How to succeed at writing in university: score higher on your essays with these 4 tips

One of the more stressful aspects of university is the essay. I remember being anxious about writing them, I remember my friends being anxious about them, and I still hear complaints about it occasionally from my extended family or friends. In university, I studied humanities, and essay writing was very common in my classes. So it was eye-opening when I went to graduate school and became the person responsible for grading essays. I got to read the output of everyone in a class and grade each essay accordingly.

When you’re dealing with anything in large numbers, whether it’s customers, data, etc, you quickly notice patterns and common themes. For essay grading, I quickly noticed that there were a select few things that really influenced how well that student wrote, and thus, how high of a grade they earned. Some of these things were obvious, while others were surprising to me. If you’re in university and you want to know what your professor or TA is looking for when grading an essay (especially one written for the humanities), here are a few things to consider:

  1. Am I on topic? Is my argument relevant?

This seems obvious, but you would be surprised at the amount of essays I received where the student had gone completely off topic. Usually this is because people investigate something tangential or barely related to the point they’re trying to make. Make sure the things you discuss or include in your essay help your argument respond to the prompt. The most notable example of this I remember was an essay I read that did an excellent job of discussing the everyday lives of people in villages in Vietnam. However, the requirements were to write an investigation into the impact of the Vietnam war on Vietnamese citizens, which the essay didn’t do. I had to fail what was otherwise a great essay because it didn’t meet a basic requirement.

Related to that point, if you’re writing an essay where you have some degree of freedom in choosing the topic, the professor will expect you to choose something compelling that demonstrates you used some degree of thought. This doesn’t mean that you can’t choose what appears to be a simple question to answer. For example, compare these two arguments based on the topic “Why did the Russian Revolution succeed?”:

  • The Russian Revolution succeeded primarily because of the failure of the Royalist forces to organize together and offer a compelling alternative to the Communists.
  • The Russian Revolution succeeded because the communists believed they were correct.

One of these arguments is better structured and more compelling than the other because it offers a specific, plausible explanation. The second one is vague and is making a fallacious argument: just because someone believes they are correct doesn’t mean they will win. Both were based on a simple prompt. Only one, however, appears to have actual effort put into it: the first example.

  1. Does my essay have some kind of structure?

Again, fairly obvious, but if your paper is disorganized and doesn’t have a sensible flow between ideas and points, it will be hard to read and harder to understand. This is especially important because graders typically have many papers to go through at once. So, if your paper isn’t easy to read because you didn’t organize it well, you’re going to get a lower mark. Simple outlining can really go a long way here -- if you know where and when in your essay you’re going to discuss certain things, it makes it easier to write an essay that proceeds naturally and rationally from point to point.

  1. Do the research.

Generally, when you’re writing an essay for your professor or TA, they are familiar with the topic that you’re writing about. They might not have done their PhD thesis on it, but they’ve learned enough that they can teach the subject. So, when you don’t properly research the topic, we’ll notice. This can range from using sources that are clearly inadequate (such as Wikipedia) to simply not citing your sources at all. Your essay is meaningless if you don’t have the evidence to back it up!

Another point related to this topic -- if your research is sloppy, it usually affects how much sense your argument makes. If you don’t use critical thinking (or even common sense) when doing your research, you can easily end up turning in an essay that will get you laughed out of the classroom. In short, your teachers have expertise on their subject, and shoddy or cursory research is not going to fool them.

  1. Avoid using filler or “big words”.

This was one of my personal pet peeves. When you read someone’s work, their writing style (how they communicate, what vocabulary they prefer, etc) becomes apparent very quickly. As a result, it’s easy to tell when someone is trying to lengthen their essay or use a thesaurus to sound smarter. This does not win you any points with your grader. In fact, it just makes you look lazy and disinterested. While it usually didn’t mean I deducted points on the essay (though if you use a significant amount of filler writing, you will get points off), I did take it into consideration for other factors such as style and flow, and that can often mean you don’t get the leeway in grading you otherwise would have. Try to be concise! The most important thing is to get your point across in a clear manner, not to pontificate and artificially increase your word count.

Do those four points sound familiar? It’s probably because they’re pretty similar to a chart like this:
grading
Many schools, ranging from the elementary to university level, have similar example rubrics demonstrating what makes an essay good or bad. There were many instances when I was asked to grade using one of these as a guide. So, if your professor gives you a rubric, or your writing center mentions one, pay attention to it because it plays into how you will be graded. Use it as a guide, and read it through before and after you draft your essay to be sure you’ve included all the necessary elements for the assignment.

Do I think the four I listed are the end-all be-all of essay writing? Of course not -- there are a lot of minor things that can have an influence on the quality of your writing and your grade. But issues with these four concepts stuck out to me more than any others when I was grading. If you’re able to keep these things in mind as you’re writing, then you’re putting yourself in a very good position to get a high mark.