Top Tips for Great Grades

sophiaauld-4925759 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.

4. Read and reference widely. At tertiary level, especially as a postgraduate, there is an expectation that you will read widely. This means looking at a variety of opinions on a subject, including contradictory ones. The more evidence there is of the depth and breadth of your reading, the better your papers will be. Get to know your college library (additional resouces below), and your librarian. Unless you are an expert in information management, your librarian will know far more than you about sourcing relevant material. I once found an article that looked highly promising for a paper I was writing. Only problem was, I couldn’t access it without paying more than I was able to afford at the time. My librarian was able to access it for me at no charge, and it became the keystone of my paper.

Join other libraries that might contain useful books or journals, or be able to source them for you. Journals, in particular, contain the most up to date information on a subject, and should always be included as part of your reading and referencing. Scholarly, peer-reviewed journals are the top of the heap. Spend time familiarising yourself with all the journal databases that will deliver high quality articles in your field. When you find a great article, look at the list of references it has cited. This can uncover other articles that could be useful. Always use primary sources when possible. Take good notes from all your references as you go. Then you won’t get stuck wondering, ‘Now where did I read that…?’ Be especially careful with Internet references, some are definitely more reliable than others (surprise, surprise). Joe’s blog on a topic definitely doesn’t carry the weight of a peer-reviewed journal.

5. Polish your writing skills. Keep your writing as clear and simple as possible. Remember, your job is to show your examiner that you have carefully researched the topic and addressed the question. Make it easy for them to read and understand your argument. By all means, use jargon that is particular to your field of expertise. Use words that make you sound knowledgeable. But use them sparingly and wisely. You don’t need to exhaust your vocabulary to prove your intelligence. I once had a comment from a professor that my writing style was ‘simple and mellifluous.’ Unsure of whether this was a compliment or insult, I looked up ‘mellifluous.’ It’s meaning, I discovered was ‘smooth and sweetly flowing like honey.’ Nice!

Comb over your paper for spelling and grammatical errors. Automatic spelling and grammar checkers are helpful, but don’t pick up all errors. Get your spouse or a friend to proofread your work. When sitting exams, use any time left to read over your answers and correct mistakes.

Additionally, take advantage of any services offered by your institution or on the Internet to improve your study and writing skills, such as student tutors and writing workshops. Your library probably contains a host of material on the subject as well. Spend some time during breaks studying these to hone your writing skills.

6. Learn from feedback. When you’ve put your heart and soul into a paper, it can be difficult to see it criticised. Don’t take it personally. Most professors want their students to succeed, and constructive feedback is their way of helping you improve. Take their advice on board, learn from it, and apply it.

Furthering your education may be daunting, but with perseverance, a positive attitude, and willingness to learn, success is possible!

Sophia Auld holds a Bachelor of Applied Science in Physiotherapy, a Graduate Diploma of Divinity, and is currentlycompleting an MA in Writing and Literature through Deakin University. When not working or studying, she loves hanging out with family, writing, reading and keeping fit.