On Writing College Essays: Suggestions for Student Writers from a Traumatized Professor

Michael Amey

I hate grading, and I’m not alone in my aversion. Indeed, while I caution my students against offering up universal “truisms” in their essays, I think I can safely offer up one truism – all of my colleagues in the English department detest grading too.  We resent the mind-numbing task of untangling bad syntax, the desperate search for missing theses and topic sentences, and the endless scrolling up and down the page to check if the jumbled list of sources in the Works Cited page – assuming a Works Cited page exists – bears any relationship at all to the citations in the essay – assuming any citations exist.  We seethe when what we took for a good, or even mediocre, essay turns out to be plagiarized.  After all, the time, we spent reading material that our students told us they wrote, but that was in fact written by some nameless hack on the internet, is time we’ll never get back.  We’ve been robbed!  Perhaps the greatest insult of all, however, comes at the end of the semester, when, after hours teaching and grading, our students return to haggle with us, with statements like, “But I worked really hard,” and “I attended all of the classes” and “Could you raise my grade five points so that I can have a B instead off a C?”  This last minute bargaining reveals that these students have misunderstood the entire purpose of attending our classes and of the grades they earn.  To state the obvious – the purpose of attending classes is to learn something and the grades merely indicate how well each student has demonstrated his or her acquisition of what is being taught. So, the entire process of grading is, for many teachers, traumatizing, demoralizing and exhausting.

I’ve shown you the dark side of grading; the reason why your instructors move in a fugue of depression in the last weeks of the semester.  To be clear, though, not all grading is like this.  Sometimes, rarely, we receive an essay so polished, so thought provoking and original that we sit there wishing that we had written it.  Often we share our delight over these essays, just as we commiserate over the poorly written ones.  The problem, though, is that by the time we’ve read over a hundred research essays that include phrases like “Since the dawn of time…” and “Webster’s Dictionary defines racism as…” we may be too burnt out to appreciate fully the gift of brilliant writing that a handful of students have given us.

So, here is the thing – I can either accept the status quo and acknowledge that my students and I are going to remain frustrated with each other and with the essays that they have to write and that I have to grade, or I can attempt to help as many students as are willing to work (seriously work) with me become the kinds of writers that I strive to be.  That is, of course, the entire reason why I teach, but sometimes that fact gets lost in the fatigue of the semester.  So with that in mind, I’m going to do my best to set out here a very basic, and, by necessity, incomplete summary of what you need to know about essays and how I grade them.  My hope is that this summary will provide you with a starting point for better writing in my classes, and perhaps other people’s classes.  With that in mind, I have broken this down into categories so that you can easily return to the points most relevant to you.

Grading:

To parody Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that grades are a quintessential part of an education.  Actually, what I just wrote isn’t true – author Alfie Kohn has written at length about how grading is actually detrimental to the whole process of education.  I happen to agree with much of what he says, and would love to find another way to provide feedback to my students on their progress, but the college I teach at insists that at the end of each semester I enter a letter grade indicating my assessment of the work completed by each of my students.  If I must grade, and apparently I must, then I need to be as ethical as possible in my grading, and you, as the recipients of those grades have the right to know what I’m grading and what I am NOT grading.

Let’s begin with two of the nots:

I’m not grading you as a person.  How I feel about you does not determine the grade you receive from me.  Students have, at various times, suggested that only students I like get good grades.  It’s true that I like many of the students who earn As in my classes, but my detractors have reversed the order of things.  I don’t typically have any opinion about my students when I first meet them.  Over time, though some students invest themselves in the hard work of learning, while others do not.  The students who work hard, who see me after class to talk about ideas, and who come brimming with their own ideas are more likely to earn good grades, and, because I enjoy working with  these students, frequently, by the end of the semester, I like them.  They earned their As, and because they earned their As I like them.  After all, they’ve demonstrated an interest in the things that interest me.  That said, I  have had students whom I have liked very much who have earned low grades, and I have had students of whom I have not been particularly fond earn high grades.

