Ten steps to gaining higher grades in university and college assignments, essays and exams

If you are about to take an exam, this will help you prepare for getting the best marks.

Graham Jones
9 min readAug 30, 2018
Use the steps below to get the highest possible grades

Here are some common issues with assignments that, when corrected, will help you gain higher marks.

1. Poor referencing

Many assignments do not adhere to referencing. When an assignment asks for the Harvard Referencing Style to be used, for instance, then you should stick to it. If you do not know the style, check. Getting the referencing style right is one thing. However, deciding what to reference is another issue.

Referencing is there so that your reader can verify what you are saying and ensure that your interpretation is correct. This means a reference needs to be accurate AND specific. Referencing a book, for instance, is inadequate as it means you require your reader to go through the entire book…! Similarly, referencing a web source as the name of the company, rather than providing the actual URL, is equally inadequate as you would be expecting your reader to look at every page on the website to verify your information.

What you reference is also important. You always need to reference the following:

· whenever you mention an author or researcher or theorist by name;

· whenever you use facts or figures that are not generally accepted to be in the public domain;

· whenever you cite a research study or survey;

· whenever you use a quotation;

· whenever you have any doubt as to whether your reader will know the information.

As a rule, you can never have too many references, but you can always have too few.

If in doubt — reference.…!

2. Reliance on unreliable sources

When it comes to referencing, though, you need to be careful you are referencing reliable sources. Blog posts and other online information can generally be thought of as unreliable. That’s because for most of what is published online there is no editorial checking of facts, nor is there any kind of verification of the sites.

Even well-known publications such as newspapers and magazines may not be reliable; they are produced to very tight deadlines which means fact checking may be minimal. Statistical sites such as “Statista” are useful, but it is not an original source; it is a secondary source, so even though what it says may be true, it may need checking — preferably back to the primary source.

The best and most reliable sources of information are peer-reviewed journals. The content in such journals has been checked and tested by a panel of reviewers, experts in the field. However, that doesn’t mean that what the journal is publishing is true. You need to check the information against other peer-reviewed material. It is always entirely feasible that even though a paper has been peer-reviewed, it may represent an outlying representation of the situation on a topic.

Whenever you find information, you should ask yourself how reliable is the source. You can always check academic, peer-reviewed journals for the evidence to show that what you read in a blog or newspaper was indeed true. Using unreliable sources merely weakens your argument in an essay.

You get higher marks when you have a strong and substantiated argument and that comes from solid backing, not weak material from a random blog.

3. Over use of quotations

Quotations can be useful. But most of the time they are not. There are two issues with quotations. Firstly, they are not your own words. As a result, a quotation merely shows you can copy the words of someone else.

Using a quotation does not show you understand the topic. However, using your own words would demonstrate understanding. And you get higher marks for showing you understand a topic. Is copying a quotation from a website using copy and paste a degree level skill?

The second issue with quotations is that it wastes word count. Quotations are included within the overall word count of your essay. So, if you use quotations you are eating into the space in which you could be making your argument and thereby gaining marks.

Overall, quotations should only be used in a limited way, if at all.

4. Generalising

Making general points is worthwhile as it helps demonstrate you have worked out a common principle, for instance. However, the way you make general points can contribute to higher or lower marks.

For instance, making a generalised point which many people could make without even studying your course is not likely to gain high marks. The points you need to make to gain marks are those which can only be deduced from degree-level academic study for the module you are dealing with.

When you write a generalised point in your essay, ask yourself “did I need to study this module to make that point?” If your answer is no, then don’t make that point — you will be lowering your potential for marks. The other issue about generalising points is how to do it.

The best way of doing this and gaining high marks is to start with specifics. Provide details, backed up with evidence, and then draw out the general point from these.

For instance, I could make the general point that “students tend to get the higher marks in exams if they go to lectures”. But that is too wide; indeed, many people might assume this anyway. So, it is not a point worthy of high marks.

What I could say is “in one study of 100 undergraduates at the University of Buckingham, the proportion of first class grades was greatest amongst those who had attended 90% of lectures. Furthermore, in research at this university looking at more than 1,500 students, it was found that students who attended every tutorial never got lower than a second class honours. Because of these studies, it is possible to deduce that attendance at tutorials and lectures is associated with higher marks in exams.”

In other words, I provided the specific detailed information first enabling me to draw out the general point.

Generalised remarks can only really provide any value in an essay if they have been reached because of specific detailed evidence.

5. Speculation and conjecture

While it is reasonable to make predictions, those forecasts need to be based on evidence. Otherwise, it is guesswork. Essays based on such guesswork don’t tend to get higher marks because it leaves your reader asking, “who says so?” when you make a speculative comment.

