How to improve your essay marks

What gets good marks? A good academic essay directly addresses the set task, and is well-researched, well-argued, and well-structured. Pay close attention to these qualities, and to matters of style, and you will see improvements in your essay marks.

Relevance

You must adequately address the essay question or topic. Failure to do so suggests unfamiliarity with course content, lack of thought, and poor planning and organisation. As you begin, reflect on the set question or task until you are confident that you understand what you are required to do. Seek help from lecturers or library staff if you are unclear about any aspect of the question. 

Generally, essay questions contain instructions about content (key concepts relevant to the task), scope (terms that narrow the focus of the task), and action (directions on what you need to do in relation to the content, such as discuss, analyse, compare, or evaluate). Carefully follow these instructions to obtain better marks. 

Consider how the material covered in the course so far is relevant to your essay. Think of ways to introduce what you know into the discussion. Use the essay to demonstrate your understanding of key principles, concepts and theories, and the roles played by key people and institutions. Show that you know why the topic is important, including relevant underlying issues and reasons for potential controversy.

There are no trick questions, and no hidden meaning behind the words. Your lecturers want you to demonstrate your understanding of the topic, your ability to conduct academic research, and your competence in mounting good arguments and producing fine academic writing. Check whether you are expected to include personal reflection in your essay.

Argument

Take an informed position or point of view on the topic and develop a logical and coherent line of reasoning. An essay that states information from sources but does not seek to persuade will attract poor marks. Aim to present a cogent, compelling and convincing argument. Use of assumptions, conjecture and speculation weaken an argument. Stick to the facts.

Your argument should be sound, and your ideas should flow clearly and logically on paper. Cite credible evidence and examples to support your argument and strengthen your line of reasoning. Anticipate and defuse counterarguments.

The argument of a long essay or dissertation is often succinctly expressed in a thesis – a sentence or two encapsulating the central theme or idea. This is stated in the introduction and revisited in the conclusion. It should be plausible, specific, insightful and (if possible) original. Keep it free from jargon and avoid quotations and clichés. Your thesis statement may need adjustment as you progress with your research and formulate a detailed argument. 

Evidence

Evidence supporting your argument is gathered through research. The better your research, the better your essay is likely to be. Demonstrate that you have done thorough research by analysing and evaluating the evidence you find. Show how the evidence supports your argument. Presentation of a strong and substantiated argument based on solid research from reputable sources will improve your essay marks. 

Evidence should be specific and detailed, enabling the reader to understand the point you are making. It typically consists of data, facts, quotations, statistics, and specific examples or illustrations. Each point in your argument should be buttressed by one or more pieces of evidence. Quoted material should be integrated into sentences and properly referenced.

Using direct quotes does not necessarily show that you understand the topic. A better way to incorporate quotes is to paraphrase or summarise a good quote, showing that you understand the ideas expressed. This also reduces word waste. 

To obtain credible evidence, check the reading lists in your course outline for books and journal articles related to your topic and peruse those resources. Use the Library catalogue to look for other relevant publications by key authors and titles. Seek advice from lecturers and Library staff. Discuss the essay task with other students and be prepared to share ideas and resources. Do not rely on websites such as Wikipedia and blogs for evidence.

The freshest and most reliable evidence is usually found in peer-reviewed journals (serials). The articles in these publications have been assessed by panels of experts prior to publication. The latest issues contain the most recent research and analysis published on the topic. However, you should always maintain a healthy critical stance toward research findings and compare published articles and books with other similar material. Never assume that something is valid or true merely because it claims to be so, or is presented in print form.

Your essay will attract higher marks if your analysis of the evidence is logical, objective, considers various points of view, and shows how the topic relates to broader issues. Always seek to demonstrate the significance of the evidence you are discussing. Show how it relates to the essay question or topic. If you can’t, leave it out.

Accurate and complete referencing in the prescribed referencing style enables the reader to verify your claims and judge the credibility of the evidence. Failure to cite sources indicates that you are cheating by using someone else’s words or ideas without attribution. This is a serious offence and must never occur. If in doubt, always include the reference.

Structure

A good argument is served by a clear, logical and cohesive structure, and a well-structured essay indicates time spent in thought and reflection on the task. Each part, each paragraph, each sentence must contribute to the task of persuading your reader that your argument is compelling and your conclusions convincing. You therefore need to plan your essay well.

