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What can Marking Descriptors tell us about successful essay writing? A long read about good and not so good essay writing practice

Depending on what university, department or school you study at, chances are there’s a set list of marking descriptors that are used to determine your essay grade. They are usually publicly available (google your institution and ‘essay marking descriptors’), and detail what your essay needs to do in order to achieve a C or B or A. The descriptors of the school I currently work at, for example, Edinburgh University’s School of Social and Political Science (SPS), can be found via this link. What you are probably not aware of, however, is that hidden within them is some really sound essay marking advice.

These descriptors can be fairly detailed. Take this one, for instance, for a B:

B B- (60-63%) B (64-66%) B+ (67-69%)

A very good answer that shows qualities beyond the merely routine or acceptable. The question and the sources should be addressed directly and fully. The work of other authors should be presented critically. Effective use should be made of the whole range of the literature. There should be no significant errors of fact or interpretation. The answer should proceed coherently to a convincing conclusion. The quality of the writing and presentation (especially referencing) should be without major blemish. Within this range a particularly strong answer will be graded B+; a more limited answer will be graded B-.

What does all this mean, though? What makes ‘other authors […] presented critically’ or the essay ‘proceed coherently’? And how do these different aspects of essay writing span over the different grade ranges, in other words, how can you distinguish, and then elevate, your critical presentation or proceding coherently from one level to the next? How can you make sense of these marking descriptors, and use them to improve your essay writing?

The answer to these questions is a somewhat longer one, and for this reason comes in the form of a PDF. It’s 18 pages overall, so fasten your seatbelts, and do take your time with it. It might just be worth it though. It’s a detailed deconstruction of the SPS’s marking descriptors, and derives practical, actionable tips for what to avoid and how to do well in the different categories of essay writing. If ever you were looking for that one hack that helps you unlock essay writing success, you might have just found it. You can find the PDF here.

If you’re not from our school but are studying social or political science somewhere else, the basic criteria are usually the same. The principles outlined in the paper are universally applicable.


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