During my first three years at University I became accustomed to seeing people who seemed to put in less work than me, and yet achieved higher marks.
However, I am happy to tell you that there are things you can do to make your hard work worth that little bit extra, and to remove any excuse which the marker has to deduct points from your final grade. Remember that your marker could be looking through dozens of papers, and when confronted with faults which can only be judged subjectively the risk of the marker judging you harshly is increased tremendously.
In my final year, when I looked into the marking process and reviewed my feedback from previous years, I realised that I had been missing out on a large number of marks all these years. I publish these today in the hope that you also don’t miss out.
Don’t start with the largest source. Start with the most recent:
I found it very tempting to always start with the largest and most comprehensive academic source. I hoped to get it out of the way and get a wide overview from the start. However, one tutor advised me to start with the most recent source instead for one simple reason:
–it could inform you of the most recent schools of thought and trends in that particular area.
Even a small journal article can give you an overview of the opinions which have previous been put forward on the subject as well as a key list of sources in its bibliography. Since it is smaller than the comprehensive source it can also give you an simpler idea of the timeline of academic progression in your topic in a shorter period of time.
It also means that you can be more selective when studying the comprehensive source. Rather than trying to absorb all the information which you will then pic and chose from later, you can look for information of particular aspects of your topic.
Have an “outsider” take a look:
By an “outsider” I mean someone who does not study your subject. The primary value in being reviewed by such a person is that they will not feel bound up by the specific criteria of excellence in your particular subject.
Instead they can focus on other things which can win or lose you marks such as spelling, grammar, the logical flow of the essay, and how easy it is to understand the your central argument. If a non-expert can easily track the flow of your argument then an expert marker certainly will.
Also, if you make the flow of the argument and presentation of evidence easy to track then your marker will be very grateful. Bear in mind that they could be marking submitted projects from dozens of students in a week.
Have an “insider” take a look:
On the flip side an “insider” (someone who does the same subject) can provide some helpful insight on the specific criteria which can influence grades specifically in your topic. I arranged on a number of occasions to review someone’s’ essay in exchange for them reviewing mine. Ideally ask someone who is working on a different area to yourself so that neither of you are tempted to copy.
Some of the best ideas I received on essays came from other students (including non-history students) who could suggest useful insights because they were not so invested in my specific topic and could examine it from a simpler viewpoint.
Look for essay assistance on campus:
It was not until the final year of my undergraduate degree that I paid attention to the memos at the start of the year from the faculty manager. Far down the page he mentioned the services of a “Literary Fellow” for the department 3 days a week. After further inquiry, I realised that this “Literary Fellow” was a virtual miracle worker for those like me who work hard on research, but found the essay writing process exhausting and only saw weak results which did not reflect the measure of the work put into the essay.
In exchange for my hard work, I finally found someone who would point me in the right direction. I made an appointment several weeks in advance, because of the demands on the literary fellow’s time, and when I went along to the meeting I realised that by utilising the language and essay structure properly it was possible to improve the presentation of your argument, regardless of your subject.
Look at previous essays for the topic:
This is especially important for dissertation students, but can also be employed for other projects.
Firstly, it was difficult when faced with the scale of the dissertation to imagine how it would finally turn out and how much ground had to be covered. However, at the University of Stirling the dissertations which were awarded a Distinction were all available in the library. Just by glancing through them I was able to put my mind at ease about the presentation of my dissertation, because I knew then what features I had to include which were different from previous essays and how they would look.
Secondly, undergraduate dissertations are one of the most neglected areas of original academic insights in higher education. So if you can read dissertations related to your research topic which were awarded a Distinction in either your own university, or in other universities, then you will have access to fresh insights which may not even have caught on in peer reviewed academic journals.