An essay plan also has advantages to you as the writer. It shows whether your argument flows logically. It helps to determine what to include and discard, including supporting information or examples. It enables you to distribute your word limit among the various sections so that you don’t waste words or get carried away on unnecessary commentary. Anything not directly related to the essay question or topic will increase your potential for lower marks. 

Your structure should include an introduction, a main body consisting of several points, and a conclusion. If you address a few key points well, rather than many points poorly, you will attract better marks. Review your draft essay structure before you start writing the full draft to ensure that you introduce your points in the most logical order and avoid repetition. 

The introduction should not merely restate the essay question. It should outline how you intend to answer the question or address the topic, and give a brief summary of your argument. This is also the place for your thesis statement if you have one. 

The main body should address relevant questions such as “who?”, “what?”, “when?”, “where?”, “why?”, and “how?” It should consist of several sections or paragraphs in which you discuss the question, or outline the issue, develop your argument, display and analyse your evidence, and work toward your conclusion. 

Paragraphs are immensely important as they display the structure of your essay and help the reader to mentally process what you have written. Each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence and focus on one new idea or one new point in your argument. A good length for paragraphs in an academic essay is 80–150 words (this paragraph has 81). A paragraph should logically follow on from the preceding one; if it does not, revise your sentences until it does. 

Each sentence in your essay needs to do essential work: if you deleted it, the paragraph would no longer make sense. Every sentence in a paragraph should support the main idea of the paragraph. Ensure that you display correct spelling, grammar and vocabulary. Revise your work as you proceed to avoid repetition and redundancy. Reading your final draft aloud often helps to identify problems with logical flow, coherence, spelling and grammar, and repetition,

In addition to paragraphs, use “signpost” words and phrases to render your structure more clear and guide your reader. Signposts are literary devices introducing the next point in a discussion, showing how one concept relates to another, or providing a bridge between similar ideas. Think of subheadings (such as those in this article), and hooks (words like “Firstly,” “Secondly,” etc; or “Moreover, …”; “However, …”). Your reader will thank you.

The conclusion should be confident and unambiguous, summarising your findings and confirming the validity and credibility of your argument. This is not the place to introduce your thesis statement. There should be no quotations or references. It should occupy no more than one tenth of your word limit. 

An essay will attract poor marks if it displays a weak or confusing structure, frequent spelling and grammatical errors, or lack of proper referencing. Other features attracting poor marks include failure to follow through with what your introduction promised, inadequate defence of your argument, poor deployment of evidence in support of your argument, and significant departures from the set word limit (either too many or too few words for the task).

Style

It is not enough for an academic essay to be well-researched, well-structured, well-argued, and to adequately address the set task. To get the best marks it must also be written clearly and elegantly, with minimal clumsy or awkward phrasing, minimal spelling and grammatical errors, and an absence of unnecessary jargon. Time spent editing, revising and proofreading is not wasted. Allocate sufficient time for “polishing” your essay. Good writing makes a good student. 

Consider the following elements of style and presentation:

  • are there any glaring factual errors which suggest lack of revision and proofreading?
  • have I arranged the text on the page according to acceptable conventions (font type and size, left- and right-justification, line-spacing, margins)?
  • for each paragraph, is the expression clear and the style appropriate?
  • for each sentence, are there errors of spelling, grammar or vocabulary? Have I applied a spell-checker and grammar checker and dealt with items of concern?
  • are there any very long sentences that need to be split into separate sentences?
  • have I corrected all run-on sentences and comma splices?
  • are there any “is/are” verbs that I should replace with active verbs?
  • are there contractions (e.g., “don’t”, “isn’t”) that need to be changed to separate words?
  • do all the subjects and verbs agree?
  • have I ensured that none of my tenses shift (e.g., from present to past)?
  • are there clichés or mixed metaphors that need to be replaced or removed?
  • have I employed correct punctuation and citation style?
  • have I placed quote marks at the start and end of all in-sentence direct quotes, and indented all block quotes? 
  • is my bibliography complete and attached?
  • are all pages clearly numbered?
  • is there a title page with my name/student number, the essay title, due date, word limit, and actual word count?

Finally, some advice from veteran British journalist and essay-writer George Orwell: 

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?[1]


This article was written by Rod Benson on 27 August 2021.


References

[1] George Orwell, “Politics and the English language,” in Essays (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 355.

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