you sit. We all know that not every chair in the house is suited as a desk chair (looking at you bean bag) so do invest some time in finding the chair you work on best! When you’ve found it, don’t desperately try to sit up straight every second of every hour or you’ll cramp up. I’ve realised that to find the best posture I can hold the longest, I have to stand in front of my chair and then slowly lower myself into it with a straight back and then push it in. But that’s just what works for me.
7. Fake it ‘till you make it
This one is also a bit silly but if you follow your daily routine like you would if you were going to the library you are more likely to get that essay work in. Get dressed, maybe put on some makeup, pack that lunch, have your resources ready as if you’d packed them (or maybe even pack a backpack), have a full water bottle and go at it. It will really help to get that essay work in and narrowing your focus.
8. Get help when you need it
If you’ve tried everything but still find yourself stuck, don’t be afraid to get in touch with your lecturers. I know with not having office hours available it can be a bit daunting to just email a lecturer and ask for help, but they’re nice people, they’ve chosen their profession for a reason and understand that this is a stressful situation. If the problem is that you’re someone who struggles with understanding things explained via email, ask for a Teams call. Again, I know it can be daunting and seem embarrassing but lecturers are humans too (maybe slightly over-human but you know what I mean) and they were in your shoes once, not these exact shoes but shoes regardless, so don’t be afraid to ask.
On a similar note, if you can’t get access to a paper you need despite the online library (King’s library has online resources and Senate house is online too) and now open archives (Project Muse has opened some and so has Jstor) try and contact the people who wrote it. Sometimes they will send you a PDF sometimes they will answer your questions and sometimes you will get no reply at all but just shoot your shot, you have nothing to lose.
9. Accept that it's going to not be the greatest
All tips aside, writing essays is hard. It was hard before and it’s harder now. Sometimes you can be listening to the coolest instrumental mix, have your friends watch you over Zoom, have the Pomodoro timer ready, food next to you, an on-point study outfit and all the resources you need and you will still be unproductive and uninspired and that’s okay! Some days you’re just not going to function, but that is what the extra time is for so that you can also have unproductive days. It’ll have to be done, but you’ll get it done at your own pace.
If we’re talking crunch-time (a day until the essay) then yeah, prepare yourself for some perhaps not fantastic hours, and go hardcore mode: put on the prime study mix, download an app that blacklists computer apps that are distracting, lock your phone away, put a do not disturb post-it note on the door and just go at it until you’re done. You can do this!
But that brings me to the last and perhaps most important tip (even if a little sappy):
10. Be kind to yourself
Not much to say about this one. Just remind yourself that you are not alone and that you will be okay. We can all do this!
… And stay away from the energy drinks.