The reading list your tutor has given you will be the starting point for most of your reading. You may also have jotted down a few references during a lecture or seminar. Now you have an essay to write.
1) Read the question. You're probably tired of hearing this by now, but when students stop answering different questions from the one that has been set, we'll stop telling you to read the question.
2) Read the question again. There's an important point here. Students sometimes think that the reading list contains the references to answer the question. Their plan of attack is as follows: First, they select five or six interesting (or available) titles; second, they read them; and third, they then carefully craft an essay that covers the essay title and the books they have read. Result? A discursive essay that has some interesting facts about the Roman army, tied tenuously to the question, which was actually about Roman coinage.
So the first point to note is that the reading list may not be geared exclusively to the essay question; it is a general introduction to a variety of issues to do with the topic, only some of which may be relevant to the essay question. Some tutors may supply you with a reading list for each essay; if this is the case you can jump to the section on Text Types.
3) Finding a way in. So the first thing to do is to mark those references that are obviously relevant to the question you have been set. If you can do that straight away, then fine. But more, likely, you may feel a bit confused about where to start. Amongst all that technical jargon, which books are the relevant ones? There are two complimentary ways to find your way in:
Armed with some key names, terms and references, return to the reading list and mark out any sources that seem to fulfil the criteria.
If you are still uncertain of which texts to read try raising the issue in a seminar or tutorial, or failing that contact your tutor or lecturer directly. Remember, they are there to help you and would much rather spend some time with you choosing useful books to read, rather than marking a poor essay.
4) How long is a piece of string? A common question is: 'How many references do I need?' And of course, the answer is, 'As many as you need'. A rule of thumb is that for a first year essay, you should aim to have ten in the bibliography. As you progress through your course you will inevitably need more. Remember though, you are not going to be assessed on the number of bibliographic sources cited, it is using them well that is most important!