I’m not grading your effort. Effort is something I cannot see, so I can’t evaluate it.  You may be putting in twice as much time writing your essays as another classmate, and you may still earn a lower grade.  The other student may have an advantage over you in that he or she speaks English as a first language, has attended an excellent school, or has spent, from an early age, a great deal of time reading and writing, thus gaining the skills that are most valuable in my classroom.  Perhaps unlike you, he or she may also not be burdened with a fulltime job or a family.  It’s also possible that you might have things going on in your life that make school, at this particular moment, more difficult.  I can sympathize with all of the reasons why you may be hustling more and may not be achieving the same results as your more privileged classmate, but I’m not in a position to evaluate how hard you are trying.

So, what am I grading?

I’m grading the work you produced.  This is the only thing I can assess with any competency.  I can evaluate the formatting of your essay, the structure of your sentences and paragraphs, the validity of your arguments, the reliability of your sources, the cohesion of your paragraphs, the accuracy and precision of your diction; nothing outside of this domain of your writing is accessible to me.

When I grade I choose, for the most part, to look at each essay holistically, which is why I avoid, with rare exceptions, rubrics.  I have used rubrics as a high school teacher to encourage students to think about the individual components that go into the making of an essay, but the problem I have with using rubrics at a college level is that rubrics don’t accurately reflect the unity of the essays being graded.  How, for example, can I separate grammar and syntax from the content of the essay?  Is an essay that has flawless grammar and syntax but is devoid of meaningful content better or worse than an essay that is incomprehensible but that may contain a unique position?  Rather than parse these differnces, I respond to each essay as a cohesive, unified work, where formatting, grammar, syntax, evidence, transitions, and the introduction and thesis statement are intertwined.

Grades:

A – As are earned by essays that are exceptionally well written.  In other words, it’s not enough for an essay to have few or no grammatical, syntactical or formatting errors.  It’s also not enough for it be carefully researched with all of the research appropriately documented.  All of these things certainly belong in an A essay, but, in addition, an A essay must be original in what it says and how it says it.  A essays are focused, nuanced and thought provoking, and convey complex ideas clearly and succinctly.

As are, by definition, rare, but that doesn’t mean you should abandon hope of earning one!  I don’t grade on a curve, or have a specific number of As (or Fs) that I award.  In theory it is possible for an entire class to be awarded As, and, in fact, in some of my upper-level literature classes a majority of the students do earn As.  I should point out here that that is more likely in upper-level courses because: 1) students in those courses have elected to take those courses and are often already gifted readers and writers, and 2) students in those courses have had to rise up through more basic English courses, and thus have developed the skills necessary for doing well.

B – Bs are awarded to essays that have few or no grammatical, syntactical or formatting errors, that are well organized and convey complex ideas clearly and succinctly, and that are carefully researched with all of the research appropriately documented.  When I’m reading a B essay I can focus on the ideas contained in the essay without having to spend much, if any, time struggling with the language employed by the writer.  What differentiates a B from an A is most frequently the issue of originality.

C – C essays are deficient either in the ideas being conveyed, or in their mechanics, structure or formatting.  I often have to pause in the midst of reading a C essay to make comments on incorrect grammar, awkwardly worded sentences, incorrect word usage, misspelled words or incorrectly or inadequately cited sources. This constant disruption means that I cannot focus on the ideas that the writer is trying to convey.  Additionally, C essays often lack a clear focus or purpose, and the ideas expressed may not be particularly insightful or original.

D – D essays have even more pronounced problems than C essays and frequently do not match the requirements of the assignment.  For example, analytical literary essays that do not quote from the primary text (the play, the novel, etcetera) being discussed automatically earn Ds. Similarly, a student who writes only three pages out of a four-page assignment is likely to earn a D.  D essays are also frequently so vague in their focus as to be virtually meaningless.  For example, I have had students write five-page essays entitled “Technology”.  These students frequently waffle on about how technology has “infinitely” improved our lives.  The problem with such an essay, of course, is the scope of the topic.  Technology can include, to name a few things, automated cars, medical technology, electronic security systems, gaming consoles, government surveillance systems, smart homes, smart phones, fitbits, genetic modification, the atomic bomb and the internet.  What could any student possibly say in five pages about this topic that would be meaningful?

