An academic essay is a piece of writing in a formal style which answers the question or statement posed in the essay title. The essay will be based on your research and, possibly, your own experience. You’ll need to reflect on your findings and present your ideas in an analytical or critical style.

The essay marker will be looking for your ability to read around a topic, evaluate what you’ve read, and present a coherent argument. You’ll be expected to be make connections between the different ideas and practices relevant to the subject, and to add your own views and conclusions within the context of the question. For example, if the question relates to recruitment and asks you to evaluate current methods of recruitment practice and the methods used by your own organisation, it would be expected that you had read a number of articles, texts, journals and course materials, as well as considering discussions during your face-to-face course sessions, and be able to compare and contrast the views and practices you discover.

The key differences between an academic essay and a business report are:

  • An essay may be more free-flowing than a structured report, although it will still be broken into relevant sections to explore the topic and lead the reader through the ‘story’ you’re building.
  • As an academic piece of writing, you’ll be expected to ‘cite’ all the sources you’ve used to support your ideas and list them at the end as a reference list or bibliography.
  • An essay is usually written solely as an assignment as part of a course, not for a wider audience.

What is the question?

Read the question carefully - what are the outcomes required? What supporting evidence will be needed? What are the action words? Are you being asked to describe something, evaluate several different approaches, or compare and contrast a couple of concepts or practices, or a range? Refer to the question on the assignment brief, but also to the criteria for the unit which often give more clues on what is required in terms of detail. Lastly, review any student guidance provided either written, or from your notes from the Unit session. If you’re unsure what the question is requiring you to do, ask your personal tutor.

What do you need to do?

It’s important that you know what the expectations are for word count, and whether this is exact, or within a range (this should be stated clearly on the assignment brief). There may also be particular requirements on layout and formatting of your essay.

Specific requirements for a References list (which lists sources you have used or quoted from directly) and/or a Bibliography (which lists other material you have found useful but not drawn on specifically) will be highlighted on the assignment brief.

Getting everything together

Stage 1

In our guide: 'How to study effectively' [link], it’s suggested that you have a system in place to gather your notes, your references, and the materials, textbooks and various website resources to hand when you sit down to plan. You’ll also need the assignment brief and any guidance sheets provided. Make sure you have a good hour at least for this ’thinking‘ work, as it will form the basis for your research and initial writing.

Note the deadline, and work backwards, planning for an initial draft, a second draft, and then time to tidy up your final draft. Leave plenty of time if you’re working in a busy environment, as unexpected work pressures may overturn your plan.

Stage 2

Taking into account the question and the requirements for evidence or examples, start to consider your current knowledge, your latest learning, your knowledge of your organisation’s approach to the topic (or where you may get this from if you’re not employed or you can’t use information from your organisation), and any comparative views you heard, read or are aware of from wider research. What practices does your organisation have, and what do competitors or relevant third parties do? What is the context in which you are responding to the question – internal and external factors? Start with broad considerations, then narrow down to the precise issues and approach to be discussed.

What other sources (journals, texts, internal documents) will you need to refer to, and how might your appendix (if permitted) support your essay? It’s essential that you make a full record of anything you read when researching your topic, or you can waste valuable time looking for that perfect quote you found, but didn’t write down the page number or source document! While researching for your essay, you’re likely to do a lot of reading and note-taking - our guide on 'How to study effectively' has more on reading and note-taking skills.

Your essay plan should help you start the writing phase, but the important thing at the initial stage is to get your ideas and arguments into a well-ordered first draft without too much concern for exact phrasing or length. Once you are happy with the overall content of your essay, you can go back to edit it, sometimes several times, concentrating more on the words and word count to create a final version.

Academic writing style

Your aim in your writing is to show you understand the subject generally and are able to apply that knowledge specifically to the question in the given context. Academic writing is unlike any other style of writing, being more formal, and containing citations to other texts, research and ideas to support what you say, as well as your own critical thinking. You’ll be expected to build on your statements, with evidence and comparisons where applicable to the question. But although the approach is more formal, it’s important to write in good clear and grammatically-correct English. Make sure you explain any jargon which is understood by you but may not be by your reader. Any acronyms which are not generally understood should be given in full the first time you use the term followed with the acronym in brackets – you can just use the acronym after that.

Academic essay format

It’s usual for an essay to have a format which includes:

  • introduction
  • main body
  • conclusion
  • references/bibliography
  • appendix (optional).

The introduction will start with a brief summary of the context of the question, with an outline of the topic, and a statement of how you intend to address the question; whether you’ll be using primary or secondary research or both, and referring to other sources of key information which you’ll rely on.

The main body of the essay will be your findings, your personal views, and the views of others (from your reading or quotes from individuals if you’re using primary research). You may break this into relevant sub sections, and you may decide to use some subheadings to guide the reader through your ideas. Any sources you refer to and any quotes you use should be given in the appropriate format in your essay text – see more on citing sources in the paragraph below on references.

Finally, the conclusion will contain a summary of the outcomes and the reasons why you’ve reached your viewpoint. If recommendations are required, they would usually be given after the conclusion – there is often guidance on whether recommendations are part of your essay requirements.

The way you refer to your sources in your essay text (known as ‘citing’ your sources) and your list of References and/or Bibliography needs to done in a specific way. The majority of CIPD courses use the Harvard referencing style - see our guide on How to set out references [link]. The guidance in Cite them Right!1 also follows the Harvard style and is used by many colleges and universities. Marks are often awarded for good referencing as they show how widely you have read as well as allowing others to check your sources. They are also important to avoid claims of plagiarism (presenting other people’s work as your own).

Where your essay refers to a particular report, or key document, you may choose to include a small amount, often in diagrammatic form, in an appendix to your essay, if this will provide relevant information which cannot be contained in the word count. You should refer to the appendix at a relevant point in the main body of the essay, and make sure you state the source clearly in the appendix and include the source in your References list.

Attention to detail is all important once you have done your research and put your ideas onto paper. A poorly presented piece of work may distract the marker from the points you are making, or indeed make it difficult for them to follow your thinking.

Some key tips:

  • Always get someone else to read your work. Can they follow it? If no, why not?
  • Check your spelling and grammar – this is important when writing business documents as well.
  • Check consistency of headings and text layout.
  • Have you referred to anything in the essay which needs to be numbered, or put into a matching appendix?
  • Where you have used quotes, tables or diagrams from elsewhere, have you quoted your source and put it into the Reference list?
  • Using a front page for your essay is usually recommended as it allows you to state your essay title, course, name or candidate number, date of submission as well as word count and any other information required.
  • Last but not least; don’t leave it to the last minute, as this final preparation all takes time. Keep the submission date in mind, and plan to finish several days beforehand. Submitting late can carry penalties, and may lead to your work only being marked once, with no opportunity for improvement.

Useful contacts


  1. PEARS, R. and SHIELDS, G. (2010) Cite them right! The essential referencing guide. 8th ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


COTTRELL, S. (2013) The study skills handbook. 4th ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

HORN, R. (2009) The business skills handbook. London: Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development.

HORN, R. (2012) Researching and writing dissertations: a complete guide for business and management students. 2nd ed. London: Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development.

MCMILLAN, K. and WEYERS, J. (2007) How to write essays and assignments. Harlow: Pearson Education.

SOLES, D. (2005) The academic essay. Bishops Lydeard: Studymates Ltd.

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