A beginner’s guide to the all-night essay crisis

Eimer McAuley mentors us through the cold and dark hours of hitting the word count

Pile of books
Source: Wikimedia Commons

So, you’ve found yourself sitting in the college library at 11pm, with a blank word document in front of you, some incoherent notes that won’t evolve into an essay, and a 9am deadline.

In Michaelmas you were handing in work early, in Hillary you went a couple of hours over the deadline, sure, but you’ve never been here before.

Perhaps you’ve even looked at people like me and wondered ‘how does she let her essay crisis get this bad?’. Maybe you’re the medic who stopped to tell me that my 800ml Red Bull intake meant I had consumed 1920 per cent of the recommended dose of vitamin B12.

That’s okay, I won’t hold it against you. We’re about to understand each other very well.

There are guides out there on how to survive the all-nighter already. They’ll tell you not to panic. You’re going to panic. They’ll advise you on how much coffee to drink. We’re talking pro-plus. They’re written by well-meaning students who were oh so organised until they got to Oxford, then found themselves In a bit of a pickle. They can’t help you. I can.

I am a veteran of the all-nighter. You’re talking to a woman who was plunging her head into a bucket of ice water to get through fourth year GCSE modules. I didn’t sleep for a week before the 11-plus. I once emerged from one all-nighter, plunged myself into a two hour class, threw myself with verve into a crew-date, pushed myself to the edge at Bridge, and then bashed out an essay in time for an erg session at 7am.

Together, we will ensure that you have produced a just-about 2:1 essay by sunrise. Let’s begin.

First up, lower your expectations. If Oxford hasn’t already taught you that you’re not the budding genius everyone thought you were in sixth form, then fast track that existential crisis and get ready to write a bad essay. The focus here is on hitting the word count, not a revolutionary argument.

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Now that you’ve calmed down you need to stock up on snacks. I don’t care if you’re a blue, put down the kale smoothie and grapes and get real. You’re going to need energy drinks and carbs. The nastier the energy drink the better. Tesco shuts at 12.

Supplies in hand, it’s time to throw together an essay plan. With our lowered expectations in mind, use what you’ve got, fabricate evidence, flirt with plagiarism. The key here is that you don’t read back what you’ve written till you’re done.

Once you get into the swing of things you’ll probably start to feel quite positive, maybe your essay won’t be so awful after all. When the second can of Red Bull kicks in you’ll be thinking this may be the best essay you’ve ever written. That’s until you inevitably ignore me and read it back. You have now hit the wall.

You’ll realise that what you’ve written makes no sense, you can’t remember what you we’re supposed to be arguing, and you’re suddenly too tired to keep your eyes open. Do not go for a nap. If you do it’s probably game over. McDonalds is open till three, a walk and a cup of coffee should revive you.

Wall conquered, you need to keep yourself motivated with the prospect of seeing the majestic number 1500 appear in the bottom corner of your screen. It’s important that you don’t start thinking about the bigger picture. At this low point you might dwell on questions such as: ‘how is my Oxford degree relevant to the world I live in?’ or ‘why am I doing this to myself?’. If you find yourself looking up late UCAS applications you have gone too far.

Don’t allow other people in the library to distract from your all-nighter quest. Don’t spend an hour chatting with Tom and Alice only to find out that Tom is finishing his footnotes and Alice is 400 words over the word count. I understand that your need for unity is fuelled by your increasing desperation. I’ve found myself going for cig breaks with people who are not nearly as screwed as I am, and I don’t even smoke. But don’t fool yourself, this dismal deed you needs must act alone.

The walk to the porter’s lodge in the morning will be strange. The light will hurt your eyes, the birds will be mocking you with their song. When you drop off the essay try not to let the porter’s look of pity add to any feelings of self loathing you may be experiencing. You can now leave that essay behind, and me with it.

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P.S. don’t sleep through the tute.