BY TRACY COLLINS
By the time students hit their senior year in college, most of them can write an essay in their sleep. In fact, many of them actually do that. After a while essay writing can become automatic as students focus on hitting the right highlights on a topic and let everything else fall by the wayside. Practice makes perfect. Or it is just the experience that leads students to knowing what professors expect to see in the essays and giving them what they want. Of course, there is no universal template that can solve your college essay trouble forever. That would be a) too easy and b) will annihilate the whole meaning of essay writing which lays in development of skills and creativity. In fact, students who focus on content and forget about style, formatting and other details risk to sabotage their grade and send their essay right to the back of the grading curve.
Some professors may disagree, but there are some rules, or secrets, or whatever we will call them, that can melt any professor’s heart and get you a high grade for essay. While instructors naturally value quality content, they are also looking for tell-tale signs that students craft each essay carefully and adhere to the style and formatting standards.
Rule 1. Be Attentive to Guidelines
To understand what professors expect from your essay assignment it is worth to learn more about essay revision and grading process. Since class sizes and teaching styles can vary widely, it’s nearly impossible to know how many essays the average student writes over the course of their academic life. It’s reasonable to assume a single student writes well over 100 essays by the time they leave university. Their professors, on the other hand, will have graded thousands that year and will have thousands more to go. Therefore professors try to provide clear guidelines that will make grading process easier. Students are expected to follow these guidelines and show they value professor’s time and efforts.
Rule 2. Get Rid of Extra Text
With so many essays submitted, how can professors be expected to keep up? Even if they skim-read most of the essays, the time involved in processing such amount of papers is staggering. A recent Reddit discussion revealed that professors and their staff (usually TAs) do in fact read through every essay. One TA reported that he had gone through more than 2,000 essays a semester with the help of only two other TAs. So what do these graders look for? Usually instructors skim read student writing to grasp the adherence to guidelines and understanding of topic.
In fact, many professors agree that skim reading gives the ability to establish a grade while closer inspection determines the difference between a B and a B+. Therefore, it is a good idea to structure your essay so the key points are visible when skim reading and are clear enough and get the message across. Get rid of extra words and phrases, use clear constructions and stick to the point. Striking the right balance between the quality of your content and your style is often the key to a good grade.
Rule 3. Formatting Is Important!
Essay writing is not about formatting, of course, but it influences the first impression of your paper. If you think that if your essay has original idea and witty language constructions, nobody cares about the font size and margins – you are wrong. Teachers pay much attention to formatting when grading essays as it is an academic work and in case you are not assigned with the creative writing which allows more or less freedom you should stick to the standards. You’d better double check and ensure your essay formatting adheres to the guidelines put forth at the beginning of your class or to the standards set by the Modern Language Association (MLA). The example of basic essay formatting guidelines:
- One-inch page margins on all sides
- Double-spaced paragraphs
- Header placed one-half inch from the top of each page. This header should include the author’s last name and page number
- Single spaced list of the author’s name and the name of the professor, course title and the date of the paper on the first or title page
- References, notes or works cited page which begins on a separate page at the end of the paper
Note that students who manipulate font size or kerning in order to hit the page minimum risk to end up with poor grade and get to professor’s ‘blacklist’ even if the content of essay is impecable.
Rule 4. Mind Your Style
First and foremost, professors want to see the correct essay style and structure depending on the topic and essay type students have to tackle. This is the first thing professors notice so nailing it gets you off on the right foot. In many cases, the style meant to be used in the essay is laid out in the directions or has been established beforehand. If you’ve lost the original assignment or haven’t paid much attention to the guidelines, it may be possible to figure out which essay style and structure should be used based on characteristic features of essay type assigned. Here is a short prompt for you to differentiate between essay types.
Narrative essays are written in the first person and are meant to tell a story, typically your own one. Essay questions that want a narrative response will ask the student directly about their own experience. For example, typical narrative essay topic may sound like ‘The way your childhood influenced your approach to higher education’, ‘What was your most painful relationships lesson’ and other similar topics.
- Descriptive essays are just what they sound like – papers aim to describe a person, place or concept in details. Descriptive essay questions may vary, focusing on specific concepts such as describing the best study practices, or giving information on well-known personality as well as describing some procedures such as protecting your identity online. In each case you should keep in mind that a descriptive essay has to give the most detailed picture of the notion described.
- Expository essays lay out the facts in a balanced way. The assignment for expository essays may contain cue phrases such as ‘compare and contrast’, ‘describe the cause and effect relationship’ or ‘track the evolution of‘. Expository questions won’t ask you to take a side on an issue, simply to lay out each point of view or how cultural attitudes have changed on an issue over the years.
- Persuasive essays may also be known as argumentative essays. In this type of essay you should leave emotions out and base your arguments or views on the solid facts. Persuasive essay assignments will require writing about hotly charged topics such as gun rights, domestic spying or societal issues such as homelessness and civil rights.
Rule 5. Use Proper Language
Professors and staff grading essays are looking for signs that students understand the subject and are familiar enough with it to draw their own conclusions. Professors want to know students can speak clearly about the topic, substantiate any claims they make with relevant facts from current research or literature and apply that knowledge to create detailed arguments about the topic or cast an eye to the future. Achieving that level of clarity and eloquence means producing a well-written paper. An effective way to achieve that is by making smart use of language. The following list set phrases may come in handy:
- There have been dissenters to the view that …
- It might be (convincingly) argued that
- There are five main arguments that can be advanced to support …
- Although there has been relatively little research on [your topic], anecdotal evidence supports …
- The data appears / appear to suggest that
- On these grounds, we can argue that
These phrases can help steer and solidify your writing, but they should never be used to the point of excess. Using clichés and trite phrases throughout your essay won’t show an understanding of the material – it will show an ability to parrot what you’ve read or seen before.
