How to Write the Perfect Assignment (and not die trying)

Perfect Assignment Message & Old Tree

Got an assignment looming? Waking up in a cold sweat at the thought of a deadline? Fear not. Help is at hand. Here’s our guide to how to write the perfect assignment.

1. The Right Environment

First thing’s first, where should you settle down to write your assignment: in the library, bedroom, café or public WiFi hotspot? Think about the benefits of each space, the resources available there, whether you will be interrupted and how long you are planning on working.

It’s a good idea to identify what sort of study environment works best for you. Is a tidy space more conducive to efficient work for you? Do you like background noise, music or silence? Do you like to snack or move around at regular intervals? Do you work better under pressure with allotted timed slots?

As well as your physical situation it’s a good idea to identify when you’re able to concentrate the most: should you work in the morning, afternoon or evening?

2. Understanding the Question

This sounds like something really obvious but you’d be amazed at the amount of marks lost by students only half answering the question or missing an important point because of a lack of question comprehension.

Certain words in questions have very specific meanings – after all, examiners don’t just throw words at the page randomly. The questions are put forward to test you and are constructed to do so.

What do we mean by this? Well, when your assignment question includes words like, justify, analyse, discuss and distinguish it’s important to really understand the required response. For example:

  • Justify: this means provide evidence supporting an argument or idea by showing why a decision or conclusion has been made but not ignoring other objections.
  • Analyse: means identify in great detail the main points.
  • Discuss: means consider the implications of the example, explain and give arguments for and against. Ensure that evidence is provided to prove your point of view.
  • Distinguish: or differentiate between: simply means identify differences between X and Y.
  • The Study Skills Handbook by Cottrell (2003) is an excellent resource for further guidance on the above, with lots more examples and explanations. (You can pick it up on Amazon here.)

    When looking at the question, break it down into its constitute parts. This will ensure you don’t miss anything and also give you a structure for your answer. Within all questions there will be an instruction, a topic, a focus and a restriction (i.e. during X time or from X to Y); often there will be two or more restrictions in any one question.

    3. Planning

    It’s obviously vital to approach the method of writing an assignment in an ordered way. In fact, it’s just as important as the content of the assignment itself. If the information you put forward is poorly researched or structured badly it can leave you with lost marks.

    And this comes down to planning. Planning what you actually want to say and how you want to present it is the next key step to how to write an assignment. We have more information easily available to us than any time before. While this has its positives, it also comes with its downsides – how to filter useful information and resources and absorb the facts you need can be a major challenge.

    When starting out it’s a good idea to use an outline for the assignment; this can be in written form with headers, and thoughts and findings filled in underneath. These headers could be questions or simply words you’ve pulled out of your dissection of the question.

    Alternatively, some people use spider diagrams or mind maps. These are where you put the question or key topic in the centre of the page and draw lines out of the centre leading to ideas and key points of your assignment’s content.

    Top Tips: Whichever route you go down, ensure you approach it in bite-sized portions and always make sure you note down the word count, acceptable layout styles including spacing, font size, margins and font types allowed. Another top tip from us is to allow 10% of the total word count for the introduction and between 5-10% for the conclusion.

    4. Research and Analysis

    Now you have a very clear idea of what the question is asking and a plan of your assignment you need to start gathering information. Using a combination of resources from the internet, library, and field work means it can be difficult to firstly take in all the relevant information but also keep track for referencing.

    Keeping good records of references is very important. A top tip from us is buy a lightweight plain paged notebook to make notes. Use a page a day, date each page or title it your assignment title so you can keep track – especially if you are writing more than one assignment. You can take these types of notes electronically via a tablet or laptop but sometimes it’s easier to get creative with a mind map and good old-fashioned pen and paper.

    But how do you go about gathering all the relevant information and retaining it?

    A tried and tested way is SQ3R. It’s the most effective way for reading and taking notes. What is SQ3R? SQ3R is an acronym for Survey, Question, Read, Recall, Review.

    What do these actually mean?

  • Survey: means scan through the article/book/webpage/magazine you are wanting to study to find the most relevant parts for you.
  • Question: write down initial questions you may have about the subject or ones that occur to you after surveying.
  • Read: take your time and make notes if the subject is particularly dense.
  • Recall: the information you’ve read in your mind and write notes.
  • Review: the information you have written – if you can discuss the concept with someone else to ensure you have understood it fully, all the better. You can also schedule regular reviews of the concept you are learning about to ensure it gets locked into your mind.
  • 5. Academic Standards and Norms

    When entering into the academic world after a time out or even having to up your game after IGCSEs or A Levels, it’s important to know there are specific style standards expected from assignment writing.

    Writing in the first person or third person: Most academic writing will be in the third person as it’s more subjective. However, there are times when the first person is acceptable, for instance when relating examples. When studying courses like counselling it may be necessary to write in the first person. However, try to avoid telling stories, keep facts concise and to the point.

    Avoid contractions: Always use full words rather than their shortened forms (for instance: "did not" rather than "didn't").

    Avoid colloquial or conversation phrases: This is a formal body of work, so phrases used in day-to-day speech (or even blog posts!) are not acceptable. Phrases like, ‘you know’ and ‘sort of’ should not be used.

    If you follow these pointers you’re half-way there to ensuring a good mark. Just remember: it’s all in the execution.

    Like our guide to how to write the perfect assignment and looking for more tips to succeed in your studies? Check out our selection of top revision techniques.