F – Fs occur when the submitted work is so poorly written that it either does not meet the requirements of the assignment at all or is nearly indecipherable.

Plagiarism

I’ve already stated that what I’m grading is the work you have produced.  Both the language and the ideas must be yours in order for it to merit a grade. I consider any attempt to pass off the work of somebody else as your own to be a form of theft.  Students who plagiarize are obviously robbing the person who originally thought up and wrote down the material being plagiarized, but, beyond that, they are stealing my time, and because the time I spent looking at what they submitted takes away from the time I might have spent looking at other students’ writing, they are also robbing their classmates.  Perhaps most importantly, though, they are stealing from themselves.  After all, they have paid to learn how to become academic writers and that investment is squandered when they don’t take the opportunity to practice writing.  With that in mind, whenever I detect plagiarism, I award zero points to that essay and I don’t allow the writer to make up those points.  If a student plagiarizes a second time, that student has demonstrated that he or she has no interest learning how to write and so I have no choice but to give that student an F for the semester.

I want to make clear that any plagiarism, no matter how limited it might be, will result in an F.  The following examples from actual essays should demonstrate the different types of plagiarism that occur.

This example comes from a student whom I like very much, and whose essay, for the most part, was not plagiarized.

Student’s essay:

The homoerotic undertones of Antonio and Bassanio’s friendship and interactions can be easily analyzed when examining the dedication and declarations of love by Antonio, because he does not have a heterosexual romantic relationship to counteract against his love for Bassanio.

This website includes this passage:

https://sites.dartmouth.edu/exploratoryshakespeare/2015/07/14/bassanios-sexuality/

The homoerotic undertone of Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship is easily discussed by analyzing the dedication and declarations of love by Antonio because he does not have a heterosexual romantic relationship to counteract against his love for Bassanio.

Notice that this student did make changes to the material being used.  Those superficial changes, however, did not make this a paraphrase or summary of the original material, and even had the student radically altered the language, the student would have still been guilty of plagiarizing because the ideas being expressed belong to the write of the webpage.

These examples come from another student’s essay.

Student’s essay:

“According an online study by psychology today on Science and technology ‘most people with prolonged isolation can result in sensory deprivation and mental illness, high blood pressure and venerability to infection.'”

At first glance this may not appear to be plagiarism.  After all, the student has put the borrowed material in quotation marks and has acknowledged that the material comes from an online study.  The student, however, has failed to cite the source of the study.  No author or title is provided and nothing is listed in the Works Cited page, so this is plagiarism.

Student’s essay:

Throughout the story isolation because of technology, leads to little human interaction and an over reliance on machines.

This website includes this passage:

https://straigar.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/the-machine-stops-analysis/

Throughout the story isolation because of technology leads little human interaction and an over reliance on machines.

In this case the plagiarism of this sentence is verbatim.  The student hadn’t copied material verbatim from the website throughout the essay, but this small, single infraction was sufficient to warrant the student receiving zero points for the essay.

You shall not paste

Although most plagiarism involves students copying and pasting chunks of writing from the internet, there have also been cases of plagiarism where students get somebody to write their essays for them.  Obviously these cases are more difficult to prove, but my policy is that if a student cannot demonstrate his or her ability to write at the level indicated by the essay he or she has submitted, then the essay is plagiarized.  Furthermore, if a student is unfamiliar with the argument presented in the essay he or she submitted, or if the student is unable to define words that he or she allegedly wrote, then the essay  is plagiarized.  Two real examples will illustrate this point.  One of my students wrote an essay mentioning the Tequila Party.  I had never heard of the Tequila Party.  It turns out, neither had the student who had “written” the essay.  That student received an F for the essay and failed the course.  Another student submitted an essay on abortion.  The quality of writing in the essay seemed substantially better than the quality of writing the student was able to produce in class, which immediately made me suspicious.  When I asked the student about the submitted essay, the student correctly identified the topic of the essay as being abortion.  Unfortunately, the student thought that the essay was making a pro-life argument when, in reality, the essay was making a pro-choice argument.  This case of plagiarism also resulted in the student earning an F for the semester.

