Writing – even academic writing – can be as much an art as a craft. How do professors and TA's assign paper grades? Graduate students and advanced undergraduates involved in extensive writing may be forgiven for wondering whether their papers have been arbitrarily graded. This article doesn’t address professors who indeed arbitrarily assign grades (see our related article on ‘how to deal with difficult professors’). The conditions can seem especially unclear for an A student who suddenly starts receiving B's and can't figure out how to write an A paper for a particular class or professor. Here are some thoughts on how to get your paper from a B to an A.
The difference between an A and B paper consists of excellence rather than competence. What does that mean? The syllabus or assignment outlines your professor’s expectations. Some may include a grading rubric that further clarifies relevant distinctions. If at all unclear, ask for clarity. You can’t meet standards you do not understand. Most professors’ grading rubrics will include some of these standard metrics:
Your professor rightfully expects correct grammar, punctuation, and usage in everything you write. With as many modern AI-assisted writing tools available, final submissions with more than a typo or two will deflate your grade. Your paper’s structure should advance your thesis in a logical order, guided by strong and clear topic sentences. If your professor specifies a style guide to abide by (for example Chicago, MLA, or APA), refer to the official guidebook for guidelines on spacing, headers, font size, and other formatting specifics. (See our guide on choosing a citation format.)
Thesis or argument
Choose a suitably ambitious scope for your paper. Regardless of the field, graduate students must understand themselves as researchers developing hypotheses and conducting experiments to advance their discipline. Students who earned top marks simply demonstrating understanding may struggle to adjust to these higher expectations. At the graduate level, that demonstration represents competence rather than mastery. One of the major distinctions of an A-worthy paper is how skillfully you present and defend an argument. Be certain to test your thesis and main points of argument for validity and persuasiveness, and remember to consider counterpoints. No paper built on flimsy foundations will earn high marks, no matter how well written or presented.
Your instructor will evaluate the depth and quality of your research. Your sources should be timely, relevant, and respected in the field. Thoroughly explore the topic and save yourself the trouble of backtracking by taking careful notes. If you haven’t used a reference manager to organize and annotate your research, try using one now. Petal is a cloud-native reference manager that enables you to upload, organize, and track your notes while you research. Remember to rephrase insights in your own words to avoid the unforgivable sin of plagiarism. Good research habits are vital. Use every tool at your disposal to streamline the process. (link to article on writing tools)
As you collect your references, annotate key sentences with brief synopses of their significance. Leave space in your annotations to expand on the most relevant points and note contrary evidence. You’re unlikely to get away with omitting relevant sources that don’t square with your thesis. Rather, note differences and demonstrate why your assertion stands; this works to strengthen your argument. Petal is a valuable research tool that can help you collect, discover, annotate, and synthesize your research.
When deciding which references to include, ask yourself the ‘so what?’ question and defend why each source deserves inclusion and how it contributes to your central idea. At the graduate level, it’s not enough to simply synthesize other scholars’ ideas. Superior papers will demonstrate thorough scholarship by creating logical, compelling, relevant, and original thoughts.
The final element of writing an A paper is passion. Excellent graduate-level writing is not a regurgitation of well-established facts within a domain. The real work of an A paper lies in your process of gathering knowledge and using it to generate new ideas. You’re much more likely to write an ‘A-worthy’ paper when writing about a topic that genuinely enthralls you. A little passion in your paper can go a long way. Your professor has likely read thousands of papers regarding her expertise; conveying passion or surprise in your writing can breathe fresh air into a well-studied topic.
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