How to get from B to A, by Cora Beth Knowles


As a tutor, most of the queries I read don’t concern how to pass the course. People know how to pass: you do the work, submit full assignments, revise and sit the exam. There’s no mystery there – just hard work.

The mystery surrounds the A: ‘Pass 1’, ‘Distinction’, ‘First’ – whatever your module or institution calls it. There’s a haze around that border which people often feel they can’t see through. The frustrating thing is that most consistent B students are capable of getting an A, if only they had a road map.

So here are a few tips on pushing through that border. It’s not easy (if it was, everyone would do it!), but there are some reliable tricks to get past it and on the road to a higher grade.


  • Ring composition. If you’ve studied literature, you’ll know what that means: it’s when the end of a piece links up with the beginning. Now, most people do this naturally in essays, with their conclusion picking up on their introduction: however, a top essay is likely to do it more creatively. Imagine your essay gives three examples: the first and second examples may establish a pattern, but the third might offer an alternative perspective which allows you to go back and re-examine Example 1 from a different point of view. This doesn’t always work, of course: it depends on your subject matter. But when it does, you’re looking at an A grade.



  • Pick a fight. One of the surest routes to a top mark involves jumping into an academic fight. The reason why it’s a sure route is that it’s not easy. If you’re really lucky, you may find a published disagreement between two scholars: you can jump into the middle of it and pick a side, or even try to prove that both are wrong and you’re right! More commonly, you’ll pick a fight with a single secondary source: that’s easier, but it still demands a lot of confidence in your own opinion, and it’s that confidence and willingness to take on the academics that could earn you an A grade.



  • Something extra. You can usually achieve a good grade by using the course materials effectively: sometimes you can even achieve an A. But for a more reliable route to the top, you should consider going outside the course for an example or an idea. These can be respectable things from leading journals: or they can come from a movie you’ve seen, a magazine you’ve read, or a poster you saw on the side of a bus. The trick is to use your ‘something extra’ as just that: not as a replacement for course-related stuff, or as a dominant theme, but as a little extra tweak to surprise your reader and open up a new perspective.


First class essays have to tick all of the ‘essential’ boxes, with a clear structure, good choice of material, strong argument and excellent referencing, just like B grade essays do. But in addition they have to impress, with that little bit of brilliance that makes the difference. It takes work, and it takes time, and it takes quite a lot of trial and error: but fundamentally all it requires is a single surprising thought. That’s why one of the best ways to move your essay from a B to an A is to write your B essay early, then ponder on it for a few days, keeping an open mind. You never know where you might end up.


Cora Beth Knowles

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