I have provided these examples to drive home the point that no plagiarism is permissible, and that what appear to be rather small violations of the academic honesty code will have a huge impact on the grade of the student caught plagiarizing.

What I Look at in an Essay:

I want to give you a broader idea of everything I look at when I’m reading a student’s essay.  I consider the four following areas:

  • Formatting – Formatting includes what identifying information you have in your essay and where you put it, where you place your title, what font and font size you use, where you put your page numbers, how you space lines and indent paragraphs, and how you quote sources and cite them. There are many different ways to format your essay or report depending on which discipline you are writing in. Essays for English are formatted according to MLA (Modern Language Association) rules.  The format of your essay is the first thing your teacher will see, and he or she will immediately form an impression about your essay based on that.

Here are a few quick guidelines for MLA formatting:

  1. Everything needs to be in Times New Roman, 12 point font.
  2. The essay should be double spaced.
  3. In the top right-hand corner of each page should be a page number preceded by the last name of the author, like this: Johnson 5.
  4. The following information needs to be include in the top left-hand corner of the first page:

    Student’s Name

    Professor’s Name (always give your instructor the title of professor, not Mr. Ms. or Dr.)

    The name of the class (i.e. ENG 112, ENG 125, etcetera)

    The date (the date should be formatted like this 10 May 2017)

  5. Underneath the information listed above should be the title of your essay. The title needs to be centered, and needs to have the initial letter of each noun, verb, adjective and adverb capitalized.  The title should NOT be bolded, underlines or, unless there is a quote in the title, in quotation marks.
  6. Titles should have two parts. The first part should be a hook that captures the attention of the reader, and the second part should indicate more directly the focus of the essay.  This is common practice in academic writing.  Consider the following examples from published pieces:

    Just Walk on By:

    A Black Man Ponders His Power to Alter Public Space

    The New Jim Crow:

    Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

    Whipping Girl:

    A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity

  7. The initial line of each paragraph needs to be indented using the tab button.
  8. Quoted material must be in quotation marks, and all material borrowed from other sources must be cited using the MLA in text citation method.
  9. A Works Cited page must be on a new page from the rest of essay and must have sources listed in alphabetic order, either by the name of the author, or, if the author’s name is not available, by the title of the source. Sources need to be left justified and sources that are longer than one line need to be set up with hanging indentation.
  • Mechanics – Mechanics refers to grammar, syntax (aka sentence structure), and punctuation. Having lots of mechanical problems can be really distracting for your instructor, and your ideas might not receive the attention they deserve simply because the instructor is trying to untangle a poorly worded sentence.  Here are a few small rules to keep in mind:
  1. English sentences require a subject and a predicate. The subject consists of a noun phrase and is the object, person, idea, whatever that is being described or is doing somethingThe predicate is the verb phrase that tells you about the subject.  Consider this sentence:

    “The Handmaid’s Tale explores how religion can be manipulated to disenfranchise women.”

    The phrase “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the subject, while “explores how religion can be manipulated to disenfranchise women” is the predicate.

    Here is an example of a student’s sentence where the subject is missing:

    “Around 1981 Nintendo released Donkey Kong featuring a character named the Jumpman. Popularly known as Mario.”

    This is an example of a sentence fragment. This sentence fragment could be fixed by writing, “Today Jumpman is popularly known as Mario.”

    I think it’s worth noting that Spanish speakers are perhaps more likely to leave off the subject in a sentence because in Spanish the subject of a sentence can be left out.  The English phrase, “I went to the hospital,” can be translated into Spanish as, “Fui al hospital.”   The pronoun, “Yo,” has been entirely left off of the sentence.

