How to Plan an Essay for University (Tips, Templates & Examples)

Learning how to plan an essay for university is an incredibly valuable skill to acquire.

The earlier that you understand essay structure and what the marker is looking for, the more time you’ll have to truly hone your craft and come out with the best possible marks.


  • What is the Purpose of an Essay?
  • What is the Marker Looking For?
  • 10 Steps on How to Plan an Essay for University
  • University Essay Plan Template

What is the Purpose of an Essay?

Before we delve into some tips on how to plan an essay for university, understanding the purposes of an essay may help you to begin your plan.

Essays and academic writing allow you to show your understanding of various concepts about your area of study. 

It also allows you to draw your own conclusions about topics, show your opinion while using existing data and research to support it.

When writing an essay plan, you need to highlight areas of the topic that you know a lot about as well as identify holes in your knowledge.

This will help you to show the marker that you fully understand the topic at hand, which, in turn, allows you to answer the question to the best of your ability. 

Ultimately, an essay is a fundamental aspect of obtaining a degree, Masters, or PhD. 

Knowing how to plan an essay for university, therefore, is a cruel skill to master.

What is the Marker Looking For?

The marker is going to be looking for organised essay structure with comprehensive research which you, as the essay writer, must communicate well.

Granted, each marker has their own way of assessing essays, however, there are a few foundational elements that you must provide to get good marks. These include:

  • Your ability to find relevant information and precisely incorporate it into your argument
  • Well organised content that is clear and concise
  • Use relevant theories and practical examples of data
  • Build multiple theories together to form a persuasive case
  • Use various resources i.e. journals, books, essays, websites etc.



If your essay wanders off into a different topic and doesn’t maintain a clear focus on the question, you’re going to struggle to get a high mark.

This makes it as though you don’t fully understand the question or don’t have a clear enough argument and so don’t know what you’re talking about. 

Writing a truly outstanding essay that doesn’t answer the question will still receive a poor mark.

Make sure you fully understand the question before you begin planning. 

10 Steps on How to Plan an Essay for University

So, the part you’ve been waiting for – How to Plan an Essay for University. 

Here we have 10 actionable tips on essay structure so you can begin writing your assignments with confidence. 

Take care and time with each of these points as they’re the main ingredients for university success.

#1 – Take the Time to Truly Understand the Question 

While this may seem like an obvious point, understanding the question is imperative.

If you don’t understand the question, this is a clear enough indication that you need to seek help from a university superior. 

Ask yourself the following questions to identify whether you genuinely understand the question: 

  • What is my instinctive response to this question? 
  • Is it a topic I have existing knowledge about?
  • Do I feel overwhelmed by any aspects of the question? 
  • Do any theorists come to mind that I could write about? 
  • What are my opinions of the question? Do I agree/disagree?

When figuring out how to plan an essay, understanding the bare bones of what the question is asking is imperative. 

#2 – Fully Write the Essay Question 

The next step on how to plan an essay is to write the question out in full. 

Here, you’re going to grab your highlighters and pens and begin to annotate. 

Annotating the question also helps you to figure out exactly what the question is asking.

Questions tend to use specific words that require you to structure your essay in a certain way. Some examples include: 

‘Analyse’ is asking you to break your essay down into several parts and provide evidence for each.

‘Evaluate’ is requesting more of an opinion and will require you to come up with a final verdict based upon the research you include. Make sure to include counterarguments to make the essay balanced while taking this into account in your conclusion. 

‘Justify’ is a combination of the two – you need to offer several points with an element of evaluation to justify why the question is as it is. 

‘Assess’ means you are expected to put emphasis on all views concerning the subject and you offer your own opinion too.

‘To what extent’ is asking how far you agree with the proposal and requires in-depth research into both sides of the argument. Even if you fully agree/disagree with the statement, make sure you provide insight for each to have a balanced argument.

#3 – Brainstorm 

If you want to know how to plan an essay for university, brainstorming is an important aspect of the process.

While this may seem like something you do when you’re in primary and high school, brainstorming is a fantastic way to get all your ideas down in one place.

This gets the creative juices flowing and allows for you to visually see your essay and argument create shape. 

Brainstorming is also another great way of honing your understanding of what the question is asking you.

An exercise that you could perform is crafting a mindmap with a time limit. 

If you set yourself just 10 minutes to think about everything you know about that topic such as any relevant studies, theorists, or data that you currently know of, getting them all down will put you in the right headspace for further research.

During this time, speed write to hone your focus on the question and topic. 

#4 – Transfer Notes into a Documents

With the previous essay structure tip in mind, you should next transfer the ideas on your brainstorm to a document and organise them into different categories.

These could be:

  • Main arguments
  • Counter arguments
  • Overall opinion
  • Theorists
  • Valuable books, journals, websites 

Getting your thoughts together in an organised document will help the planning process of your essay. 

#5 – List of Keywords and Phrases You Want to Include 

You may have already included a few keywords relating to your topic, but making a separate list could prove beneficial when it comes to writing your blog.

You can always refer back to this list at the point that you come to write and proofread to make sure that you’ve included all the relevant terminology.

Terminology is something that your marker is going to be looking out for – they need to know whether you understand the topic at hand.

#6 – Write a Quick Response to the Question

Another essay writing tip is to write a quick response to the question.

This will help you to solidify your understanding of the topic and bring together all of your ideas.

Take just 20-minutes to write a response to the question – don’t bother with references or finding sources yet.

This is just some time for you to show yourself that you understand what is being asked of you.

#7 – Go Through Existing Notes 

The next step is to go through your existing notes from lectures, seminars, group work, assignments, and additional reading. 

