How to understand essay feedback

How to understand essay feedback

Understanding essay feedback is essential to improving your academic skills. Every lecturer and tutor has their own quirks, but everyone gets the same comments. Here are 10 pieces of essay feedback most students receive and what you can do about it.

10 Common Pieces of Essay Feedback

1. Your essay is too short

Let's start with an easy one.

If your essay falls below the word count, you haven't written enough words. Most essays have a "10% either way" rule to allow you some wriggle room, but don't abuse it.

Break your 2,000 word essay into chunks. A well-structured essay will have an introduction and a conclusion. These should take up about 10% of your essay content each.

Intro: 200 words

Essay body: 1,600 words

Conclusion: 200 words

Now you have 1,600 words to fill. Break down the main body of your essay into parts based on the topics you want to talk about. If you have 4 main topics, divide your word count by 4. Now your essay will look like this:

Intro: 200 words

Point 1: 400 words

Point 2: 400 words

Point 3: 400 words

Point 4: 400 words

Conclusion: 200 words

400 words looks a lot more manageable than 2,000 words, doesn't it? If you’re still struggling to meet your essay word count, read something on the topic that you haven’t read before. This will offer you a fresh perspective to discuss.

This is perhaps a sign that you’ve left it too late to write your essay, resulting in a rushed and incomplete essay (even if you consider it finished, it’s not complete if it hasn’t touched on topics of major relevance). This problem can be alleviated by effective time management, allowing plenty of time for the research phase of your essay and then enough time to write a detailed essay that touches on all the important arguments.

2. Your essay is too long

University students think that long sentences demonstrate intelligence and understanding. They don't. Long sentences result in waffle. Waffle results in your point being lost amongst a thicket of unnecessary words.

Word counts force you to be clear and concise. Identify the most important aspects of your essay and make sure they're fully fleshed out. Worry about the rest afterwards. One way to cut down words is to read your work out loud. If you find yourself taking breaths during sentences, you know they're too long.

Be harsh. Be bold. Cut out the rubbish.

And if that doesn't work, use contractions wherever you can!

3. Your essay is presented poorly

This piece of essay feedback may sound highly subjective, but it highlights a fundamental consideration: clarity. If your essay is presented poorly, your lecturer is having trouble understanding what you're trying to say due to the way you've written it. In terms of your writing style, you might get a comment like this if the essay marker found your writing either boring or in a style inappropriate to the context of a formal essay.

Common issues include:

  • Poor spelling
  • Incorrect use of grammar
  • Typos
  • Essay layout
  • Choice of font

Lecturers don't really care about what your essay looks like. They want to be able to easily understand what you're trying to say so they can mark your academic ability. Keep things simple with a basic, easy-to-read font and use a printer that works properly.

4. Your essay relies on critics too much

Quoting scholars and critics is an age old tactic for padding out the word count. However, relying on others to make your argument is problematic. Regurgitating people's opinions only tells your lecturer that you know how to do written comprehension.

Before you quote a source, think about what you think about their view in the context of your essay. It's okay to agree with a source, but bring more to the table than "I agree with X, who said…"

This sort of essay feedback demonstrates your lack of critical thinking, which is an essential skill for academic study. Before you quote a source, present your own view, with evidence. Then use critics and quotes to back up your reasoning.

5. There are too many quotes in your essay

As mentioned, people have hidden their lack of original words behind quotes. Unfortunately, no one is fooled by this ploy. If you rely too heavily on the works of others, you will be called out for it.

Quotes are great. They are essential to supporting your arguments and demonstrate an understanding of the subject and its reading material. But you do have to write your own words.

If you've received this kind of essay feedback, cut back on the quotes. Both the amount and the length. Flesh out your word count with analysis, responses and original thought.

Never start or end an essay with a quote. It might look cool and sound profound, but you're giving the first and last words to someone else. Your opening statement and closing words should be yours. Yes, it's hard to come up with a good start and end to your essay, but that's why you should do it.

6. Your essay doesn't show enough evidence

It's important to back up every point you make in your essay. Even asides and supplementary arguments need to be supported by evidence.

If you have an opinion, back it up. Whether that's with scientific research or historical sources. Then go further and scrutinise your sources to make sure your evidence stands up to criticism. This will prevent you from using an opinion as evidence.

Not all quotes are created equally and opinions are not evidence. As such, you can't back up your own view with someone else's view. If you're getting this sort of feedback, go back to your sources. Have evidence for everything and makes sure your evidence stands up.

7. The views in your essay contradict themselves

Presenting a complete argument demonstrates your understanding of a topic. It is also essential for a comparative essay. But don't make the mistake of sitting on the fence.

Describe both sides of an argument like you'd set a scene. Then, go into clear detail that demonstrates which side of the argument you favour. Contradicting yourself in an essay shows that you haven’t completely understood the issues involved. You may have failed to grasp the impact each issue has on the next and presented them as harmonious.

You might be getting this kind of feedback because your essay is structured in a confused way. It might jump from one side of the argument to the other, while lacking definitive statements. This creates an essay that appears contradictory.

It can be good to present both sides of the argument, but you have to decide which side you agree with.

8. Your essay is all over the place

This kind of feedback might read like your tutor is just frustrated, but there is value in this comment. It means you have to work on your essay structure.

Are you presenting your arguments in a clear, logical order? Are you going off on tangents? Are your paragraphs concluding nicely?

These are the issues you should consider when you get this feedback. You can avoid these pitfalls by planning out your essay before you write it. This will ensure that you have a clear, logical structure.

9. You've missed the point

This feedback is probably the harshest you can receive. You've worked hard, taken the time to gather sources, considered the issues and written a strong essay. Unfortunately, you've written it about the wrong question. You've wasted so much time and gained nothing.

This is particularly galling when you're in an exam and time is of the essence. Before you start writing, you need to fully understand the question.

Ask yourself what the essay question is expecting from you. Should you be comparing something or critiquing something? What's the most important issue in this question?

If you're unsure, ask your tutor. If you're still unsure, consider your reading list. What topics do the books share? Odds are, they have something in common and that something might also be the focus of your essay.

This feedback can feel particularly damning if you’ve spent a long time writing what you thought was a carefully constructed essay. A simple reason might be that you didn’t read the question carefully enough.

10. Very good

Well done! You're good. You're very good, in fact. Do you know why?

If you don't, it’s perfectly fine to ask for more feedback. If you don’t feel like you're getting value from the essay feedback you receive, push your tutor for more. Their job is to help you improve. Saying "very good" doesn't tell you anything more than "keep doing what you're doing". But if this isn't getting you top grades, you need to know what more you can do.

This is why essay feedback is so important to students. And why being able to interpret your feedback is such an essential study skill.

5 Tips for Responding to Essay Feedback

No one likes being judged, but that's exactly what having an essay marked is. Here are five tips for responding to the feedback you receive.

1. Don’t take criticism personally.

Your tutor isn't out to get you or make you feel bad.

2. Take criticism personally.

Facing your flaws is the first step towards fighting them. Instead of feeling bad about criticism, channel it proactively to improve.

3. Remember that feedback should help you improve.

Take your feedback and think about it. Then act upon it. If you don't take feedback onboard and work to change, you won't improve.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for more feedback or feedback clarity.

If you feel like you need more feedback, ask. If it reads confusingly, ask for clarity. You pay a lot of money for your university, so make sure you're getting your money's worth!

5. Don’t be satisfied with glowing feedback.

Keep finding ways to be better. If you get great feedback, ask how you can improve even more.

If you're still struggling with your essay writing, our experts are here to help. We can help you understand how a great essay is approached, structured, and written. Get in touch for more information.

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