What does my prof really want from an essay?

How to make sure your term paper doesn’t miss the point

Figuring out just what professors want in a term paper can be tricky, but it needn’t be. Whether it’s your first paper in university, and you’re still navigating your way around the library, or you’re a seasoned pro, there are a few things you need to know.

And while much of what I have to say may seem obvious, redundant and self-congratulatory, it is really quite astonishing how many people go through their entire university careers without ever figuring out just quite how to write the paper professors are looking for.

For starters, if the assignment involves answering a question your professor has prepared beforehand, read it. I mean actually read it. And closely. If there is more than one part to the question, consider each part individually. How might they be related? Should each part be answered separately? Or should they be considered together within an overarching argument? Understanding the question is the first step to answering it.

You’d be surprised how many people do poorly on a paper because they failed to answer the question. They sort of go willy nilly through the whole process, and end up writing something completely foreign to what was actually asked of them.

Visiting your professor is quite possibly the most integral part of figuring out what they want. Some professors, especially in upper years when class sizes are smaller, will require you to meet with them. There is a reason for this. Of course there are intellectual freaks that can ace a paper without ever discussing it, but those who don’t bother will generally tend to do less well.

Professors will help you unpack the assignment, which is good because some essay questions are just plain ridiculous, like: “is world peace possible? Discuss.” If you come in with an idea that is overly ambitious, or otherwise unsuitable, they will rein you in. The good ones will anyway. Others will stroke their chins and mutter “interesting,” thus encouraging you in your folly. But if you’re lucky they will say something like, “walk before you run. You’re not writing a bloody history of the world now are you?”

Don’t show up unprepared and say something like “uh, so, what am I suppose to do?” Don’t be overly chatty either. Most professors don’t care what students in their intro to politics course think of the new Naomi Klein book. They just don’t. Sorry. This doesn’t mean they aren’t happy to help, or that they don’t mind discussing current events, but I’ve always found it stunningly obvious when I should just shut up.

While many professors have a verbosity affliction of their own, it helps to listen. They will often outline the entire essay for you. And if a professor recommends a book or an article, be sure to consult it and cite it in your paper. They might look for it.

If your essay is being marked by a teaching assistant, they will marvel at the notion that someone actually cares what they think! So bother them.

Find a paper or a book your professor has published, and see if there is any way you can at least explore his/her area of interest, if not actually incorporating their work into yours. At the very least you’ll know that your professor accepts the ideas presented. Flattery shouldn’t affect how they grade a paper, but who are we kidding!

Most students would do well to understand the difference between a political opinion and an academic opinion. An academic opinion is the result of research involving a certain degree of rigour, while a political opinion might have absolutely nothing to do with careful analysis. Penalizing students for “inappropriate” political opinions is wrong and offensive. Having your ideas called out on the basis of academic study is part of university.

Professors have built careers defending some academic approaches, while debunking others. Some might grade you harder if you are premising your argument on research that they challenge, especially if you are lacking sufficient evidence or rigour. Some professors will even tell up front which sources they are not sympathetic to. Again this is academic, not political. So if your professor uses Marxism as a theoretical base, and he/she dismisses your poorly researched and weakly argued paper on why globalization is awesome, get over it.

Of course if your professor is adamant that the theory of gravity is a farce, have the dean check his/her breath for whiskey.

Others, wedged firmly to the belief that all ideas are created equal, are able to distance themselves and will grade you according to the level you are at, no matter how silly your paper is. So pay attention.

A quick note on style. Many essay assignments will come with strict directions on font size and type, as well as a preferred notation style. A professor may demand footnotes, or in text citations, and if they don’t specify, find out what they use in their own writing. Every little bit helps. Some professors grade heavily on grammar, while others will give you an “A” despite 37 spelling mistakes, so ask around. And remember, length requirements exist for a reason.

Happy writing!




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