Ah, assessment season. A time of caffeine, panic, sleep-deprivation, tears and regret. Unless, of course, you’re an organised student who kept up with all your lectures and readings this semester and have already begun writing your final essays? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never failed an assignment (not to boast), but even I can’t live such an ideal and structured life. I procrastinate my little heart out, so when SWOTVAC comes around it’s Stress City. It doesn’t have to be, though.
Personally, I try to start working on my assignments as soon as possible (theoretically this would be week 12 or even 11, but practically it’s whenever I can find the willpower to do so). Research shouldn’t be rushed, ideally – I spend the majority of my time researching and planning essays. Plan essays? I hear you say. I don’t have time to plan essays!
Yes you do. Even if you don’t start the essay until the afternoon it’s due, putting aside even two minutes to draft the most basic plan will give you some direction. If you have time for a more comprehensive plan, though, this is what I do – write a subtitle for each of your paragraphs so you know what the central idea will be, summarise the key point of that paragraph in one line, and then dot-point all the evidence you’ve gathered under the most relevant subtitle. You get a good idea of how long your paragraphs will be this way, by how much evidence you put under each subtitle, and then you can attempt to balance it out so you don’t have ridiculously uneven paragraphs.
HOT TIP: Apparently people are unaware of Trove’s existence? It’s one of the first websites I hit up when in need of primary sources, and it rarely lets me down.
When you first sit down to write, don’t be afraid to just word vomit. As long as you’re writing something (relevant), you’re making progress. Try to write the essay at least a couple of days before it’s due so you give yourself enough time to edit (which for me includes a lot of cutting and a lot of rewriting my atrocious word-vomited sentences). Footnote as you go, because referencing always takes longer than you think it will.
But don’t just let me tell you how to live your ultimate SWOTVAC life, here are some other real-life history students’ tips on how to survive your end-of-semester-crisis.
Always pick the topic that you’re most passionate about, not the easiest. When it all gets too much and you have no idea what you’re arguing anymore, get up! Take a walk around the nearest park and mentally muddle through your argument, never mind how insane you look as you mutter about 17th century patriarchy. The epiphanies you’ll come to will astound you.
You’ve just consumed an entire block of chocolate in half an hour. Don’t feel guilty. Comfort food is justified in these moments of crisis.
Engage with primary sources yourself. Be confident in your ability to analyse, don’t leave it all to the academics.
Make a really thorough plan and devote at least a solid week purely to research to get a good grip on the topic before writing. Set small tasks for each day so it’s more motivating and break up what you need to do for each day. Leave a few days spare for general set-backs. Pick a topic that really interests you to do research and doesn’t kill your soul.
ESSAY TOPIC: choose something that is interesting to you! Don’t go for what seems to be the ‘easiest’, just because it’s the easiest – you’ll get bored with the topic and won’t write your best work. If you choose a topic that you find fascinating, it’ll show in how your essay. Research could be trickier, but that also leaves room for your own interpretations.
PRIMARY SOURCES: A good place to start when looking for this is the material already given by the subject coordinator. Is there a good primary source that was one of the readings? If one of the secondary readings talk a lot about a primary source that is relevant to your essay, go find the reference and get that primary source!
COPING WITH STRESS: 1. Plan your days in advance! See when your essay is due, calculate how many days it is until then, and plan to do a little bit of work each day until it’s due. If you can stick to this, then you won’t be stuck in the last three days researching, writing and editing in a rush! Planning in advance also lets you put time aside to relax without feeling guilty. 2. EXERCISE!! Get out of the library and go for a walk! Yes, it’s cold outside, but a walk might be just the thing to wake you up and clear your head – who knows, you might have a light bulb moment while walking through Princes Park and figure out what that last paragraph can be about.
SWOTVAC TIPS: Change up where you study. Home might have worked perfectly all semester, but after 12 weeks, it’s a good idea to switch things up. A new environment (especially somewhere at uni) definitely helps me focus on what I’m there to do, rather than getting distracted by Facebook for hours.
Good tip for finding primary sources: checking bibliographies and indexes in secondary sources you might be using as a launchpad for research. Or even just books on the period/subject at the library. It’s pretty easy to find that document online then since most are freely available.
Something I’ve always found useful is planning out your schedule. What days are you going to read, draft paragraphs, revise notes, edit, attend end of semester parties? Having a timeline where you balance out how much work you do per day makes it a lot easier to know you haven’t done too much or too little. And in that schedule, set aside an extra two hours per research essay as ‘extra writing time’, so if one day you find the words just aren’t coming when you scheduled time for it, you’ve got some freedom down the track.
Use your SWOTVAC time wisely, but try not to drain yourself (mentally, physically and emotionally) completely. Remember that your body still needs sleep, water and food that isn’t another HSP from the food court in Union House. And if you try your hardest to be a well-adjusted human but your final assignments are still a hot mess? It’s a bummer, but don’t be too hard on yourself. There’s always next semester. Unless this was your last semester, in which case, there’s always success to find in the Real World.
Good luck out there.