IMPORTANT: this article refers to the previous EPSO exam system before March 2010 and may only be partially relevant for the new one
12 secrets of writing a powerful essay
The written exam, which in most competitions comprises a multiple choice test in the special domain of your choice and an e ssay, is the part you can control best. Why? Instead of getting a multiple choice question with four options, you are generally given 3-5 topics to choose from, therefore you can pick the one you know best. Such topics may include broad titles like "The EU's neighbourhood policy and the way ahead" or an extract from a directive based on which you must "draft a background note for your Director General". By following these essential rules, you can easily get a high passing score.
1. Start with an outline: in EPSO exams, you are usually given 3-5 topics to choose from. This however also means you must carefully reflect on which subject you can elaborate to the best of your knowledge. Don't mind spending 10 minutes to pick the topic, and another 20 minutes drafting an outline with 8-10 bullet points on the most important issues you wish to cover. Nothing is more annoying than changing your mind halfway into the essay, not to mention the layout of your paper. Structured thinking and a coherent, logical approach requires a line you will follow. Getting the outline should be the most challenging part of the essay - filling it with content is then a piece of cake!
2. Do your homework: the best way to prepare for the written test is to draft at home and memorise 3 or 4 sample essays on topics that are most likely to appear at the exam. Do research, check Wikipedia, the Europa website, and all the resources you can think of. Add names, data and numbers you can memorize. How can you identify the main issues? Easy: just look at the last three European Council Presidency Conclusions and see which topics are "hot" in the EU. With a bit of luck, one of your essays will match a topic, and thus all you need to do is write down what is already fully prepared in your head.
3. Be linear: always have a clear idea from where to where do you want to get in your essay. If you write about the EU's policy on climate change, start with the background, the context and go towards the latest developments. Don't start with the goals on reducing greenhouse gases by 20% by 2020 and then jump to the Kyoto protocol. Stay chronological, structured and linear.
4. Keep the eye on the ball: you can see in English-language newspapers that each paragraph covers only one core concept or idea and nothing more. Whatever else you wish to convey can enter the next section only. The first sentence in the paragraph is the key and the rest of the paragraph expands it or provides more details. "The climate change policy has gone a long way since the early '90s", could be a great opening phrase that you may then expand in a few lines.
5. Avoid stating basic facts: "the EU has 27 Member States", "the EU enlargement was a great thing" – these are too obvious or too general statements that serve no value and only decrease the quality of your essay. On the other hand, adding interesting dates, names, facts and concrete ideas can si gnificantly improve your writing and add lot more credibility.
6. Layout, layout, layout: written exams, as their name suggests, are hand-written. Most of us are used to word processors where we can cut, edit, paste and delete text without a trace. In hand-written exams, however, you can only do one thing: cross out a word or a section and re-write it below. Not very beautiful. Though evaluators will not look at the layout as such, it will certainly affect their scoring to see a nicely structured essay with titles, headers, bullet points and underlined words, because it shows that the candidate has a clear idea of the topic he or she is talking about.
7. Too long, too short: the main question is how long should your essay be? In fact this depends on many factors, most notably your handwriting and the topic you have chosen. In any case, as a rule of thumb, it should be somewhere between 3 to 5 pages, though scoring is based on quality and not on quantity, so a two-page essay may sometimes be better than a six-page litany. Whichever you go for, make sure to be fully aware of the exam time: nothing is more annoying than missing a brilliant conclusion because the invigilators call the end of the exam under the threat of disqualifying you for disobedience.
8. Abbrev. & co.: a common mistake essay writers do is using unfamiliar abbreviations or not specifying the meaning of an acronym. "EU" is something you do not need to spell out, however, CFSP may be the most obvious thing for those dealing with foreign and security policy but it still has to be written as "Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP)" first before starting to use only the abbreviations.
9. Number your pages: a blunt but common mistake is to forget numbering your pages which may lead to an illogical essay or a false structure. Even if the greatest care is given when handling exam papers, your pages may be mixed up. Given that names are not used in the written papers, this may cause some headache to both the evaluators and candidates. It only takes thirty seconds to number the pages, so why not keep this in mind at the exam?
10. Be diplomatic: some essay topics may require "argue for or against" a certain issue. This is a challenging yet risky field where your diplomatic skills are tested. Imagine you choose to argue against the achievements of the EU's 2004 year enlargement and your essay will be evaluated by the EU official who had worked several years on making this happen: unfortunate, to say the least. If the topic gives you the choice to argue against a policy then you are of course free to do so; just make sure to be careful with judgments ("the 2004 enlargement was a mistake" may be a bit too harsh but "the 2004 enlargement has also resulted in a number of challenges in the free movement of workers, regional policy etc." seems sufficiently balanced).
11. Spelling without spell check: in the age of computers, we are spoiled when it comes spelling. Before you notice it, Word will underline mistakes such as "negociations", "constiencious" or "miscellaneus" but in writing these can harm your credibility and the quality of your work. A simple solution to this challenge is avoiding the use of words that you are unsure about rather than taking a risk. General rules of hyphenation, commas/semicolons, capital letters and others can be best memorised by reading English-language newspapers and websites such as The Economist, EUobserver or others.
12. Give examples: making your essay powerful requires concreteness. Vague statements or even simple facts cannot convey as much information as a well-chosen example. For example: if your essay mentions the co-decision procedure and the conciliation committee, you may recall the role of the European Parliament and the Council, but mentioning "as an example, the regulation on substances destroying the ozone layer was adopted in the third reading by the conciliation committee". A concrete and simple example can demonstrate your sound knowledge of the subject and it may earn you enough points to proceed to the oral exam in the selection procedure.