The essay has been called the 'default genre' in high school and university education. This paper examines the nature, history and function of the essay in this role, including feminist critiques of the genre. It explores in particular the dialogic or multi-voiced character of most academic essays, and suggests that it is through dialogic structuring that new forms of academic writing might be generated. Excerpts from five student essays, and other forms of coursework and examination work are studied. The paper suggests that the handing in of essays and their role in the assessment of student performance is an elaborate game that students and teachers/lecturers have to learn to play well in order for both sides to enjoy and gain from the experience; it also concludes that it is time to recognise more formally the diverse forms of student expression as valid contributions to the demonstration of emerging knowledge.