Debrief on UK Essay Standards
BY VERONICA TUTHILL
Veronica Tuthill, ’16, usefully comments on the differences between American and British essay writing standards, beneficially serving her own need to procrastinate on an assignment.
Let me tell you, essay writing at a UK university is not synonymous with essay writing in the US.
Word Count vs. Page Length
When I first found out that the essays here were done by word count instead of page numbers, I said, “Heck yes. LET’S DO THIS.” I never really worried about word count at Westminster. Usually, I’m trying to condense my papers to two or three pages (looking at you, Drs. Brown and Boulton). However, since I never thought about word count before, I never thought about how many pages 2,500 words would amount to.
Eight. Freaking. Pages.
I was, to put it mildly, horrified.
According to the Oxford dictionary, an essay is defined as, “A short piece of writing on a particular subject.”
Key word to me? Short. My friends, I was not writing an essay, I was writing a research paper. I had been fooled by the word “essay.” To top that off, the paper here is a little narrower, and a little longer, so that eight pages could be eight and a half or nine US pages.
The “10 percent rule” is usually in effect for essays as well. What that means is that your essay can have 10 percent more or 10 percent fewer words than the required amount. So, for my 2,500 word essays, I can write as few as 2,250 words, but as many as 2,750. Confusing, but useful.
APA/MLA/Chicago Referencing vs. Harvard Referencing
To be honest, I’m still trying to work out the differences. It’s periods here, and weird spacing there. I’ve let an online citation machine do most of the work for me here. I should be used to using a different referencing format, especially with the mix of subjects I take at Westminster, each of which require me to panic about periods in different places. However, I can’t recall using Harvard referencing before. It’s not terribly different, but as my British friends say, “I could not be bothered.”
Of course, the one thing I worried the most about was the header, as in where my name was supposed to go. Do I include the course code? Do the page numbers go at the top of the page or the bottom? HOW ARE THE PAGE NUMBERS ALIGNED?!
I’m used to strict instructions, but everyone I asked said, “It doesn’t really matter.”
I think I had an aneurysm.
The US students got pamphlets during orientation so they would know how to do this. They did not help. Let me give you an example:
I am shuddering. Everything my mother and my numerous teachers have taught me about writing (except for five paragraph essays – please stop teaching children to write that way) steers me away from that type of language. It hurt my eyes to look at the words I had to type. I’m sorry for whoever has to grade it. Just why.
Printing here is much the same as back home, with one major difference: All the printers work. All the time. Astounding. Each student gets £5 of print credit on their ID card at the beginning of the semester. I can go to any computer on campus and send my document to a printer. Then, I go to the printer, scan my ID card, and my document is there to select for printing. Simple.
However, finding an available computer to print is horrific. Just like at Westminster, there are multiple places around campus to print. On a weekend afternoon, these places are practically vacant. But on an afternoon where it seems like everyone has an essay due, finding an available computer is akin to finding the Holy Grail.
I went to the library. Nothing. I went back to my hall and tried to see if any of my hallmates with printers were home. Of course everyone was in a lecture. I made the rounds of campus, again, in search for a computer. Nothing. At this point, I was panicking. It was just past 2:00, and the essay wasn’t due until 3:30, but I had another lecture that started at 3:00. Eventually, in the midst of my panic, I remembered something about mobile printing. I’ve been in the habit of emailing my papers to myself for a while, so this actually worked out. I was able to pull up the email, forward it to the printing room, and when I went in a minute later and scanned my card, the file was there, waiting to be printed. Glorious.
On my way to turn in my essay, I ran into one of my friends who I’d seen a few hours earlier, at the beginning of my quest for a computer.
Me: I swear I lost ten pounds trying to print this [blessed] thing.
Friend: (Puzzled) You lost ten pounds?!
I was a bit confused as to why she seemed confused, but the reason hit me a little after I walked away from her. She thought I lost money!
Rest easy, TurnItIn.com is a thing over here. Besides that, submitting my essay was a strange experience. I had to go to the Faculty Office and fill out a submission form, and then I had to leave my essay in the hands of a stranger who assured me my tutor would get it. But how was I supposed to believe that? I’d never seen that woman before in my life. That essay alone was worth 40 percent of my overall grade (panicked shrieking) and I wasn’t handing it to the person who was going to grade it.
I did get a nice yellow carbon copy proving that I turned my essay in, so if something happens to it, there is proof that I handed the assignment in. I don’t know if this is a system that is typical of most big universities, but I’m getting hives just thinking about turning in my next essay.
I don’t know if I’m going to be able to accurately describe the UK grading system, but I will try my best. An 80 percent here is fantastic. A 70 percent is great. A 60 percent is expected.
(Is anyone else sweating, because I am.)
A “first” is fabulous. A “two-one” is the next best.
I’m just going to stop there, because that’s about when I tune out when my friends start talking about their grades. Instead, refer to the handy comparison chart I found on the internet.
The pass mark is 40 percent, but you really do want to do better than that.
The bright side is my British friends are just as confused about our grading system as I am by theirs. So, nobody wins. At least we both use Imperial measurements.
Writing essays here at Winchester certainly has been an eye-opening, panic inducing experience. I definitely reached new levels of procrastination — turns out I cannot do a handstand — and managed to not embarrass myself in the very public printing rooms. It is safe to say that essay writing will be one thing I will not miss about Winchester when I leave.
[This article is 1,187 words.]