It’s the end of the term, and the difference between a B+ and an A- (or a D+ and a C- for that matter) is often the little things. Here are a few things to do or check that will make help you over that hump.
Please note: None of these tips will make up for a failure to know your content. If you are taking British history but think of General Lee instead of Oliver Cromwell when the Civil War is mentioned, you have a much bigger problem. But as someone who has been in school forever and has also TAUGHT classes, these are things that can tip the scale in favor of the student.
Papers and computer-written exams:
- Outline. No, really. It will help you organize your thoughts, and organized thoughts make more sense. You aren’t turning it in, so it doesn’t have to be neat. But having a structure will make the whole document better.
- Spell check. Microsoft put the tools there for a reason. Use them. Spelling errors are jarring when the teacher reads and comes across as sloppy.
- Grammar check. Same message. Pay particular attention to things like sentence fragments.
- Never EVER use text-message style abbreviations. OK, maybe if you found a school to give you credit for text message prowess, but otherwise spell the words out correctly. These things look sloppy and, frankly, ignorant or stupid to someone who grew up in a time before texts. Someone like your teachers. Think of it as quaintly old-fashioned if you want, but write the full words out.
- Check for homonyms. A homonym is a word that is either spelled or pronounced alike but with alternative meanings. Some examples: to, too, two; their, they’re, there. Again, getting these wrongs comes across as sloppy.
- Don’t try to make it look longer by fiddling with the margins too much: an inch on each side is standard; more than an inch and a half looks suspicious. Same goes for the top/bottom. And font sizes. Be reasonable. Having said that…
- Some fonts are just bigger than others. You will find that 12 point Times and 12 point Ariel look very different. If it is a matter of being a couple of lines short of the goal, you can sometimes get a bit of mileage out of choosing the right font.
- Read it out loud, backwards, one sentence at a time. When you are done start with the last sentence and read it out loud, one sentence at a time. You will pick up on awkward phrasing or missing words this way because your brain has a harder time filling in the gaps.
- Don’t forget the quotes. I had to flunk a girl on a final paper the first time I taught a class. She extensively quoted from a journal article but didn’t put quote marks around the material she picked up. That makes it plagiarism. Broke my heart to do, but this is one rule academics take VERY seriously.
- Get your citations right. Make sure you cite any source you use and provide the citation in whatever format has been requested. With ALL the requested information. Getting this right will always get you brownie points. We posted about Citastic recently, which does MLA, or you can use a tool like Zotero for other formats.
In class, handwritten tests:
- Write in pencil. Unless specifically disallowed by your teacher, get yourself a pencil and eraser. That way when you are proof reading, you can fix things without making a complete mess.
- If you don’t know how to spell something, reword. Unless it’s a vocabulary word specific to the topic (in which case you need to learn how to spell it) you can generally get the same idea across with different words.
- See above regarding homonyms. It still applies. Pay attention.
- Write neatly. This one is hard. But here’s a secret: teachers get tired. They get cranky after struggling through thirty illegible papers in the hope of finding a glimmer of intelligence. And eventually they stop trying quite as hard. If you write neatly you’ll get credit for what you know AND brownie points for not making the teacher’s head hurt any more than it already does.
- No text-message abbreviations. See above.
- Read backwards sentence by sentence, slowly, in your head. Sitting in the exam hall you probably can’t read it out loud, but if you read it to yourself in your head backwards you can still catch some problems that you missed during the first pass.
- Leave a margin around your writing. 3 reasons. First, this is space where, if you have to go back and add a word, you can easily expand into without scrunching your writing too much. Second, this is easier on the eyes, and anything that makes your teacher feel a bit better is going to be good for you. Third, this is space for them to put comments that may be useful in the future, and not having to search for a corner to write it in will again make them happier.
- Leave space in between questions. Essay tests often have several questions. Leave space between your answer so that the teacher doesn’t have to guess where one ends and the next starts.
- Read through the test before you start. Use that to plan your time. If the one you know best is the last question make sure you leave time to write the answer. If you don’t know an answer, leave space and come back to it (but make sure you leave ENOUGH space.)
Finally, no matter what you actually think, Say Thank You. Put a quick “Thanks; I really enjoyed” something….anything… at the end of the test or on a post-it attached to the front of your paper. Teachers are human too, and appreciate hearing that. It will often make them smile and that can be the difference between a B+ and an A-.
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