TSA Essay Tips & Techniques

Advice & Insight From TSA Specialists

1) Don’t be polemical​

There are at least two sides to every story. You won’t be rewarded for being ‘right,’ however eloquently you make your point. Show that you can see an argument from different angles and that you appreciate the alternative perspective even if you don’t agree with it.

Warning: Present the argument before you express an opinion rather than the other way around. Say whether you agree or disagree and then explain why.

2) Make a quick plan

​It might seem like you don’t have the time, but it will help you answer much more efficiently and give the examiner a good impression. Include time limits in your plan i.e. “privacy is important for personal liberty – 5 mins.”

Warning: Keep to the plan once you have made it, don’t get carried away with one argument at the expense of the others.

3) Analyse the question

​Look for the adjectives: “to be a successful leader, is it better to be loved or feared?” These define the parameters of your answer. You must measure your arguments by the adjective – more or less successful? Is fear better? Is lover better?

Look for the verbs: “to be a successful leader, is it better to be loved or feared?” These reveal the behaviour or activity that needs to be examined. Don’t stray from this by examining issues of the leader’s morality when it is the emotional effect of the leader on people that is up for debate.

Look for the nouns: “to be a successful leader, is it better to be loved or feared?” This is the What? part of the question – the object or subject of debate. Make sure you are clear in your head about what leadership is to you and what it is supposed to be.

Warning: Don’t assume you understand the question. Instead, make sure you have extracted the essence of what the debate is about. Don’t project your own wishful thinking on to the exam!

4) Break down your answer socially

You could imagine the debate played out on a panel or a TV debate or talk show. Who are the people affected by this issue? How would arguments differ between these people? Why would they hold these opinions?

Warning: Make sure you are fair in presenting different sides of a debate, give the arguments equal time.

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5) Break down your answer logically

​Start with six or seven issues that relate to the question then divide them into sub-question groups. Do they answer Why? How? Where? or Who? You don’t have to have all four sub-question groups but it is important to have at least two. Then link the Why? How? Where? Or Who? sub-question back to the main question.

​Warning: Make sure you combine these issues rather than separate them i.e. “Many vegetarians believe we shouldn’t eat animals because they are sentient and therefore their health and well-being is more ethically significant than their economic importance to farmers and the farming industry.”

6) Use opposites

​If you’re struggling to come up with different sides of a debate, take an argument you have already made and turn it on its head.  For example, you could say “It’s better to be loved as a leader because you are trusted to do what is right” but then could also say “It’s better to be hated as a leader because it shows that people are free to think for themselves.” 

Warning: You still have to provide explanations for these opposing opinions, you cannot merely say that some people think it is right and some think it is wrong.

7) Challenge the definition

​Look for the adjective definitions in the question (see tip No.3). This is often the premise of a question. A great way to show critical thinking is to challenge this premise. If a question asks how successful, you can present different arguments depending on the definition of success. If a question asks how dangerous, you can present different arguments based on different perceptions of danger.

Warning: Don’t get too obscure. Be sure to include this approach after you have already acknowledged the main ‘headline’ arguments in the debate.

8) Clarity, clarity, clarity

Don’t disguise your argument in flowery language or a complicated structure. Avoid sentences of more than thirty words and use short summary sentences at the beginning of your paragraph i.e. “Alternatively, ethical consumerism can be seen as a myth.”

Warning: Unlike section 1, section 2 is marked by college tutors. Think how many they have to mark! Make it easy for them to follow your arguments (and read your handwriting) and they will find it easier to reward you.

9) ​Bookend you answer

Leave space for a sentence at the beginning of your answer. After you have finished writing, go back and write a quick sentence introducing your answer as a summary of what you have already written. This is much easier to write retrospectively than at the beginning. Also, make sure you write a conclusion sentence that directly answers the question.

Warning 1: Conclusions are not statements of fact, you cannot be absolutely right or absolutely wrong about subjective issues. Rather, justify your conclusion on the basis of the argument you find the most convincing or on your own definition (see tip no. 7).
Warning 2: Don’t make arguments in your conclusion or introduction sentences. These should just be very brief summaries of what you’re about to write and what you have written.

10) Choose wisely

The best question to answer is the question that most interests you. If you already have experience or knowledge of a topic, it will be that much easier to get writing about it. Don’t worry if you don’t have facts or figures about the topic, whilst these can be beneficial, they should not dictate which question you opt to answer.

Warning: Some questions are open ended and don’t introduce two sides of a debate for you i.e. “Why is vision so important to human beings?” You still have to show at least two perspectives in answering this type of question. (see tip no. 1).

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TSA Essay Tips & Techniques

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