Rule 6. Never Skip the Revision
Before you hit ‘Save’ and print the final version, check your essay thoroughly to make sure you’ve covered all the basics. Professors hate when you break the guidelines or submit the writing that reminds more of a draft than the polished final version of academic essay. The more time and efforts you spend on revision the less is your risk to miss out something important. It is a good idea for the students to find essay revision checklists on educational sites like EssayUniverse.org. Using such checklists a student will revise essay like a professor and will be sure that nothing important is missed out.
Writing a successful essay means balancing between meaning and format, adherence to strict guidelines and revealing creativity, proving your understanding of a topic and ability to defend your point of view. Students should try to impress the professors during the initial essay skim and show that they did their best to meet the guidelines. That will boost the chance to get a good grade and create a positive image of a diligent student.
Tracy Collins is a writing instructor, education enthusiast and the author of the site Essay Universe on academic essay writing.
In his introduction, Thomas Foster sets out for the reader reasons why the book was written, and why it might prove to be helpful to the reader of literature. How To Read Literature Like an English Professor is an instructional guide that hopes to enrich the reading experience by pointing out cues that make a work of literature what it is. The introduction is thus an overall summary of these cues, as well as an account of the techniques of interpretation and analysis employed by Professors and professional students of literature.
Foster opens the chapter by recalling a classroom experience where the students couldn't understand why and how he had reached a certain conclusion about a character in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1959). Foster's primary intent in referencing this text and its characters Mr. Lindner and Walter Lee Young is to show how many layers of meaning are often embedded in a text. Although A Raisin in the Sun is set in 20th century Chicago, the characters and plot of this modernist American play contain traces of a German legend that dates back to the 15th century (if not older). Such a connection is not apparent to Foster's students, however, which is why they are surprised when their Professor draws parallels to the Faust legend and bargains with the devil. Yet Foster argues that his theory is not unfounded, and in explaining the connections, demonstrates the complexity contained in a single literary work.
In light of such complexity literary analysis requires a certain amount of effort and training that is not immediately at hand to the beginner reader or student of literature. Foster explains this by arguing that a literary work has its own set of grammar or rules, much the same way that language itself has. The experienced reader or Professor has, over time, and through extensive reading, learnt to identify the codes and conventions and patterns that make up these rules. The way to learn to identify these cues is simply to practice - reading more and more works and becoming aware of the underlying principles that guide works of literature.
Foster distinguishes between the beginner reader and the experienced one by comparing their reading experience - the former reacts to the book or text on an affective level, also called the response level, where the reader reacts emotionally or instinctively to events, characters and development. The experienced reader on the other hand, in addition to experiencing the affective response to a work, also remains cognizant of other elements at play, asking questions such as "Where did that effect come from? Whom does this character resemble? Where have I seen this situation before?" (p xv, Introduction).
According to Foster command over three key features of literary works is what distinguishes the professional from the novice: memory, symbol and pattern. Memory involves recollection of previous works studies or read that might spur the reader to make connections between works, symbolism is a mantra that prevents the reader from taking things merely on face value, whilst identification of patterns within a work enable the reader to distance him/herself from the text even as they engage with it, to take a broader and clearer perspective of things.
In addition to these techniques, Foster explains his intention to further elucidate features of writing that would help the reader understand a text in a much deeper sense than he/she might otherwise have without prior knowledge of how literature works.
Foster's guide works on the premise that literature, like sciences or social sciences, requires a certain set of skills and 'training' in order to be best appreciated. While this impression is perhaps unsurprising from an academic point of view, How To Read, as the title suggests, is directed towards readers of literary works in general. It is not wholly clear who Foster's readers are - whether he intends the work to be used primarily by students across fields or anyone interested in picking up a book. This distinction is important, for it has implications on how one should regard literature, its role and purpose, or at least how the author regard the field.
The idea that one should "learn" how to read literature is not without its critics - Alan Jacobs, scholar of literature and literary critic has challenged the view that one has to develop a professionally trained eye in order to attain richer levels of reading experience. Author of The Pleasures of Reading in An Age of Distraction, Jacobs emphasizes the value of reading for one's own sake and pleasure - and seems to privilege the "affective" or "response level" of reading that Foster encourages readers to move beyond. The debate is complex, and not easily resolved, but it is significant for the reader of How To Read to understand the perspective and judgments that its author carries regarding the discipline of literature.
The opening of Foster's introduction - with a recollection of a classroom experience with students - is characteristic of the style the author has adopted throughout the work. The personal and directly engaging tone is undoubtedly deliberate, intending to fulfill the promise that the title carries of being a "lively and entertaining guide." Indeed reviewers and teachers have often focused on this quality of the writing in their praise for Foster's work - the jocular and informal style makes the text more accessible for the young student or reader.
Yet the informality or liveliness of the narrative voice cannot be said to apply to the work in its entirety - during analyses and explications of literary works and techniques Foster often presents arguments in a more formal manner, frequently employing literary jargon. How accessible the book truly is for its reader is thus largely contingent on the reader's own comfort in interacting with the text.
Foster's elucidation of the three key techniques that are important for meaningful literary analysis (memory, symbol, pattern) draws heavily on the theme of intertextuality. Intertextuality is used to refer to ways in which a text gains meaning by referencing or evoking other texts, what Foster calls "a dialogue" between works of literature. Often intertextual features work as subthemes or double narratives in a work. Knowingly or unwittingly writing is closely interconnected, and because of this network of literary production tools such as memory, symbolism and pattern can be applied to considerable effect. If one actively learns to keep in mind the texts read before and draw parallels whenever encountering a new work in addition to analyzing the material contained in the work itself, then it is possible to better understand what the text stands for and hone one's analytical skills.