Speculative comments, conjecture and assumptions merely weaken an argument. Remember, a compelling argument that is convincing leads to higher marks. When you use speculation or conjecture, and you leave your reader wondering whether your ideas are worthy, it just weakens your argument, thereby leading to the likelihood of lower marks.

If your essay contains conjecture or assumption, remove such elements and replace them with forecasts based on evidence.

6. Lack of examples

Specific and detailed examples enable your reader to truly understand the point you are making. Indeed, it is often easier to explain something using an example than trying to deal with it from a theoretical point of view. However, examples need to be tangible and real.

Detailed examples tend to result in higher marks than a generic example. Of course, in exam conditions, it may not be possible to think of a detailed and specific example, but the examiners know this and are often more willing to accept generalised and non-specific cases.

For assignments, though, there is no excuse because examples are readily available. When you are writing about an example, you need to provide the details. Your reader may not know the example you are using. Hence, they will not understand what you are saying as it will be out of context. To make the example work you need detail.

You also need detail in many other instances. For instance, when you are talking about a research study; discussing the results without giving the details of how those results were produced means your reader can be confused.

7. Trying to cram in too many points

In many essays, students try to cram in too many points. That’s why there is insufficient detail or a lack of examples or generalised and speculative comments. Adding in those details takes away space and pushes the word count close to the maximum. So, students avoid all that extra information so they can cram in all the points they want to make.

There is a solution to this: make fewer points.

Essays that attract high marks tend to have just a few main points which are backed up with detailed research and information, together with thorough examples. Students who try to cram in too many points are losing marks because their essays tend not to deal with the question. Instead, they appear to be answering the question “please tell me everything you know about this subject”.

Academic assignments are designed to demonstrate knowledge and understanding. You can do that better when you deal with just a few points well, rather than lots of points weakly.

8. Not focusing on the actual question

Teachers and lecturers appear to be fond of telling students “if you only answered the question on the paper rather than the one in your head you would have got higher marks.” But it is true. Focus on the precise question — particularly the action words, such as “discuss” or “explain” or “to what extent”. These are what you are required to do; if you don’t “do” those things, you automatically reduce your potential for marks.

There are no trick questions. Academic assignment questions are straightforward; they are asking you to answer the exact question asked — nothing more, nothing less.

Questions are straight for two reasons. Firstly, it is unfair to students if the questions are complex and “trick”. That would favour students who can see the tricks. Secondly, it is unfair on the lecturers as they would find it harder to mark things appropriately and fairly if there were hidden aspects to the question.

Consequently, assignment questions are straight. They ask you to do something with a topic in a specific way. That’s all you must do; nothing else. You will gain marks if that’s what you do; you will lose marks if you attempt to reinterpret the question and imagine it has hidden depths you need to expose.

9. Going off on tangents

This is related to focus, but often students will find that as they are researching and writing that they discover something interesting. So, they find a way of including it within the essay. Sometimes this is done, perhaps, to impress the lecturer with the extent of research conducted. Sometimes it might be done because the student just gets so excited they get carried away. But whatever the reason, it doesn’t help gain marks.

If your assignment contains anything that is not directly related to the specific question it helps increase your potential for lower marks than you want.

10. Lack of attention to details

Finally, there is lack of attention to what is submitted. Essays submitted with spelling errors suggest that it hasn’t been checked. Even if English is not your first language, word processing software can check the spelling and alert you to errors in another language. Similarly, there are other signals to the reader that the essay has not been checked.

For instance, some students will insert the words “reference here” where they mean to add a reference later. But they haven’t added that reference because they haven’t checked what they have submitted. Equally, a poor structure where points get repeated demonstrate lack of checking and attention; if the student had read the essay before submission, they would have discovered the repetition.

An effective way of ensuring you spot these errors is to read the essay out loud. You will often hear a mistake that you do not see. You can then correct things and gain higher marks because you have got rid of minor errors that would otherwise show your marker that you didn’t really care about what you submitted.

Ten ways to improve your marks

1. Reference things properly

2. Use reliable sources

3. Avoid quotations

4. Do not generalise

5. Avoid speculation

6. Provide detailed examples

7. Don’t write about too much

8. Focus on the question

9. Don’t go off on tangents

10. Pay attention to the details

And in case you are wondering how I know…I have been lecturing at universities for over 20 years. I have marked thousands of essays and exams at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. Currently I am a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Buckingham and an Associate Lecturer at The Open University.



Graham Jones

Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who helps business understand online customer behaviour http://www.grahamjones.co.uk