For most of my own undergraduate career I laboured under the misapprehension that what I was required to do when producing an essay was to read some books and then write an essay based on what I had read. This view of the task was not inaccurate, but it was incomplete. The crucial step that I had been missing out was the thinking step. In my third year a supervisor pointed this out to me, and I was very grateful for his advice. He suggested, as I suggest to you now, that after finishing your reading and noting you spend about half an hour just thinking about the question you have been set and how you are going to answer it. Put your notes and books away and just mull over what the most important points are, and what you think about them. Don't rest content with your initial reactions – challenge your own assumptions and arguments – imagine how they could be opposed and think about how they could be made stronger. My supervisor suggested to me that while doing this I indulge whatever was my favourite vice – in his case it was eating biscuits. Some other vices would be less appropriate accompaniments to this stage in the essay-writing process.
Talk to a Friend (Real or Imaginary)
Instead of sitting alone munching chocolate digestives and mulling over your reading, an even better idea is to discuss the topic with a friend. Hopefully you will find that one of your friends is prepared to talk with you about the mind-body problem, or the beginnings of the universe, or Charles Darwin, or whatever. You will be able to reciprocate when they come to write their next essay. Having a conversation with someone about the questions you are thinking about is by the far the quickest and best way to do your thinking. Conversations accelerate your analysis better than anything else. Having to express in plain conversational sentences what you are thinking and how you are planning to argue for your view is an excellent preparation for writing the essay. If you can't find a willing friend at the appropriate time then use your imagination – talk to a chair and imagine it is occupied by an intelligent person who is basically ignorant of your subject, and then spend half an hour discussing your essay with them.