How to get an A* instead of an A in your essays

We’ve all been there, it’s 11pm (or 5am for you lovers of all-nighters out there), you’ve worked hard to finish your essay. After long lulls of soul-searching for arguments, endless minutes of fastidious focus and wasteful wanderings around your room, library and mind…. you’ve finished! You even managed to write the hardest part of the essay – the paragraph before the conclusion – when your energy is sapped, your willpower gone and your only thoughts are of your bed, and reminding yourself never ever to choose such a horrible essay title again.

If you were to find yourself in the mind of most undergraduate, A-Level, or GCSE students’ heads after writing an essay, the story would probably end here. They would quickly close their books and hand in their brainchild as quickly as possible. This is a mistake.

In my opinion, the difference between a 1st and high 2:1, an A* and an A grade can be summarised in one slightly pretentious word: ‘finesse.’

Some people’s writing style naturally lends itself to copious amounts of it, but mine never did, so I had to learn it the hard way, through deciphering teachers’ comments of essays I wrote and revisiting work after receiving frustratingly low marks despite so much effort. Over time I managed to find a way to pick up the right approaches, having tried and tested different things.

I only realised I had cracked it months after submitting my final essay for my degree when a totally random guy from my university contacted me on Facebook with the following message: ‘I have a slightly odd favour to ask: I heard you’re great at writing essays. Is there any way you could give me some feedback on one of mine?’

All this to say, if I could do it, you definitely can, and much faster than I did. Whether you use them in exams, school coursework, or university essay assignments, learning from a young age to implement these 3 techniques into your essay writing routine at exactly the point when you think you have otherwise finished will almost certainly improve your grades:

Get in the habit of reading your essay with different eyes:

No, I’m not alluding to a kind of draconian torture technique, nor am I some 4-eyed monster. Rather, I’m talking of the two ways of reading. The first is what we do when we see an advert, or subtitles in a film: we read passively, without concentrating or processing. Though it may seem the opposite, this is actually highly useful for proof-reading your essay as you quickly go through your text, scanning it for any glaring errors in syntax, punctuation, spelling or argumentation. Let them glare at you until you get rid of them. Also, circle any paragraphs or sentences that would take you longer than 5 seconds to amend, then move on – you will come back to them in step 2. This has the benefit of saving your high focus exclusively for things that require it.

Focused reading – but only where absolutely necessary

The second type of reading – registering and analysing every word – should be saved only for any areas you have circled and crucially for the introduction and conclusion as well. Focused reading demands a lot of effort if you do it properly, and you should take time to ensure that all arguments are clear, fully nuanced, concise and answering the question in the best way possible. This is what ensures the top marks. If you are criticised by markers for failing in these things, it is simple: it means you either circled the wrong things whilst scanning in step 1, or didn’t take enough time on step 2.
I also cannot stress enough how important the structure and clarity of your introduction and conclusion is, not least because more often than not this is the only part of your essay that teachers/examiners actually read! (Going into detail on this is, however, beyond the scope of this blog post!)

Final checks:

Once you have completed steps 1 and 2, I always repeat step 1 to ensure all my changes have been done without silly mistakes, before re-reading a last time with the freshest eyes possible (a 10-minute break usually helps).
Here I double-check that all arguments are clear and respond to the question, that my introduction is engaging and my conclusion powerful.

Obviously, there is a lot more to a great essay than critical reading and checking, but I truly believe that 70% of students rush or avoid these final, yet essential, steps. It is also evident that under time conditions, following this advice exhaustively is hard if not impossible, but the more you can do, the better the chance you give yourself of a fantastic result. Achieving the best marks is in your hands!

Additional resources:

How to Plan and Develop a Great Essay
3 Tips for Better Essay Writing
Essay Structure

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