If you want to improve your essay grades, there are two crucial pieces things you need to know: what you are doing wrong and what you can do right. This requires feedback – after all, how can you know what you don’t know? Ideally, a marker – or even mentor or tutor – would provide this kind of feedback for their students. Unfortunately, though, you will not always get it. In fact, very often what you get is a lot of “don’t do that”, without so much “do this”.

With that in mind, this blog post will look at the little things that students commonly do that can lower their marks and steps you can take avoid falling into the same traps.

Do your best

It sounds so trite, doesn’t it? Do your best. Really, isn’t that what you have been doing? But then, have you really? The sad reality is that there truly are one or two students who can sit down the night before a paper is due, write out a perfect essay in a few hours, and receive high marks and a thumbs up. But the chances are pretty good that you are just a poor ordinary mortal.

So if you waited until the night before an essay was due and you received a low mark, you probably deserved it. If you plugged in whatever research materials (books, articles, etc.) that were easiest to find, skimmed over it, cited it uncritically, and received a disappointing grade, it was probably warranted. If you didn’t give the essay a single thought until you sat down to write it, never developed a plan of attack and just started typing away, don’t be surprised if the grade reflects this. If you didn’t take time to read or edit any of your paper before handing it in, then, well you get the idea.

Many students suppose that because they are writing, they are doing work, and because it is work that they don’t particularly enjoy or because it feels challenging, they are doing (or have done) their best. But that “best” is not good enough.

An essay is just a final physical product, but the work is 90% mental. As soon as you have the assignment topic, or prompt, you need to start thinking about it. You need to start seeing the essay in your head. What is the question? What is your answer? What do you need to show your answer? Where will you get what you need?

One problem that often comes up for students is right there at the start: where do I begin? There are really only two options available: you can start by writing or you can start by reading. If you know what you want to talk about, you should write first and then read. Ideally, that reading will sharpen what you wrote and help you rewrite it. If you are not sure what to write, you should read (whatever it is in your topic) until ideas start forming. Do either of these processes sound like they can be accomplished in a single night? Not really.

In order to do your best on a paper you have to be willing to put the time in. You need to think about the problem, develop a strategy of getting the paper written, and break that work down into manageable chunks. There is a famous saying in writing classes and it goes something like this: Question: How do I write a paper? Answer: The same way you eat an elephant; one bite at a time. Writing your paper is not one big bite, but lots and lots of nibbles.

Markers very quickly develop an instinct for work that is genuinely a student’s best effort, and something hastily and sloppily done. And this point is critical: markers and teachers are far more willing to help students that have done their best work but not done the assignment well, than students who have turned in sloppy and careless work, regardless of the final quality. Always turn in your absolute best effort, even if you’re unsure if it’ll quite hit the mark.

Know the assignment

Key to ensuring you’re on the right track from the get-go is understanding the assignment.

In a well-known case study of composition classes, a scholar revealed that the students' assumptions of what will be asked is a key determinant of their performance. Their assumptions are often based on the teachings in class, and for students that performed poorly there was often a mismatch between their expectations of what is being asked, and what the instructor expects.

This is a case of prevention being more important than a cure.

You need to read through the assignment carefully, and if there are any tips or suggestions, read those even more carefully (because often tips and suggestions are actually expectations). If you have any questions, ask them early.

Be serious

Now, there are various features of essay writing that are not formally listed in any course guidelines or handouts from your professor. Things like tone, style, and so forth. There is no reason to complicate these. No matter how easy-going your instructor might be, when you write a paper for a university course, be formal and be serious. Your tone should be formal, your style should be professional. You should hand in a paper that looks like you are applying for a job that you desperately want. The internet abounds with advice on how to write formally – read it. Don’t be chatty. Don’t use contractions. Don’t stray from your subject, etc.

That said, you also want to find a balance between formal writing style and work that’s comprehensible. Don’t throw in complicated words or phrases simply because you think they sound good. Always assume that you’re writing for someone who knows little-to-nothing on the subject, and choose your language and style accordingly.

Many students actually have some anxiety about their writing style. Students in the sciences often feel that they write too concisely, or that their work isn’t ‘exciting’, and that this may mean they get lower marks. Conversely, creative students can tend to bend the rules of writing and perhaps get carried away with the liveliness of their writing, to the detriment of the quality of argument. We don’t know who is marking your papers; maybe they are looking at style and creativity. But you cannot lose marks for being professional and serious in your writing.

