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Transkills: supporting transition to University


This resource has been produced for new supervisors in the Faculty of English and is based on materials produced for and contributions to one of three supervisor workshops.

This package focuses on:

  • What constitutes 'good' supervision essay writing in English
  • Identifying the issues that affect students in their transition to writing at undergraduate level
  • How supervisors can embed academic writing support into their supervision practices


Transition from previous study

To support first year students as they make their transition to writing in Higher Education, it is useful to familiarise yourself as far as possible with the kinds of academic writing that they have experienced before they arrive at Cambridge. For the majority, this will be A Level, but we cannot assume that all students have had the same experience given the variables between examination boards, school/college and subject choices, to name but a few.

For example, the Extended Project is becoming more popular, in which students present an 'independent' piece of research on a topic of their choice. This extended piece of writing arguably prepares students more effectively for supervision essay writing in English, although the degree of guidance from teachers might vary. Some students are not given this option at all and consequently may take longer to adjust to more open-ended essay questions and especially to requests to write on an aspect of a topic they are interested in. 

What makes a 'good' supervision essay? 

When experienced and new supervisors of English were asked to identify the qualities of a 'good' supervision essay in their discipline, it was not surprising to discover differences of opinion. Indeed, it would be unhelpful to suggest to students that there is one right way to produce an essay. To first year students, however, encountering such differences is one of the starkest contrasts to writing essays in school or college where most of their essays were formally assessed, with a clear 'point' to them and criteria for success. Most students have written well previously, but in a very particular disciplinary context.

Click here to access some of the responses made by English supervisors to the question of what constitutes a 'good' supervision essay. To what extent do you agree or disagree? What would your own response be and how does it relate to official Faculty Guidelines that students may refer to as they think about how prepared they are to write under exam conditions?  Student anxiety about grades and performance occasionally arises from their previous experience of writing to meet clear examination criteria and they may adopt this same strategy when they arrive here. 

You may also find it helpful to review our resources for English students.

What is the purpose of a first year supervision essay? 

Formal assessment does not take place until the end of Part I at Cambridge, which some supervisors feel is an opportunity for students to develop their writing through experimentation and to take risks with new ideas. When asked what the purpose of a supervision essay is, some supervisors will place more emphasis on encouraging students to make interesting connections as they pursue their own ideas, while others require a more structured approach to a given question. Whatever your expectations might be, it helps to make them explicit to your students from the start. It's also useful to keep in touch with your colleagues, if you do not do so already, to share practice. Your students may have spent a term writing for one supervisor who has a different view on what the purpose of a first year supervision essay should be.

A 'student deficiency' model is insufficient as an explanation for student writing problems. It is also useful to:

Student comments

Click here to access comments from first year English students; this map reveals that we can't make assumptions about their prior experiences of academic writing and their readiness for study more generally. The notion of the 'Cambridge Essay' was discussed at some length during supervisor workshops:

  • To what extent are expectations unique to Cambridge and how far do they apply to the discipline more generally?
  • Should a student spend much of their first term working out how a 'Cambridge Essay' ought to be written?
  • How do we define 'spoon-feeding'? Is making expectations explicit spoon-feeding?

How would you respond to these questions?