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Sophia Auld

Top Tips for Great Grades

by Sophia Auld

Returning to college can be an intimidating experience, especially after an extended break from study. It may have been a long time since completing your undergraduate degree. You are probably going to an unfamiliar institution, with different professors, new technology and a host of responsibilities you didn't have as an undergraduate. But academic success is possible. These are my top six tips for getting great grades as a graduate student.

1. Get to know the people who will be grading your work. Like each of us, your lecturers and tutors have their favourite topics; things they are passionate about. They will certainly have definite views about the subject matter of your course. Listen carefully during lectures and tutorials. Take notice of non-verbal signals like tone of voice and body language. If you are studying online, look for repeating themes and strong opinions. Check out their website or blog. Read the books and papers they've written. If you can find out what their passions are, you can tap into them in your essay and exam papers. Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating that you 'suck up' to your lecturers by writing pieces that pander to their pet opinions. Nor do you necessarily have to agree with them. You may disagree vehemently, and if you can put up a good argument for your case, your grades shouldn't suffer. But by keying in to their favourite ideas, you are creating an immediate connection with them. At a neurological level, you will be targeting well established pathways of thought. This triggers a positive response to your work, and will help it stand out from the crowd. We all like to think we have been heard and understood.

2. Read the question and answer it. This may sound super obvious, but many students still struggle with doing it. The trouble is, when researching, you can uncover so much interesting information that may be relevant to the topic. You need to be ruthless in honing in on what the question is asking. It's a bit like looking through a telescope. You might start out with a wide view, to get a general picture of the vicinity you are examining. Your introduction can include some of this background information, provided it is relevant. But you need to narrow your focus if you are going to study something in detail. Read the question very carefully. Take note of the key words. Figure out what sort of information the questioner is trying to extract from your answer. For example, if you are given a question containing 'compare and contrast', you are being asked to examine similarities and differences between the items. Your answer should be as complete and succinct as possible within the allotted word limit. And always stick within the word limit. Busy professors don't want to be wading through mammoth tomes if they've asked for 2000 words.

3. Use words from the question in your response. Following on from above, try to incorporate words from the question into your answer. This helps the person grading your paper see that you are actually answering the question. It also keeps your focus directed on what was asked. For example, if you are asked to examine three common themes in, say, the writing of Stephen King, use paragraphs beginning with something like, 'The first common theme in King's writing is…' Again, this seems obvious. But, if your professor has graded fifty papers on the same topic, they might be pretty jaded by the time yours crops up. Make it easy for them to see that you've understood and answered the question.

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