Study Tips
by Elissa Gurman
November 10, 2022

How to write an essay for university or college that earns top marks

Expert tips from a former teaching assistant and part-time professor on writing an 'A' paper

(Credit: Marc Romanelli/Getty Images)

In your first year of university or college, you may begin to feel that "A" papers are a bit like unicorns. Do they even exist? I remember feeling so angry and frustrated during first year; I had been an "A" student all through high school but suddenly, I couldn’t score higher than a B+ on any of my written work. What had changed? How could I crack the code?

Now, after a PhD in English and years of experience grading undergraduate and college papers, I’m here to tell you all the things I wish I knew when I was starting out.

First, you should know that A’s are attainable—just rare. Some departments have recommended (or even set-in-stone) grade averages: this means that the average mark for a certain course has to be, for instance, a 70. Even without those institutional guidelines or restrictions, A-level grades are meant to be reserved for a small minority of papers that go above and beyond in terms of content and execution. In a class of 50, the average professor or teaching assistant will likely award 5 A-range grades, with most of those being A minuses and very few (or perhaps zero) As or A-pluses.

So, while I can’t promise that these tips will guarantee an A grade, I can assure you that if you follow these steps, your marks will materially improve.

Follow the instructions

This sounds dumb, but you would be surprised at how many students do poorly (or even fail) because they simply do not follow directions. This is even more crucial at the college level, where professors often grade assignments according to strict rubrics. If the paper needs to be cited in a certain style, use that style; if it requires that you analyze two texts, don’t analyze only one. You will never do well on an assignment if the paper you submit does not adhere to the guidelines.

Attend class

Again, sounds basic, right? But this can make a huge difference to your grades. First, if you attend class and are an active participant, you’ll likely have a more in-depth understanding of the course material, which will be reflected in the quality of your work. Second, if your professor sees that you are serious about the course, they will likely be more inclined to be generous when marking your paper. Students love to gripe about marks being subjective; this is only true to a certain extent. Most TAs and professors have relatively consistent standards of what makes a C, B, or A paper. However, the difference between a B and a B+ can often be subjective: if the professor thinks of you as a committed, hard-working student, that could push your grade up a few points.

Go to office hours

Don’t be shy! Your professor or TA is literally being paid to help you during these hours, so use your resources. Stop by during office hours to ask questions about course materials and assignments, and even to get feedback on your outline or early drafts. Be polite and come prepared. Again, this will improve the quality of your work and help you to cultivate a relationship that may lead to slightly more generous grades.

Narrow your focus

One of the biggest mistakes that students make on papers, especially when they are starting out, is that they simply try to do too much. Don’t try to write a paper that will explain or solve a huge problem. You likely can’t develop a strong, convincing argument about a huge issue within a four-to-six page limit. By narrowing your focus to a manageable scope, you’ll be more likely to produce an strong paper.

Avoid generalizations

A-level papers rarely start out with “since the beginning of time….”Believe it or not, 80 per cent of undergraduate or college papers begin in this way. I don’t know why. These opening sentences are the bane of every professor’s existence. “Since the beginning of time, men and women have struggled to get along.” Well, maybe. But do you really have the research to back up this massive, general statement? Stick to specific, provable claims.

Proofread your work

Always, always leave some time to proofread your work and check your formatting. Nearly every grader will dock marks if your work is hard to understand or if it doesn’t follow your department’s standards. Again, this can be even stricter in college. When I taught college writing, I graded according to departmental rubrics that deducted 1 point per grammar error, up to 15 per cent, and 1 point per formatting error, up to 15 per cent. Some students lost a full 30 per cent of their grade in this way! Don’t be that student. Proofread, show your work to someone at the Writing Centre, do what you need to do to clean things up. This isn’t just a fussy school thing: in the professional world, people will judge your writing based on things like grammar and style.