  2. When a comma is used to join two independent clauses this is called a comma splice. Independent clauses are clauses that can be sentences on their own.  Consider these two independent clauses:

    “Mr. Collins is not in love with Elizabeth Bennet.”

    “He is offering her financial security.”

    Independent clauses can be joined using a comma and a coordinating conjunction or by using a semicolon:

    “Mr. Collins is not in love with Elizabeth Bennet, but he is offering her financial security.”

  3. Apostrophes serve two purposes:  they indicate possessive nouns (“The student’s essay”) or they indicate that something has been removed. (“She’s going to the store.”  “Don’t talk that way to me.”)

Students frequently misuse apostrophes.  One common mistake is demonstrated in this sentence:

“The Moral Majority came to power with President Reagan in the 80’s.”

This sentence should actually be written:

“The Moral Majority came to power with President Reagan in the ‘80s.”

The point here is that the apostrophe should not go between the zero and s, because nothing has been removed from there and the ‘80s is not a possessive noun.  An apostrophe should, however, go before the 8 to indicate that the 19 has been removed.

  • Voice – Voice refers to the vocabulary and sentence structure the writer uses to convey who he or she is and to convey something about the nature of the communication occurring in the writing.  An email to a friend, for example, would be less formal and more “chatty” than a letter to a potential employer.  Academic writing needs to be more formal, but also needs to retain a personal aspect.  The following guidelines will help you develop a scholarly writer’s voice:
  1. Avoid euphemisms (i.e. replace “passed away” with “died”; replace “slept with” with “had sex with” ), slang (i.e. replace “cops” with “law enforcement” or “police officers”; replace “kids” with “children”; replace “cool” with “popular”; replace “guts” with “courage”), abbreviations (eliminate “i.e.”, “vs.” and “etc.”) and clichés (i.e. remove “through the roof”; “tons of opportunities”; “avoid like the plague”).
  2. Be aware of the denotation (dictionary definition) and connotation (emotional baggage) of the words you use and select words that precisely convey your meaning. Consider, for example, the difference between the phrases “illegal aliens” and “undocumented immigrants”.  Both phrases refer to the same demography, but these phrases have different connotations and suggest the writer’s political position on the issue of immigration.  Here’s another example: “rape victim” versus “rape survivor”.  The first term suggests that the person who was raped has no agency and is passive – the recipient of an act; the second term suggests that the person does have agency and has acted by surviving.
  3. Avoid entirely the second person pronoun (you). This pronoun makes your essay sound too chatty or too preachy.  You will have noticed that I’m using “you” throughout this post, but that’s intentional – this post is meant to be instructional for you the reader and, thus, directly addresses you.
  4. Limit usage of the first person pronoun (I). You should avoid phrases like “I personally believe…” or, even worse, “Me, personally, I believe…”. There are several problems with these phrases.  First, the word “personally” is redundant.  If you wrote “I” we assume that it is personal statement.  Secondly, the reader assumes that you believe everything you’ve written in your essay.  You wrote it, so you must think it’s true.  You don’t need to say you believe it.  There are a few times when I do condone the use of I in academic writing.  These occasions would include:
    • recounting a personal anecdote that exemplifies a point you are trying to make or that establishes your personal expertise in the field being discussed (i.e. “As a trans woman serving in the U.S. army I have faced a significant amount of hostility from fellow soldiers and, more alarmingly, from my superiors.”)
    • disagreeing with common wisdom or with an expert in the area being discussed (i.e. “Howard Bloom and other literary critics have argued that Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is clearly anti-Semitic, but I am going to contend that while characters within the play do express anti-Semitic opinions, Shakespeare makes Shylock a fully human and fully sympathetic character.”)
  5. Be brief and succinct. Students occasionally think that the best way to impress their instructors is by writing long sentences or by using unnecessarily complicated language.  Your goal, though, is to express your ideas as quickly and as clearly as possible.  Sometimes, in order to accurately and comprehensively conveying your meaning, you may have to resort to longer sentences and technical terms like liminal, discourse, epistemology and hegemony.  That’s fine.  Just make sure your sentences make sense and that you know what those terms mean before you use them.
  • Content – Content refers to the ideas expressed by the writer. The type of content you include depends on what you are writing.  Lab reports for science courses, for example, will consist of your observations and, possibly, hypotheses and conclusions.  History instructors may ask you to write a critical book review of a secondary text.  In a critical book review the writer briefly describes the book in question and then offers his or her opinion of the book.  English professors may ask for a range of different types of essays, like descriptive essays, persuasive essays and “This I Believe” essays.  Most of the essays I assign, however, are going either to be analytic essays or research essays.

