I am studying to be a nurse… why do I need to learn how to write an essay?

Written by Learning Skills Advisor, Lisa Turner

I can’t count the number of times I have had students exclaim in frustration that learning to write an essay is not a skill they will need in their future profession. I get it! Your future as a nurse, biologist, or electrical engineer will rarely require you to write 1500 words on ‘the strengths and weaknesses of sustainable development projects’. It is understandable then that students feel frustrated by assessments like essays that on the surface seem to have little practical value for their future careers! Well, I can’t promise that you will come to love essay writing. However, I will try and change your perspective a little so that next time you sit down to write you can at least feel better knowing that it really is helping you develop important practical skills.

Let me explain. To research and write a good essay takes a range of skills that are vital for most careers, and well, just life in general.

Firstly, researching an essay requires you to analyse sources of information. This means you learn to think critically and judge the credibility of information to decide whether it is ‘fake news’ or not. Now when it comes to the workplace, I for one am happy that the nurses who look after me can think critically, that they can have a patient say ‘I read this article that said licking cane toads reduces your risk of heart disease, do you have any lying around?’ and think hey, that seems questionable. Where did you find this article, who wrote it, and what sort of research have they done to support that claim…? Hmm, I’m not sure that toads are the answer to your heart problems. While this example does not require a huge amount of critical thinking, sometimes inaccurate, false or biased information can be well disguised, making those source analysis skills extremely important.

Secondly, essay writing requires you to take information from a variety of sources and put it together to form an argument or make a point. Oh, and you have to do this in your own words. Luckily, for most this skill is used every day, it is called effective communication (now I know you’ve heard of that). If you can take information from a variety of sources and summarise, paraphrase and make an argument in an essay, then you can most certainly do it in a job interview, when resolving conflicts between staff members, or while explaining a diagnosis to a patient. Being able to get your point across to someone else and have them actually listen and believe you can be the difference between a patient following their medication schedule at home or mixing it up and ending up back in care. So yeah, effective communication is vital not just in nursing, but almost all professions.

Finally, essay writing is all about supporting evidence. When you make an argument in an essay it is only as strong as the evidence you use to justify it. As a professional you probably don’t realise that this justification is something that you do all the time. For example, “I will give this medication orally… why? Well I was taught that way… why? It is in the Standards of Practice…why? Well it’s the most effective way to give this particular medication…how come? Well I guess someone did a study to find out and then it became part of our Standard of Practice”. Boom! There is your justification or supporting evidence! Essay writing means you always employ what I call the ‘pre-schooler test’ (i.e. Why? x 1000). That habit you get into when writing an essay of justifying ‘why’ means you understand that behind every action or activity you do there is evidence for why you should do it that way. The reason this is important for a professional is that it means you don’t just blindly follow what you are told to do, you have the ability to think through even the most minor tasks and understand why it is you do them. While you are not likely to do this all the time for every little task, having this skill is important because it means that if conditions change you are more flexible and adaptable because you don’t just know what to do but you know WHY you are doing it.

So have I made you love essay writing yet? Okay I know I’m not that good. But, because it is hard to stay motivated when you can’t find a purpose in what you are doing, next time you feel frustrated while writing an essay remind yourself that you’re not just learning about the topic you’re writing about, you are actually working on skills that are truly useful. Now it is not all unicorns and rainbows and you may never love essay writing; but, your time as a student has already improved your critical thinking, source analysis, communication and problem-solving skills (just to name a few) and the more essays you research and write, the more you will refine these skills to be used in any profession you choose to pursue.