The Secret to Acing Your College Papers

Why you can’t approach every assignment in the same way.

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What aspect of a college paper has the biggest effect on your grade? A strong thesis statement? A clear, well-organized structure? Well-researched support for your argument?

There isn’t one correct answer, because it depends entirely on the professor who’s grading the paper.

Some professors put all the weight on your writing style, while some only care about the substance of an argument. Some professors will dock insane amounts of points for minor typos. And, of course, we’ve all had the professor who seems to care about nothing but the paper’s length.

The single most important thing that you can do to get an A on a college paper is to understand your professor’s expectations and preferences.

There isn’t a universal, objective way to evaluate writing. To some degree, every professor has to be subjective when it comes to grading. The factors that each professor is looking for will always come down to their personal preferences in the end.

In order to get a good grade, it’s essential to understand exactly what these preferences are, and then to write a paper that conforms to those preferences.

When I was in undergrad, I had a professor who assigned weekly “response” papers: 3 pages describing what we thought of that week’s reading assignment.

For the first two weeks, I wrote standard college essays with a clear thesis, strong support, and a solid structure. They were good papers that I’m confident would have gotten As in most classes. But, both of them received Bs.

I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong, so I asked the professor if he could provide me with an example of a paper that had received an A. He was happy to oblige.

I was shocked by the example that my professor gave me. It was a rambling, incoherent mess. There was no structure. It seemed less like an essay and more like a list of unrelated, underdeveloped ideas.

It would have been easy for me to just scoff at the paper and continue writing as I had been. Instead, I studied the example and did my best to emulate its style in my next response paper. I ended up getting an A.

From there on out, every week I wrote a rambling, incoherent paper in the same style as my professor’s example. Every week I got an A.

I still think that my papers for that class were some of the worst writing I’ve ever done, at least by any technical standard. But, they were good writing in the sense that I was writing directly to my professor’s preferences. I learned what my professor was looking for, and that’s what I wrote.

Writing to an Audience

I know that a professor’s preferences can feel “unfair.” It can feel like “selling out” when you write a paper to match the professor’s expectations instead of writing the paper that you think would be best.

The truth is though, writing your paper with your professor’s expectations in mind is helping to teach you one of the most important “real world” writing skills: writing to an audience.

No piece of writing exists in a vacuum. Writing exists to be read, and effective writing takes its readers into account.

As a lawyer, I’ve written countless legal briefs and motions. My legal writing is often dense with statutes and case law. This is an effective way to persuade judges, who form the audience for my legal writing.

If I were to write an article with similarly dense case law on Medium, I’d probably lose half my readers by the end of the first paragraph. Instead, it’s important to use non-technical language that a layman can follow.

Whenever I start writing for a new platform or audience, the first thing I do is spend a few hours reading examples of successful writing. Before I even begin my own writing, I do my best to learn what the audience will be looking for.

How to Learn Your Professors Expectations

So how do you learn your what your professor is actually looking for in an essay?

The obvious places to start are the class syllabus and the assignment itself. Often professors will tell you exactly what they want out of an essay. Some professors even provide a rubric that breaks down every point they will assign.

The problem is, what the professor says they want out of an essay doesn’t always match what they’re actually looking for when they grade it. Also, some professors don’t provide any clear direction at all.

The best way to know for sure what your professor wants out of a paper is to ask them for an example of a previous paper that received an A.

Most professors are happy to provide you with an example. Many of them keep an entire collection of top papers for exactly this purpose.

If the professor doesn’t have any papers available, try turning to a TA or a student who has taken the class before.

Once you have an example, study its style and try your best to emulate it. Does the paper use a certain structure? How long is it? How often are facts cited and how much of the paper is devoted to the argument?

If you aren’t sure about something, visit the professor’s office hours and ask for clarification. Most professors will be more than happy to spend time diving into what they think makes a good paper.

Finally, if your class has multiple papers, try to learn from the feedback on your previous papers. Some professors provide better feedback than others, but it's always worth at least trying to understand the points they make.

Writing in college is just like writing in the “real world.” You can’t use the same writing style for every situation. The most important thing that you can do to get an A is to learn what your professor wants, and then write a paper that matches those expectations, even when it doesn’t match your own writing preferences.

Written by

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more.

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