Your 8 point action plan for a first class essay grade

How to boost your essay grade in 8 steps

Are you always a few marks short of a first class grade?

“I felt like I worked my arse off for that assignment. But in the end I got 62%. No matter how hard I work, I never quite hit a 1st.  What am I doing wrong?”

There are so many students are in this boat.  Pushing your mark from a 2:1 grade to 1st class is about finding those extra points of excellence.  If, no matter how hard you work, you’re never quite hitting 70%, why not look back over your past essays and ask yourself honestly if you’re doing all of these things:

1. Make sure you understand the question

There are two main ways students commonly misunderstand the question set for them.

First, you can go wrong by simply not reading the question properly.  Common mistakes students make include:

  • Writing everything they know about the topic rather than answering the question
  • Not paying attention to any restrictions on the scope of the question (for example, time periods, jurisdiction or other specifics)


‘Has Radmacher v Granatino affected the enforceability of pre nup agreements in the UK? Discuss’.

This question calls for:

  • Brief explanation of what is meant by a pre nup agreement
  • Brief explanation of their unenforceability
  • Key points from Radmacher v Granatino case
  • Explaination of how these key points have affected the law as it stood previously
  • Mention how the area is undergoing reform

The important limitations in this question are:

Jurisdiction: the question does not call for any detail on pre nups in other countries beyond a brief mention such as ‘unlike the Netherlands where pre nups are binding…’.

Affect on enforceability: the question does not call for a detailed breakdown of what might be included in a pre nup, beyond anything that is specifically relevant to the changes brought about by the Radmacher case.  The fact that a particular type of property has been mentioned in the Radmacher case does not warrant the topic being included in the essay, because the essay should specifically be examining the change between the old position and the new post-Radmacher position.

More clues…

Other clues on what is expected of  you come from the wording of the question – for example, if your tutor asks you to discuss an issue, you are expected to explain the issue, then give two or more sides of the issue and any implications.  You can find out more about common words used in essay questions on this page (scroll down to the lower half) : Types of essay

Secondly, there are many different essay types and each require different things.  If you miss something that’s required by the type of essay you’ll lose marks. Use the ‘Types of essay‘ guide to understand what exactly you are being asked to do.

2. Use your marking scheme

Most unis issue a marking scheme with each assignment.  This is a recipe for how to get a higher mark so scrutinise it carefully before you start and then review your essay against the scheme after you’re done.  There is usually an assessment handbook too, which contains more general advice on achieving the different grade bands.

3. Avoid going off on a tangent

There will be no irrelevant material in a first class essay.  The way to avoid this is, as you’re writing, constantly revisit the question and ask yourself why you need each sentence to answer it.  Make sure you spell out to the reader exactly how each part of your essay answers the question.


Assignment: “A little inaccuracy saves a world of explanation.” C.E.Ayers – How far do you agree with this statement? One of your paragraphs might read:

“Punctuation can significantly change the meaning of a sentence.  A frequently cited example is:

‘Woman without her man is nothing.’

This has the meaning that if a woman does not have her man, then she is nothing. But now let’s add some punctuation.

‘Woman; without her, man is nothing.’

The meaning is now the opposite. The sentence says that men are nothing without women.

The point here is in favour of being accurate and disagreeing with the statement in the essay question.  But you now need to explain how your point is relevant to the essay question.  You might say

“Taking the time to accurately punctuate saves having to explain and clarify the meaning of the words used later.  So this example illustrates that inaccuracy can in fact result in “a world of explanation” being necessary, rather than reduce the need for it.

4. Be original and don’t use too many quotes

The mark of first class work is originality. This means ideas of your own that are outside of the material you’ve been asked to read.  You need to support these with strong arguments or citations to the material that led you to these conclusions, though – your opinion on its own doesn’t count for much!

You won’t get a higher grade if all you do is quote other peoples’ words and material, especially if your quoting (or paraphrasing) is particularly excessive and comes over as a regurgitation of your reading material.  Cubing can sometimes be useful to help generate new ideas around a particular topic.

Cubing – how to

Take the topic and follow these steps:

  • describe the topic
  • compare the topic to other things or topics
  • associate the topic
  • analyse the topic
  • apply the topic; and
  • argue the topic.

These should help you come up with new ways of thinking about what you’re writing about.

5. Get your referencing right

Here, we’re not just talking about citations. Go through this referencing checklist and make sure you’re ticking off every point.

  • Referencing STYLE: Have you used the correct style specified for your course? For example, Harvard, Oxford, OSCOLA, APA…
  • Referencing FORMATTING:  Have you formatted the referencing in the essay and bibliography properly? Check your university guide – there are many variations of the most common styles, especially Harvard.
  • Referencing QUALITY: Have you used quality sources that are considered reliable such as journals and leading text books? For law assignments, have you used primary sources as authority when they are available?
  • Referencing QUANTITY: Have you used a good number of references within your essay to support your arguments? For most essays, relying on just 1 or 2 sources won’t be enough and high standard essays demonstrate that the student has conducted plenty of research.
  • Referencing RECENCY: Where appropriate, are your references up to date? For example, don’t use the 2004 edition of a text book if there’s a 2012 edition out!
  • Referencing AUTHENTICITY: Are your references authentic? For example, if you find a reference to a journal within one of your textbooks, don’t cite that journal as if you have a copy. Instead, refer to the journal as being cited in the book (each referencing style has a way to present this so check your referencing guide).
  • Referencing AUTHORITY: Have you provided adequate authority for all of the arguments you have presented? Even if they are original and your own opinion, you need to provide citations to material that helped you reach a particular conclusion.

6. Avoid generalities

Sweeping generalities are clear signs that you don’t know your stuff, and they really irritate lecturers.  Avoid using statements like this:

For statements like: ‘It has been established that…’, you can only use them if you back them up with a credible source that genuinely shows that a particular point has been established. If you can’t find such a source, try and use something such as ‘one possible line of thought is…’ or ‘one possibility is…’ instead.

7. Make sure you’ve explicitly answered the question.

So many students do a fantastic job of presenting very strong arguments , conclusive evidence and overall a really impressive essay – but they don’t tie what they’ve written back to the question.

For example, if the question is “Do we value only what we struggle for?”, you can present all the evidence you like for how we do and don’t only value what we struggle for but unless you reach a conclusion, you’ve not answered the question.  Make sure you’ve got a paragraph that starts something like, “In conclusion, it seems we do tend to only value what we struggle for because (summarise the strongest arguments or evidence)”.

8. Present your work impeccably

Presentation includes spelling, grammar, punctuation, choice of words, tone, flow, signposting, a cover sheet and index where you have been asked to provide one, and often referencing.  There are three points here.

First, your university will usually reserve a certain amount of marks for presentation, often about 5%. These are the easiest marks out of your whole assignment to pick up, so take extra care not to lose them.

Secondly, the reality is that your presentation often influences far your grade far beyond the 5% allocated.

“The marking scheme we were provided with to grade our students’ essays included a note on the final grade to award.  Did the essay feel like a 2:1 or a 1st? If a student’s paper was a few marks off a grade band, up or down, we were entitled to move that essay into the grade band where we felt it should sit” – Associate Lecturer.

A lot of the ‘feel’ of the paper comes from presentation.  To get the best grades, your presentation needs to be impeccable.

Third, you might have the best arguments in the world, but it’s possible your presentation could be weakening them.  Punctuation and word choice are two examples that can make an enormous difference to the strength of your writing.  If in doubt, consider using a professional service to tidy up your writing.