50 Ways to Improve Your Essay Grade
Print out this page and the next one, and then use them as a quality
control check list as you begin developing your essay:
1) Familiarize yourself with the grade scheme… 3
2) Look at your past feedback… 4
3) Familiarize yourself with the course aims… 5
4) Consider creating your own question… 5
5) Narrow down the scope of a general question… 6
6) Listen out for specific advice from the tutor… 6
7) Start as early as possible… 7
8) Answer only the exact question set… 9
9) Leave time to review your work… 9
10) Assess and redraft your essay… 9
11) Focus on staying within the word limit… 10
12) Go beyond lecture material… 11
13) Focus on the best academic sources… 11
14) Focus on printed sources… 13
15) Find good examples… 13
16) Write in clear plain English… 15
17) Write in proper sentences… 15
18) Write in the third person… 15
19) Write in active sentences… 16
20) Write in varied short sentences... 16
21) Write with confidence and conviction… 17
22) Avoid abbreviations and short forms… 17
23) Avoid rhetorical questions and
24) Avoid lists… 18
25) Avoid subheadings… 18
26) Be precise in your language… 18 27) Define ambiguous and academic terms… 18 28) Avoid slang and informal speech… 19 29) Write in long, single point paragraphs… 19 30) Introduce academic thinkers… 20
Use appropriate referencing… 20 31)
32) Avoid the personal angle… 22
33) Always have a main case… 22
34) State your main case in the last sentence of
the first paragraph… 23
35) Unpack your main case point by point… 23 36) Stick to between 4 and 7 main points… 23 37) Include “signpost” sentences… 24 38) Avoid unverifiable or hypothetical
39) Be critical in developing and stating your
40) Address important counter-arguments… 25
41) Plan the first draft in advance… 26 42) Write the question as your title… 26 43) Have an introduction, main body and
44) Write a strong introduction… 27
45) Stick to one issue and follow it through… 28 46) Outline the theme and problem first… 28 47) Note what has already been said … 28 48) Make paragraphs that link to each other…28 49) Use quotations appropriately… 29 50) Finish on a strong conclusion… 29
Appendix A: Further Reading … 31
Appendix B: Example Essay Plan … 32
Appendix C: Improving on a High Grade … 35
1. Familiarize yourself with the grade scheme.
Some of your markers might be harder or softer, but this is what they will all be using judge your work. Know the grade scheme and you will know what to aim for. You can usually find it somewhere in the back of your department‟s handbooks for students. A typical one might look like this:
0-24: Does not understand even the basic themes of the
module; no obvious thought, argument, conclusions or
referencing. Often written unclearly. [Completely
irrelevant or useless writing]
25-32: Not much thought, poorly written, often outside
module themes with almost no evaluation or attempt at
conclusion. [Un-researched waffle and „common sense‟
opinion. Often short because the student did not know
anything to say.]
33-39: Disjointed, superficial or generalized account,
poorly written and based on inadequate sources and
lacking in critical thought or significant reference to theory.
[Often short; could approximate garbled lecture material
with one or two more obvious academics mentioned.
Student seems to be missing most of the basic ideas.]
40-49: A limited less critical understanding of few sources
pursued with some inaccuracies of written style. [Patchy,
confused, very lazy or very basic, but with some merit.
Perhaps simply regurgitated lecture material.]
50-59: Reasonably organized selective understanding
using a limited range of sources. [This is a fair stab,
tending to focus on more obvious material, with some
grasp of lectures and some further research. Can seem a bit
choppy or superficial.]
60-69: Adequate range of sources used to create a well-
structured, logical assessment. [A bold answer reporting
on a decent range of sources, but still tending to „hide‟
behind the authority of famous academics. May seem
heavy on quotations. It will show a depth of
70-79: Shows an independent approach to ideas using a
wide range of sources in a confident and well-planned
piece. [An expert piece showing independent research and
judgement. It has to show solid reasoning and evidence.]
80-89: Exceptional insights well contextualized and
grounded in a critical, well researched, carefully structured
and persuasively written piece. [Thorough, critical and
90-100: Almost perfect. Could hardly be bettered -
extremely strong in all areas. [Amazing!]
2. Look at your own past feedback.
This is a valuable source of information from tutors. Because of the way that making happens, marker comments can sometimes look like a record of faults and failure. In reality those comments should be used as a series of points explaining how you can better your work. Have a look at the comments. What patterns keep repeating themselves? What things are your existing strengths? What do you really need to improve?
3. Familiarize yourself with the course aims.
Different courses can have very different aims and positions in relation to the same topic. To make sure that you are on track, look again at the aims of the course. These should be written down somewhere, usually in the course handbook or perhaps in online descriptions of the course. Re-reading the aims of the course will help to centre you.
4. Consider creating your own question.
On some courses tutors may require you to devise your own question, or offer you the option of doing so. If you the question set does not motivate you, then you should explore the option. It is a mixed blessing: good because you might be able to write about your passion, and because you will be taking yourself out of competition with other students who are all answering the main question (markers tend to get fussier when they see a lot of answers to the same thing). On the other hand, it comes fraught with pitfalls. For example creating an obvious or speculative answer. If you do decide to go down this route, always clear the question with the tutor before you start writing. A productive question has the following characteristics:
; Is focused and specific.
; Cannot be answered with an obvious yes or no
; Can include a quotation as a starting point.
; Contributes to a wider academic theory or research
concern (may be through challenging, testing,
unpacking or applying).