Analytic essays are more difficult to write than critical book reviews, but they are also a better indicator of the writer’s ability to reason and make arguments, and they are more interesting to read.  If you were writing an analysis of Pride and Prejudice you would need to identify a key idea that you wanted to explore in the novel.  You would make an argument about that idea, and you would find evidence (passages from the book) to support your thesis.  For example, you could argue something like this:  In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen subverts Regency era social conventions by having Elizabeth Bennet marry above her social status.  Your job now would be to retrace your way through the novel looking for passages that support this contention.

Research essays require writers to investigate a topic and then make an argument concerning that topic.  Notice that it is not enough to simply conduct research and report what you’ve discovered.  You need to balance the information you have uncovered through your research with the meaning or interpretation that you then give to that information.  Information is the data that you derive from your research.  An essay that is information heavy reads like an encyclopedia entry.  There are plenty of facts, but the facts don’t connect with either the reader or, it would appear, the writer.  The reader leaves the essay shrugging her shoulders saying, “Okay, I now know about the breeding habits of the platypus, but who cares?”  Meaning is the interpretation you give information.   Although it happens less frequently, it is possible to have an essay that is meaning heavy.  A meaning heavy essay reads like an opinion editorial.  The writer cherry picks one or two “facts” and uses them to spin off any meaning he or she feels like.  With that in mind, let me give you a couple of examples from historians:

  1. Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire relies on evidence that Gibbon gleaned from primary sources to support the contention that the Christian doctrine of the afterlife undermined the civic duty of Romans.
  2. In The Trial of the Templars, Malcolm Barber looks at primary sources, and what happened in countries where the Templars were not put on trial to suggest that the King of France was motivated, in part, by his desire to acquire the wealth accumulated by the Templars.

Here are some rather obvious topics that you could work with:

  1. The rejection of climate change science by a significant portion of American society is motivated more by economic concerns than by any flaws in the science.
  2. Transphobia, the fear of trans people, stems from an anxiety acceptance of gender fluidity would undermine traditional sex/gender roles.
  3. The distrust that some academics express towards Wikipedia as a source of knowledge has less to do with the accuracy of Wikipedia, and more to do with concerns that, because Wikipedia is free and widely accessible, it will displace them as the gatekeepers of knowledge.
  4. Free trade agreements, although they hurt certain demographics in the short term, are good for the economies of all countries involved in the long term.
  5. Globalization and the power of massive international corporations have undermined the very concept of the nation state.
  6. The continual demand for high stakes standardized testing is driven less by concerns about slipping educational standards in the United States, and more by the lobbying of lawmakers by companies that profit off of these exams.
  7. Providing laptops and tablets to middle school and high school students undermines learning.
  8. Providing laptops and tablets to middle school and high school students ensures that even students from low income families will learn skills that are absolutely necessary to succeeding in our digital economy.

Any of these topics can be researched and then argued about.  There are a nearly infinite number of similarly interesting topics that could form the basis for a successful research topic.  Your job is to find a topic that interests you.

I hope that this overview has clarified what I’m looking for when I grade essays and has given you ideas for how to improve your writing.  Good luck!

Author: mdamey

I am an English professor with expertise in medieval and modern retellings of the stories of King Arthur. I've taught high school and university courses over a a range of topics including Utopian and Dystopian fiction, Harry Potter, Science Fiction and Fantasy literature.

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