How to write an A/A* grade essay
Updated: Sep 25
I never really got taught how to write an essay and because of that I was constantly getting grades lower than I deserved. I knew the content, I could write down more quotes, dates, and authors names per essay than most people and analyse quite well. However, something was still preventing me from consistently seeing A* on the top of my RS essays.
If you find yourself in this position, here's a couple of tips I wish I had known before. Keep reading to find a detailed explanation of how to actually write each part of your essay!
THE 3 MOST IMPORTANT TIPS
The quality of your answer is THE most important aspect of the essay, NOT the length. I cannot stress this enough. You really cannot pick up marks for writing pages and pages of semi critical analysis with a few names and dates here and there. Don't be intimidated by others who seem to be able to write 5 pages in an exam whereas you only write 2. You may find yourself achieving the same grade they did, if not higher.
Secondly, always make time for a conclusion, even if that means missing out the last paragraph you were about to write. The conclusion rounds off what you have written and can help the examiner understand what the original thesis was if they may have gotten lost throughout your essay. It also shows them your ability to structure your essay which is pivotal in achieving those higher marks.
PLAN YOUR ESSAY! This cannot be stressed enough as it's so tempting to go straight into answering a question when you see it in your exam. If you won't listen to a teacher say it then maybe listen to a student who has been through the exams...please? Taking 10 mins to write a semi-detailed plan gives you a frame of reference whenever you feel like you are losing track of the point you are trying to make when writing a response. It also means that when an examiner opens your paper and sees your plan, it gives them a positive impression of you from the get go as well as extra SPAG marks for a well structured answer. The clearer and more concise your answer, the better.
When writing your essays, its important to know how it is going to marked in terms of assessment objectives and how they are weighted which can be found on your exam board's website. Often they are split into AO1 and AO2 (it may also include AO3 and AO4 depending on the subject) which can be defined as the following:
AO1 looks at the content, detail and the amount of factual information in your essays as well you use of technical terms correctly and a wide variety of scholars/quotes to support your points.
AO2 looks at your analytical skills and the way you explain and support your answers critically. The more complex and nuanced your analysis, the better.
AO3 often refers to how context is incorporated unto your answers and this is more commonly found in English A-levels
A04 looks at the accuracy of your spelling, punctuation and grammar as well as the structure of your answer.
Your introduction needs to be succinct and straight to the point. Firstly, dissect the question by picking out any words you are going to define in order to make sure your essay directly answers the question. For example:
“Shakespeare’s presentation of female characters in Macbeth and Richard III reflects the Renaissance gender stereotyping.” How far do you agree
What was gender stereotyping like during the renaissance period? What female characters in particular are you going to look at? Then go into whether you agree completely, not at all, or to a certain extent.
2. "Good Ethics is Good Business" Discuss
What is the definition of good here? Is a good business one that is profitable regardless of the means to get there (poor wages, working conditions etc), or is it one that is environmentally friendly and ethical? By good ethics are we talking about a particular ethical theory? Utilitarianism, Kantian Ethics etc.
When you have done so, you can then go on to outline your thesis (your opinion) and any key dates, people, characters, themes etc you are going to mention or criticise in order to support your thesis.
An acronym to help you with this is DISS
I= What are the implications of those terms
S=Scholarly views/quotes/characters to support your argument
S=Signpost your line of argument
The last two points can be written vice versa but the main idea remains the same. It doesn't need to be extremely detailed, that is what the main body of your essay is for. Give the examiner a sense of what he/she is going to be reading and then you are good to go.
Here is an example of an introduction that uses the DISS format.
"Religion is a product of primitive times and modern society should reject it" Discuss
It can be convincingly argued that religion was in fact born out of superstitious beliefs as it was once believed that illnesses were a punishment from the gods above as opposed to a result of pathogens. Therefore it clear to see how religion could be a product of the primitive times where humans had very little understanding of the world around them. In focusing on Christianity as said religion scholars such as Dawkins and Freud have unconvincingly argued however, that for this very reason religion should be rejected completely as it is a concept far from reason and science. Nevertheless the apparent irrationality of religion doesn't make it useless in modern society today as demonstrated through its teachings and morality that can still be applied today as well as the emotional fulfilment it provides to others. Whereas there are flaws to the Christian tradition, evident through its misguided views on gender roles, the call for its total rejection as one that is too extreme as there are parts of religion society should embrace.
There are a few ways that you can structure the main body of your essay and some present a more critical analysis than others.
To start of with, you should be looking to write between 3-5 detailed and very analytical paragraphs exploring ideas that will support your thesis. Instead of writing 2/3 paragraphs for and 2/3 paragraphs against, A/A* essays tend to interweave their points for and against their thesis within their paragraphs. This shows that they are constantly weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of the ideas they put across.
Secondly, the key to the higher grades is using evaluative words and phrases in order to substantiate the points that you put across. Everything you say needs to come with a reason and explanation as to why it may be right/wrong.