You want to hang fire from going through your existing notes too soon as you need to establish your focus first. 

Once you have decided what your argument is going to be, you can then focus on the specific areas you’re researching. 

If your lectures are recorded, go back and rewatch specific ones to refresh yourself on specific topics. 

More often than not, lecturers will include a reference list at the end of the lecture where students can access the relevant resources when it comes to researching for themselves. Use these, they’re there for a reason. 

If there is anything in your notes that you don’t fully understand, get in contact with your seminar tutors and/or lecturers for clarification.

This is particularly important before you delve into further research as fully understanding concepts is critical in the planning process. 

Next on our list of essay writing tips is knowing where to find relevant sources.

#8 – Research Your Topic 

If you want to know how to plan an essay for university, doing plenty of research is imperative. 

The amount of time that you put into research will vary on several factors:

  • How fast you can read
  • Your existing knowledge of the topic
  • Available resources 
  • Word count

If you have an essay that has a 1,500 word count, most people tend to spend around 2-4 hours researching. This is with the idea that they have a solid base understanding of the topic at hand.

Researching at this point, therefore, is likely to involve finding quotes, data, and theorists to support your argument. 

Universities are fantastic at providing a wealth of resources for you to research your assignments. Be sure to make use of the following resources:

  • Books
  • Journals 
  • Academic websites
  • Academic blogs
  • Essays 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, many resources have now been made available for students online which cuts out the need to scour library shelves for relevant resources.

Using sites like Google Scholar can also benefit you.

#9 – Look at Previous Essay Feedback

There is a reason why lecturers provide feedback. They want you to improve as a student, and, more selfishly, they want strong, positive statistics as a lecturer. 

Lecturers will be under great pressure to ensure that their students get good marks and so they want you to succeed just as much as you do. 

So, refer back to the feedback that you have received and take this on board in time for your next assignments.

If anything is unclear, make sure you reach out to your marker. They will be more than happy to organise an in-person or virtual meeting to clarify anything you need about your essays. 

Making minor changes in future assessments could be the difference between getting a 69 and a 70, and you’ll feel so much prouder having got a first knowing you’ve taken the feedback on board. 

#10 – Divide Your Plan into Sections

If you want to know how to plan an essay for university, the most important step is to divide your plan into sections. 

You’re going to break your essay down into the following:

  • Introduction
  • Secondary introductory paragraph if necessary – usually with essays that have larger word counts
  • 1st main point
  • 2nd main point
  • 3rd/4th depending on the word count limit
  • Concluding paragraph
  • Bibliography

You’re going to want to allocate the most words to the main arguments while still leaving enough marks for an introduction and conclusion.

Say, for a 2,000 word essay, keep 400-500 words reserved for the introduction and conclusion and the remaining word count for the main points you want to make.

Most universities will penalise you if you are 5-10% over/under the word count. For example, for a 2,000 word essay with a 5% grace, your final essay must be between 1,900 and 2,100 words.

Most universities also do not include references, footnotes, and the bibliography in the word count. 

Make sure that you have allocated enough words to cover the arguments. If your main section is looking too detailed, consider cutting out a paragraph/point to keep it concise and within the limit. 

University Essay Plan Template

Now that we’ve covered some essay structure tips, let’s now look at some university essay plan templates to get you inspired.

Here we have a total of 3 essay plan templates that you could use in time for your next essay or adapt so that it suits your style. 

Our Conclusion…

Learning how to plan an essay for university is an incredibly valuable skill to acquire.

The earlier that you understand essay structure and what the marker is looking for, the more time you’ll have to truly hone your craft and come out with the best possible marks.

We’ve offered you some informative essay plan templates to get you started in time for your next essay. 

We wish you all the best in your university career!

25 thoughts on “How to Plan an Essay for University (Tips, Templates & Examples)”

  1. I’m not at uni myself but I’ve got friends who are so I’ll defiantly be sharing this post with them. You’ve shared some great tips which I think people who are at uni will find really helpful. Thank you for sharing this with us Xo

    Elle –


  2. Great tips in this post! I don’t write essays for education any more but I do write reports for work so this is a handy post for me.


  3. I’m not in university anymore, but this post is so helpful for those that are & have to write an essay for their class! The essay plan templates are super useful too!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am going to sound like such a nerd now but I LOVED writing essays when I was at sixth form and then when I went to University. Naturally I was quite good and my grades were great. For me it is exams that let me down and I just cannot seem to do well in exams like I do in coursework. But these are some great tips and anyone that may be going to University will find these useful! I definitely agree that using feedback from the lecturer is essential because they are not trying to pull apart your work but instead guide you to be better, thanks for sharing xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha! You don’t sound like a nerd at all – I think doing research and piecing it all together can feel quite rewarding, and you should definitely be proud of your work!

      Glad you thought they were useful tips! Thanks for your lovely words ❤️


  5. Thank you for sharing such a helpful article! It’s so useful to understand what the marker is looking for and how you can better support your topic. Having a list of keywords and phrases is incredibly beneficial. I love the template you’ve included! I’ll definitely be sharing this. Wonderful post!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. These are really great tips. I especially liked the one about looking up the sources the lecturer used to find info for your essay. One tip I would add (and this is really more for the actual writing of an essay rather than the planning) is to just write. Don’t worry about being perfect. Write, write and write. Start with what you know and write that. Get those creative juices flowing then go back to more difficult parts and then edit.

    That’s something I wish I had known when I was in school. I do that now with my blog and it’s so helpful!

    Liked by 1 person

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