Some students earn A’s effortlessly, while others labor away for a B+, or C+. What makes an A paper?

Obviously the definition of an ‘A’ varies from teacher to teacher. Most students know that some teachers give out only a few As, while others are quite generous. And most teachers don’t talk about what makes an A.

This may be because they feel the ingredients of an excellent paper can’t be captured in a simple list, or because they can’t really articulate what an A paper actually is – they just know it when they see it.

Rarer still are the teachers who give exemplars – examples of A papers, B papers etc. There are potentially large drawbacks to giving students examples like this, starting with the fear that students will look at the examples as formulas to be copied, rather than examples to inspire.

The truth is, however, that most of us learn through example. Many jobs are taught by handing over examples, with the expectation that new employees will follow, in great detail, what has come before.

So we’d like to help with some clear guidance on what makes an A paper.

Here’s the typical  advice you’ll get (from WikiHow): How to Get an A on an English Paper.

This advice is necessary to get an ‘A’, but nowhere near sufficient in our experience. In advanced high school and college writing you are rarely just “picking a topic” – even though that’s what 80% of students seem to do. “I’ll write about the time my team won the big game.”


Or, “I’ll write about how Herman Melville wrote about racism through the image of the white whale in Moby Dick.”

Yawn. And maybe an accusation of plagiarism, since most educated people would be quick to see that argument as one frequently repeated. The danger is that you just regurgitate what others have said.

Here’s our list of the sufficient list of items to earn an ‘A’ from a reasonably demanding and attentive instructor:

  1. Clear, concise writing.
  2. Very, very few grammatical and typographical errors.
  3. Absolutely correct citation of other people’s ideas and quotes.
  4. An argumentative, original thesis.
  5. Original evidence (not just what was discussed in class) that is analyzed to support the thesis.
  6. Competent writing style and organization.

Students tend to obsess over the second item, and read every comment on their paper that connects to grammatical/mechanical errors as the reason they didn’t get the grade they desired. But usually the other items on the list are contributing much more to a good grade or a poor grade. Put another way, many teachers will overlook mild grammatical issues – that don’t interfere with meaning and aren’t repeated – if a student is writing about compelling ideas and digging below the surface of evidence.

So #4 and #5 are the real secrets to earning an ‘A’ from your average, competent and caring English teacher. And guess what? Writing with those goals in mind will be more fun and rewarding for you, too.

Learn More…

“Close reading” is a skill you need to understand and practice. Most teachers will give you a lot of leeway here – it’s a place where you can take some chances and have some fun. Our article on the subject and  this resource from Rutgers University professor Jack Lynch are good starting points.