Lastly, you should have a range of scholars, articles and just general evidence to back up the points you make throughout your essay. This demonstrates your awareness of what you are writing about as well as adding depth to the essay.
Structuring your paragraphs
A simple way to start off your paragraph is with a topic sentence stating your point in direct relation to the question. Using the example essay question above, a topic sentence may sound like:
"It has been argued that religion is a product of primitive times due to its incompatibility with modern day science."
You would then go on to develop the point further using an academic or scholarly view to back up and explain the claim you have put forward clearly. It is also worthwhile noting that you can make your topic sentence a scholars argument and go on to link that point to the question set. What you then do next is the crucial part to gaining those higher marks for AO2.
Evaluate and analyse. You have made a claim and backed it up, but that doesn't convince the examiner that the point you have made is a strong one.
Is the academics view convincing/sound/coherent with your own knowledge? If it is/is not why? To judge this here are some things you might want to consider:
Is there a substantial amount of evidence to back up the claim?
Is is based on sound premises? So does the scholars conclusion coherently follow the premises (statements and propositions) that come before it.
Is it a Straw Man argument? Does it come to a conclusion based on misrepresented facts?
Is the person promoting the argument a reliable source? do they have any biases that may influence their judgement.
It is important that once you have stated why the position is unconvincing, that you explain why that is the case.
So here is an example paragraph covering the points we have talked about so far:
Dawkins in his 'God Delusion' attempts to suggest, rather unconvincingly, that religion has been more harmful than helpful in the growth of society and therefore should be rejected. In citing scenarios such as "Hell Houses" in the USA for example, Dawkins illustrates how religion can be a cause of child abuse as children in these houses are taught about the terrors of hell they will endure if they sin, which he claims is "worse than sexual abuse." It is understandable that christian ideas of hell can be frightening especially to young children as the bible talks of it as a "lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are tormented day and night for ever and ever." However this practice is not a commonality of the Christian tradition as it is only specific to a minute sect of Christian fundamentalists and would be widely condemned by other denominations. In picking these extreme cases in small areas of the world Dawkins is guilty of the Straw Man fallacy since he uses this as a basis for condemning Christianity as a whole.
You will notice that the blue part supports the point I have made and the pink part is a counter argument. To get those higher grades, you need to be able to argue both sides and by doing it in the same paragraph, you are really demonstrating to the examiner your analytical skills. To do this successfully, pick out what is strong about the point put forward, find some sort of evidence to support it and explain why it is successful.
Now at this point, you can add a concluding sentence to wrap up the point you have made and link it directly to the question such as:
His criticism ultimately does not hold up to scrutiny and it can be still postulated that religion is a beneficial concept in modern day society as has been illustrated in the previous point and therefore doesn't need to be rejected in its entirety.
The linking part is so important, it shows you have not strayed away from the question set and ensures that everything you have written is relevant.
However to further advance your paragraph, here are some things you can add:
Rebuttal-You have your argument and counter argument, is there a counter-counter argument you could use to further develop your point and highlight the weaknesses in your proposition? You can then defend your view further and really cement how strong it is so that there is no room for doubt in the examiners mind. This can be quite complex to do so I would recommend practicing this in essay plans before a real exam.
Synoptic Links-this can be really useful in adding breadth to your essay and showing the examiner you can think about and remember a wide range of information. This only works however if your points are relevant to what you are talking about. There is no point in throwing together a synoptic link that has nothing to do with your point for the sake of doing so, you won't pick up any marks and it will be a waste of your already limited amount of time.
Don't go for the obvious answer- When you see an exam question that appears to be quite straightforward, chances are other students will think the same. You then may end up with an essay that looks quite similar to someone else. Those who pick up the higher marks are those who have a more nuanced approach to answering questions by arguing a more obscure and uncommon perspective!
If you are looking for a nice little acronym/structure that sums up this section, here you are:
P=Point (your topic sentence)
I=Inference (what does the evidence infer)/Explanation
S=Summary/Concluding sentence that links back to the question
E=Evidence and explanation
I=Inference and explanation as to who wins
L=Link back to question
Your conclusion should sum up the points that you made in your essay in 2-3 sentences and re-iterate your thesis clearly in direct response to the question. It shouldn't take too long and is probably the easiest part of the essay you will write. As I mentioned before, it is so important to make sure you write one in order to show the examiner you can structure your answer. Lastly, make sure that you do not introduce any new information in this section, it can show the examiner that you're not organised and that there are more ideas to come, hence defeating the purpose of a conclusion.
Writing good essays in timed conditions takes a lot of practice. Try making essay plans as a form of revision early on then practice writing them in timed conditions. Get your teacher to mark them harshly and give you constructive feedback on the structure of the essay as well as the content to improve on next time.
Make sure to also spend some time writing essays on questions you have not seen before and in timed conditions in order to mimic an exam setting as much as possible.
Hi, I'm Aba and I started The Student Scope to give other students advice on their academic journey. Have a look around and enjoy!