A Survivor's Guide to the EPQ

Around this time last year, I had just finished the first draft of my EPQ essay.
The Extended Project Qualification is offered by AQA and Edexcel exam boards and involves choosing a question to investigate and then writing a 5,000 word report on said question.

August to December 2015 was probably the most stressful time of my life so far. Beginning with EPQ research in the summer and leading through to the essay deadlines, the presentation, personal statement writing, university applications, Cambridge interview preparation, the interview, coursework deadlines… on top of all my normal school work. It was a really intense time.

Taking selfies with my books instead of reading them... As you do. 

The title of my EPQ was “To What Extent Was Political Change The Most Important Factor In Influencing The Creation Of Realism In The 1800s?” I investigated political change as a key factor, and then argued that other factors such as the role of individuals, technological and scientific advancements, and social change were equally, if not more, crucial in the creation of the artistic movement. You can read more details about my EPQ and an excerpt here.

In the end I got an A* in the project so it was all worth it but I really empathise with people going through the process right now. So I thought I’d write down a few pointers I’d give to those undertaking the EPQ this year.

1. Pick something you are genuinely interested in. Honestly, one of the main things that helped me not have a complete mental breakdown was the fact I am obsessed (in case you didn’t notice) with history of art, the subject of my EPQ.
So that would be my first piece of advice to anyone undertaking an EPQ: pick something you are passionate about. You are going to have to spend hours sitting at home or in a library reading and reading and writing and writing about this subject. If you don’t love it I really don’t think you’ll be able to finish it or pick up another book again. My teacher said to me “write about something you’ve always had a burning desire to find out.” Now, I wouldn’t go that far because it’s a bit unrealistic. I don’t wake up every day wanting to know about the creators of realism, but I knew I love talking and reading all about art so it was a safe bet I wouldn’t get bored.

No, I didn't do doodles for my EPQ...
2. Once you know the general topic, do thorough research to find a good title. So, great, you know you love zoology so it makes sense to write about animals. But you obviously can’t write about the entirety of the animal kingdom in 5000 words, giving enough detail where necessary. So next you’ll be asked to narrow down your topic. I’d say make sure you do enough research about different options in order to be able to pick the best one. I sort of fell into doing realism, but if I’d researched more art movements beforehand, I would have better understood which one to focus on and would have narrowed down my research far earlier.

3. Find a topic with a good debate. This one’s tricky, but it’s another one I’d have improved about my essay. The historians I researched all pretty much agreed with each other. I think it would have made a far more interesting angle if there was a bit of disagreement. For instance, instead of looking at what caused the creation of Realism, if I had looked at its impact and whether or not it was a relevant art movement, there would be far more discussion to analyse.

4. Give up on your summer. Ok, not quite, but yeah, I didn’t go away after AS exams. I planned small things in London and went to Reading Festival but nothing huge. You’re going to need days of sitting at home researching where to even find research. Once you’ve located books you need, there’ll probably only be one copy in the whole of your city and it’ll be on the complete other side and you’ll need to take three trains and a bus to get to the library. Once there, something will happen like they won’t have posted online that they close at midday on a Friday so the whole trip was a waste. Or you’ll have forgotten to order the book with 48 hours notice (yeah, make sure you do that). Then you’ll need time to collate all the notes you’ve made and write it into a cohesive essay. So all in all, you’ll need time. There’ll be moments when you’ll think to yourself the deadline is in October, I’m sure I’ll have time between July and then… But you’ll soon figure out that when you get back to school at the beginning of September, none of your other teachers really care that you’re doing an EPQ and will pile on the homework. So it’s a good idea to have the bulk done before you go back to school.

Example of my schedule. Scheduling is ev.ery.thing.

5. Be aware of deadlines. Not just the EPQ ones, which kind of goes without saying, but also other ones in your academic life. Coursework deadlines are often around Christmas time too or maybe earlier so you’ll often be doing EPQ at the same time as this. A lot of people who do the EPQ often apply for Oxbridge of Medicine, as their application deadline is also mid-October. My EPQ presentation was on the 14th and so was the Cambridge personal statement deadline. Intense. Stay on top of it all!

6. Write your bibliography/ production log/ resource log as you go along. It’s tempting to just write the essay and deal with all the admin-stuff later. But I’d advise against this. Firstly, your will lose track of which resources you’ve used, how useful they were, what pages you used for which quote… It becomes a lot to deal with all together. So just add the footnotes as you’re doing it. Secondly, you will be finishing your EPQ right in the middle of your first term in year 13 and you don’t want to be panicking about a page number you can’t find. Another thing is that most referencing styles want the date you accessed a web-page to prove it was really there when you saw it (just in case it is taken offline at a later date) so make sure you keep track of webpages too. 

7. Research how to reference. Insanely boring but necessary. Each academic subject has different conventions so find out which ones you need to use before you do all your footnotes and the bibliography, or you’ll just have to go back and change it all. Bear in mind there are conventions for literally every time of information.
Me looking like a Cool Kid outside the V&A's National Art Library
8. Be careful not to plagiarise. It can be really tempting to read a great phrase and slip it in to your work, passing it off as your own… Tempting, but highly stupid. Exam boards now have technology which finds if phrases are too similar to other works they have on their system. More and more people (like me) post their work online (mainly to show off about how damn hard they’ve worked on something) but there’s not point plagiarising other students. Chances are you’ll be caught, and their stuff probably won’t be worth it. It’s even more stupid to plagiarise from published academic works as you can just include it in your bibliography and get points for that anyway.

9. Basically, do it. History of Art wasn’t offered as an A-level in my school, so I had never actually written an essay in this field. It was intimidating because I didn’t really know where to start. But as I spent hours in the National Art Library, I realised I really wasn’t getting bored, in fact, I loved it. It helped secure the idea in my mind that this was really what I wanted to do for a degree. The EPQ will really help prepare you for University and higher academia because of the reliance on your own time management and research which you don’t really get from secondary school. I’d really recommend it as it will (hopefully!) give you confidence in your abilities and a deeper understanding of your chosen subject.

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