; Does not concern a topic so broad that it leads to
; Encourages different viewpoints to be put alongside
; Is meaningful: people can see why it matters.
; Ideally creates surprise or covers new ground.
Words that might inspire you: analyse, assess, assumptions,
consequences, contrast, differences, discuss, evaluate, implications, similarities, what, why.
5. Narrow down the scope of a general question.
There‟s an old saying that goes “Give someone enough rope and they will hang themselves.” If you think of trying to read
something that says a little about a lot, it won‟t have much flow or insight. In general, students do better on more narrowly defined questions, because saying a lot about a little shows that you have a depth of understanding. So if the title of the question seems a bit general to you, ask your tutor about the possibility of redefining the scope of study. Here is an example. If the title says, “Discuss the representation of women in horror movies,” you could say in your introduction, “Women are represented in different ways in horror films and it would be too much to try and discuss every sub-genre in detail. This essay will focus on the representation of women in slasher movies, because that particular topic has attracted the most critical attention.” The formula here is to show in passing that you know about the whole area, but then to say that it would be better to discuss one area, either because it exemplifies the concerns of the main question or because it addresses it in a particularly interesting way. You could phrase this by saying, “Rather than addressing a topic with such a broad scope, the discussion that follows will focus on…”
6. Listen out for specific advice from the tutor.
Sometimes tutors have a very specific slant on the essay that they want you to produce. Perhaps they are keen that you follow 6
the particular codes and conventions of a certain school of thought. Rather than putting off starting the essay, it is better instead immediately to ask the tutor for some grounding advice. Most will be keen to mention particular quirks and pitfalls to you. My point here is that this ebook is about general academic essay writing. You are advised to modify and tailor this advice to the specific circumstances of your course, tutor and assessment. Most tutors will make technical specifications about a piece of work. For example: double-spaced paragraphs, justified to the left margin, written in 12 point font on paper with margins of at least 2cm. Some tutors may also offer help in reading through a draft of your work. If your tutor is willing to do this I would advise you to go to see them in person (emails with drafts attached can seem a bit impolite) and do as much you can to finish the essay. Otherwise, you will be wasting everyone‟s time since you are asking him or her to say things that are obvious to both of you.
7. Start as early as possible.
One of the biggest problems is that students do too little too late. We‟ve all witnessed that caffeine-fuelled frenzy of pressured
intellectual creativity just before an essay is due in. Rarely does it actually work well. Although it is human nature, and working right up to deadlines motivates people, it also has major problems:
; Bottlenecks mean a scarcity of resources (harassed tutors,
libraries plundered of material, over-stretched computer
; People compete with themselves to see if they can do a
good job. They have precious little time to develop or
review their work.
; Students feel stressed because they are not in control of
their work life.
; Some work needlessly loses marks for lateness.
Imagine yourself as a lawyer paid to fight a major jury case. Would you leave all your homework to the night before? If you were a soccer hero would you not bother training until the night before each match? This method makes no sense. It‟s much better to have a “get it done immediately” mentality. The benefits of this attitude are that:
; You feel more in control of your workload.
; You have proper time to review your own work.
; You can deal with later problems as they come up.
; You can hand your work in early and go to the movies
while everyone else gets stressed out.
That‟s really beating the system. You have to remember that essay deadlines are usually the very last time that work can be handed in, not the only time. Be like Elvis and start “taking care 8
of business;” just don‟t eat too many doughnuts while you‟re doing it
8. Answer only the exact question set.
Look very carefully at the working of the question set. Here is an example: “Assess criticisms of the thesis that the recent Iraq War was really about oil.” This answer does not ask you to state the thesis that the war was about oil (although you should do that in your introduction), nor does it ask you to merely re-state criticisms of the thesis. It asks you, in fact, to assess those criticisms; in other words, to say what was good and bad about each criticism. If you really want to answer a question properly, look up key words like “evaluate,” “analyse” or “contrast” in its title. These words have very specific meanings.
9. Leave time to review your work.
If you plan to finish your essay a couple of weeks ahead of time, something magical will happen. Walk away from the completed piece for a week, and when you come back and read it again all the flaws that you never saw at the time will jump right out and beg to be corrected. The best part is that you still have time to do it!
10. Assess and redraft your essay.
When you come to looking at your draft, here is a way to get to the bottom of whether it has a good structure. Print out a copy of the essay leaving a broad left hand margin. As you read it through write a sentence next to each paragraph summarizing what it means. Next take a new sheet of paper and make a flow chart from all of the summary sentences. This will give you a “map” or outline of your essay that will allow you to judge its 9
development and flow. You can now start to re-arrange, transform, insert or remove paragraphs to improve the development of the piece as a whole. Another tip here is that if you are short of the word count, you can add each summary sentence to the front of its paragraph, if appropriate, to increase the clarity. Finally, you may have to redraft your work several times until you get it right. Very few people can write anything of real substance with clarity first time round. Almost all top writers take several drafts to fully expound and arrange their ideas. Why should you be any different?
11. Focus on staying within the word limit.
It is a tragedy when students with great work are penalized for going over length. Usually a few words (up to about 10%) will not make much difference, but going over length any further indicates an unrestrained sloppiness and inability to stick to the rules stated. There is an art to being able to summarize some sections and leave detail in others, to create a result that leads the reader through the issues boldly and slowly, so that at the end they feel satisfied and do not want more. You may wish to apportion word limits to the individual points that you are developing. I find that a bit obsessive, but do it if it works for you.