How essays earn their grades

The following descriptions are based on the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) recommendations, and may help you understand what college professors expect from your essays.  These guidelines apply to essays submitted in writing and English classes, but are likely to help guide you with essays for other classes, too.


An essay that earns a grade of  “A” excels in both content and style. It presents a clear central thesis, which is effectively developed throughout the paper. It contains interesting and original ideas, which are organized in a logical structure. Paragraphs are unified, coherent, and well developed. The “A” paper relies on support that is sufficient, appropriate, and effective. Transitions within and between paragraphs are fluent and guide the reader along a clear line of reasoning. Sentences are varied in structure and consistently correct. Vocabulary is well-chosen, specific, and precise. The “A” paper contains few, if any, errors in form, grammar, spelling, and punctuation.


An essay graded “B” responds to the topic with engaging and interesting ideas. It has a clearly stated thesis and logical structure, but may reveal minor lapses in development. Paragraphs clearly relate to the paper’s main idea; however, transitions between ideas may be less fluent and supporting evidence less effective than in the “A” paper. The “B” paper uses words accurately and effectively and contains few errors in the mechanics of writing. Furthermore, an essay that excels in other areas but contains some sentence-level errors may earn a grade of “B.”


An essay graded “C” displays a satisfactory response to the assignment; a “C” is not a penalty grade. The “C” paper may present the central idea in general terms, depending on platitudes or clichés to develop its points. While it usually shows some pattern of organization, transitions from point to point may be less fluent than in the “A” or “B” paper. Support may be in the form of generalizations or examples that are not relevant. Sentence structure may be repetitive and word choice imprecise. The “C” paper may contain mechanical errors, but these should not be numerous or hinder the communication of ideas. A paper that has few errors but relies on superficial reasoning or broad generalizations will earn a “C.”


An essay may be graded “D” for a variety of reasons. It may respond inappropriately to the topic or fail to present a clear thesis. It may be organized illogically, with few internal transitions between ideas. Paragraphs may not relate to the central idea, may lack development, or may rely solely on repetition and generalization. The “D” paper may contain sentences that lack variety and may exhibit frequently inappropriate or limited word choice. A paper that earns a “D” often contains frequent errors in sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, and spelling.


An essay may be graded “F” for several different reasons. It may lack a thesis or display no clear logical pattern. Development may lack complexity, wording may be repetitive, or the essay may be unduly brief (that is, it might not meet the minimum length requirement). Paragraphs may be absent, undeveloped, or disorganized. Numerous mechanical and grammatical errors may impede the clear communication of ideas. Occasionally, a paper will earn the grade of  “F” because it does not respond to the assignment.


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