Economics at Cambridge is mostly about essay writing, although increasingly there is also some problem-solving (especially for the short-answer sections of some core papers, and for the mathematical and statistical papers). These require different strategies.
There is no one right way to write an essay. Indeed, for many essay-questions there is no ‘right answer’ – although there are wrong ones! (Frank Hahn, a well-known Cambridge economist, once said that economic theory is not ‘true’, it is just a device to stop one thinking nonsense.) At school, essays were fairly short, you didn’t have to do much extra reading outside your lesson-notes or the textbook, and there was usually a right answer. As an undergraduate, you will find that essays are longer (4-8 sides of paper in handwriting, although less if word-processed), you are expected to carry out assigned reading rather than rely simply on your lecture-notes, and you will be expected to compare different arguments and empirical findings, rather than giving a simple answer. This is as it should be: at research level, economic problems take months or years to address, or may simply be unsolvable.
If you get stuck on an essay, try the following:
- Reread the question to check that you understand what is being asked;
- Reread the question to look for clues: the way it is phrased can give you particular words and concepts to latch onto; the way it is structured (e.g., in two parts, or three separate propositions to discuss, or an ‘in principle’ and ‘in actuality’ construction) can indicate a good structure for you to adopt in your essay answering it.
- Try to understand what it is that is confusing you. For example, look up the definitions of the technical terms, read your lecture-notes on that subject, look back at your notes on the reading – often this will open up new vistas.
- Write down your thoughts in a direct and informal way. If you have trouble, consider writing it as if it were in your journal or a letter to a friend. If you get stuck, try to express the exact reason why.
- Write an outline – the simpler the better. The best outline often consists simply of a list of 4-7 section-headings summarizing the general point or issue or argument you want to discuss in each section of your essay.
Write an introduction – although there are many different ways of writing one, the following provide a useful recipe if you’re stuck:
- Say why the essay question is important and interesting (or if it’s not, say why you don’t find it so!);
- Briefly summarize the different views on this question, using the assigned reading, your lecture-notes, and anything else you have read (this might be where you discuss how realistic the assumptions of the model are!);
- Say what you think is the reason for the existence of these differing views, what the problems are that the literature hasn’t solved, and what your ‘take’ on the debate is going to be;
- Say what aspect of the issue each section of your essay is going to be about.
- Then go on to write each section you have announced in your introduction.
Whenever you get stuck in the course of writing the essay:
- Go back to the essay question and make sure you are addressing that specific question (and not just writing generally and ramblingly about the subject as a whole);
- Go back to your outline and make sure you are following the structure you devised (or revise your outline to reflect the new way you see the question);
- Go back to your introduction and make sure you are following what you announced you were going to say (or revise your introduction to reflect the new way the essay has developed).