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I know that chalkboards are turning into a thing of the past, but have you ever heard fingernails scraping against one? It’s really hard to listen to and it makes most people shudder.

In my time as a university instructor, the equivalent to fingernails on a chalkboard was the question, “what should I write?” It’s a question that seems innocent, but it’s not. To someone grading your work in university, this common query implicitly communicates many things that you probably aren’t intending to say.

The insights I’m sharing with you here are important for two reasons. First, when I taught undergraduates, I heard “what should I write?” a lot. Second, I don’t think university students realize how detrimental this phrase is to how they are perceived and graded by their professors. For good reason (explained below), university instructors hate receiving this question.

If you’re currently an undergraduate student or you’re headed to university soon, here are a few reasons why you should not ask your professor what you should be writing. Rather, your focus should be on something completely different; developing the confidence and skills to tell them what you think and convey these thoughts in writing.

What This Question Actually Says

When asked “what should I write?” by students, three (unfavourable) things may come to your professors mind:

  1. This student does not understand the assignment.
  2. This student has probably not read enough and is looking for answers from me.
  3. This student is not displaying the skills that will earn them a good grade.

If you’re hoping to do well in university, this is probably not the type of interaction you want to have with your instructor.

At its very core, “what should I write?” is the opposite of what you are asked to do in your undergraduate classes. In assignments and essays in university, you should be looking to construct original and logical arguments that answer the question or problem you are being asked to analyze. YOUR answer needs to display YOUR reason. In other words, asking your grader what your essay should say undermines the reason for the assignment.

Do Not Aspire to Reflect Your Grader’s Opinion

I completely understand why you might feel that delivering an assignment that agrees with your professor’s personal opinion is a good idea, but trust me, it’s not. The notion that agreeing with your instructor will get you a better grade is, without question, a myth … and a very detrimental one at that.

Without exception, I have never seen a student get penalized on a paper for giving an opinion that their professor disagrees with. On the other hand, it is a virtual certainty that your grade will suffer if your paper is illogical, poorly written, poorly argued, and, most importantly, descriptive rather than centred on analysis.

When marking papers I, and all the professors I know, have never asked “does this student agree with me?” We have, however, asked, “does this student make a sound and well-reasoned argument?” The latter, not the former, is what you should hope for your professor to answer with an emphatic, “YES!” If this is the case, then you’re probably on your way to getting a great grade.

What Should You Write?

Now that you have a better sense of what you shouldn’t be writing, let’s take a more detailed look at what will help you write stronger papers in university:

The most evident thing that your paper MUST have is a thesis. This is the main building block of any essay and it must convey an argument. If your writing does not support this one statement, it will veer off topic and diminish the quality and grade of your paper. Also, keep in mind that saying you’re going to describe the social, economic, and political consequences of something IS NOT an argument. I have seen many students take this approach because it got them an A in high school, but it won’t have the same outcome in university.

After forming a thesis, you should use your paper to demonstrate how you reached your conclusion. The body paragraphs of your paper should use logic, facts, and academic sources to support your main argument (thesis). Think of it like a math equation where you get partial marks for your answer and partial marks for showing how you got to that answer. A great essay will build an argument in a similar fashion.

Oh, and just a quick note on writing in general; many students think that writing well should come naturally and that arguments are an organic outcome of “smarts”. Both of these ideas are just not true. Good writing starts with analytical reading. When you understand a topic it makes it much easier to respond to. Beyond this, writing is an art that requires you to make mistakes, get feedback, and revise, revise, revise. The longer and more committed to this process of incremental betterment that you are, the better your writing will be.

All of this is just an introduction to what makes a good undergraduate-level paper. If you have any questions about your own writing or you want to work with someone who has taught and graded in a university, reach out to BridgesEDU and we’ll get you on the path to crafting A-level undergraduate papers.

Christopher Grafos, Ph.D., is the founder of BridgesEDU. He is a former university course director and a firm believer that students can perform much better in their undergraduate studies if they have a complete understanding of what is expected of them by professors.