Personally, we think it helps to write your essays by imagining that you are writing to or for your employer. Think of this from a marker’s perspective. Writing is, notionally, your job. If your job was to assign a formal grade to someone’s work, would you be more receptive to someone who was clearly serious, professional, and had done their best work? Or something that was clearly dashed off, not so serious, or not their best effort?

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Structure – at a glance

We will talk a little more about the process of marking in the next post, but something that will help you now is knowing this one little bit of information. Most markers can tell at a glance – truly a glance, without having read more than a few words – if a paper is low calibre. Now, markers cannot really say if a paper is average, above average, or first-class without reading it. But they know from just the way the first page looks whether or not the essay is low or mediocre.

So this should compel two questions on your part: 1) how do they know? And 2) why is this important?

Let’s take question 1 first. When you are writing at academic/university level, you are writing at the paragraph level and above. What does this mean? It means that your marker is looking to grade you on the quality of your paragraphs and anything else more complex than this (for example, quality of argument, ability to think critically, etc.). Anything less complex than paragraphs – formatting, font, layout, etc. – the marker will not want to be having to take care of, at university level. The first page or two of an essay (at least) should look professional at a glance. Clean paper, no folds, etc. All the pertinent information (name, title, date, class) needs to be there on the the title page as directed in the syllabus or formatting guide. If there isn’t one for the class, ask. And pro tip: never ever ever turn in a paper that does not have at least your name and some kind of title. To a marker, a paper without a title just looks like you couldn't be bothered. You seem lazy, even if you aren’t. And, of course, margins and standard font (Times New Roman 12pt is standard). An incorrect or sloppy bibliography with inappropriately formatted citations is also a giveaway of sub-standard work.

But the biggest indicator for most markers of the quality of the paper being graded is the paragraphs.

A paragraph should be full, probably somewhere between 175-400 words. Very often students hand in papers where there are no paragraphs or lots of really short paragraphs. This immediately suggests to markers that the student has a problem organising the material. Take a good essay and just cast your eyes over it. You will not find any short paragraphs, or one sentence paragraphs (like in some novels). We should add, you might find very long paragraphs in a higher-level academic work, but at undergraduate level you probably wont.

Now, why is this important? Because markers do not have lots of time to devote to evaluating papers and they are essentially sorting your paper into a grade box. They will start thinking about where your paper belongs as soon as they pick it up. Not uncommonly, markers will skim through to ensure those details are there that we mentioned above. If your paper does not look like you have command of structure and control over the way you present your discussion and information, then the marker will not be encouraged to actually read your essay. The chances are quite good, in fact, that they will skim over your paper to confirm what they already suspect from the way the paper is presented. You may have first-class ideas in your paper, but without appropriate structure, those ideas are not likely to be given due attention.

So, find a sample essay somewhere (there are scads of these online), and before you turn your essay in, make sure that yours at least looks structurally similar in the formatting and the shape of things, with no consideration for content.

Structure – in detail

What you are after in your paper is a logical continuity of thought. What this means is the structure of your paper follows a line of development, in the way you might give someone directions. You start with a general overview (an introduction), develop the ideas and discuss your points in a few to several paragraphs (the body), and you then wrap up what you have discussed (the conclusion). And everything in these sections should be relevant only to the topic that you are discussing.

Put even more simply: tell the reader what you are going to tell them. Then tell them what you need to tell them. Then tell them what you have told them.

That is essentially the structure of an essay.

Where many students go wrong is in one or all of these areas. Often, if a student is operating at a paragraph level, one of the major shortcomings is how the paragraphs themselves are organised. Sometimes the way information is organised in your head is not the way it is organised on paper when it comes out. Something that, perhaps, you should spend a few sentences on, or even a paragraph, you might suppose is covered by a single sentence. Or, conversely, something easily covered by a few sentences gets several. This is where feedback can be helpful. A paper that you write will never be fresh to you, and it will never be read for a first time the way it will be by a marker. That is one reason why it is so difficult to gauge how a marker will respond to your work. The closest you can come is to write the paper, set it aside for a few weeks, then come back to it. But you do not likely have that kind of time.

Lastly, all good writers rewrite their papers. You are setting yourself up for disappointment if you believe you can write a first-class paper without having reread and revised the paper, or turning it in without having someone else read it through (preferably a competent expert).