Grade Norms for Essays in my Courses

With acknowledgments to rubrics from Harvard Writing Center’s Maxine Rodburg, Princeton Writing Program’s Kerry Walk, the Rutgers Writing Program Gradatorium (from all of which I have borrowed much), and Kristie Allen.

Students in my classes will also want to consult the Macalester College English Department's aims for teaching writing at each course level. You can find this information by clicking on "Pen & Page" in the navigation bar at the top of this page.


When I am evaluating an essay, I look for quality of attention to a work's language, pressure put on the essay writer's own thoughts, and zest.

The A Range

An A range essay is excellent in aims, structure, development of argument, complexity of thinking, devotion to the craft of the sentence and the paragraph, proposal or thesis. Its writer shows bold creative thinking, maturity of perception and sympathy, and a sense of pleasure in the craft of thinking through writing. It is supple, vivid, and assured. Such an essay orchestrates a number of strengths.

  • Its aims are ambitious, engaging complex ideas; it formulates initial questions clearly and with open curiosity; it aims to explore as well as to argue. Its proposal or thesis is easy to identify in the very first paragraph.
  • Its structure is sturdy, with all parts relating to one another and to the whole. Individual paragraphs are lodged precisely where they need to be, not in random order. The structure has a perceptible order that’s conceptual, not based on sequence of events in the works discussed. Every part is linked to every part by connective words and tissues of thought. Its introduction speaks immediately of the literary work and an issue or idea in regard to it. Its conclusion returns to the essay's core ideas, now put in a new light, and opens out to some new formulation or possibility.
  • Its argument engages counter-evidence and counter-arguments. Individual points in the argument are supported by language from the literary work. The argument deploys evidence with care, discernment, and patience in studying the details of the evidence. The thesis will find itself changing as the details of the argument nuance the original proposal. Analysis of passages and ideas is thorough, and close reading attends to figurative language, placement, tone, whatever details of language are germane. Clear conversation emerges among essay writer and other thinkers, if any are used. Questions, arguments, and thesis are sustained throughout.
  • If it uses sources other than the literary work being studied, these are cited clearly and also correctly; they are used with gratitude for the work of the other thinker. They are used not (or not only) as authorities but as fellow-thinkers, whose work you will revise, extend, refine, refute, link up with another idea in a creative way.
  • Its paragraphs are crafted so as to lead with a strong idea or question, which unfolds, grows, develops, or otherwise grows complex in the course of the paragraph. Its paragraphs are always tied to the preceding and following paragraphs. Its paragraphs are rarely more than a page long. Its paragraphs do not simply repeat assertions, nor simply pile up details as evidence. Rather, the paragraph develops an idea so as to make more complex or complicated relationships, so that the reader can perceive thinking in action. As Roger Sale says,
It is almost always a matter of the relationships [that the writer] establishes, between example and generalization, between one part of a narrative and the next, between the idea and the counter idea that the writer sees is also relevant, between his experience and what he knows of the experience of others—in short, between any two parts of his knowledge. On the one hand this, on the other hand that; not this, but that; not just this, but also that; if this, then that; because this, that; that as an example of this; not this until that; yet, moreover, since, so, and . . . inquiring into the exact relationship between things.
  • The introduction establishes a speaker (you) who is thoughtful, imaginative, courteous of the reader’s needs; the conclusion gives something more than a summary since our knowledge and the writer’s conception have both expanded since the essay began.Its sentences are crafted with variety of length and structure, complexity of syntax, plenty of complex sentences and effective subordinate clauses, and rhythmic swing. The verbs are strong, active, dynamic. There are very few passive verbs and very few ‘to be’ or ‘there are’ verbs. Its style aims to be warm, precise, and dense, such that every word counts. Such sentences will often rise to verve and elegance. Every word counts; hackneyed phrases dare not raise their heads; word choice demonstrates freshness and imagination.
  • There is no paraphrase, plot synopsis, or relaying of facts from the literary work, unless briefly and in the service of an idea or an argument. (Example of plot synopsis, very bad: "Odysseus was in the Trojan War for ten years; then he circuitously tries to get home for another 10 years. He meets nymphs and giants and other marvels along the way." This is bad because it has no ideas in it.  In my courses we learn how to make literary observations that give rise to ideas.)
  • Concepts and terms reveal the writer's in-depth comprehension and critical thinking about them
  • Its writer admires the elegance of formatting, and uses The Chicago Manual of Style (or some other clear visual source of formatting) for clear visual example of how to format quotations, titles, notes, and so on.

An essay may earn an A- if it has achieves many but not quite all these strengths.

The B Range

A B+ essay fulfills the strengths of a B essay (as follows), and also does these things:

  • It sustains a focus from beginning to end.
  • It is rooted in analysis and forges connections among its ideas.
  • It attends to prose style, to structure of paragraphs, and to sequence of ideas.
  • Paraphrase or plot synopsis will make any potentially B+ essay fall into a B- range.

A B essay does these things:

  • It unfolds its aims, questions, and proposals clearly in introductory paragraph or paragraphs.
  • It uses quotations and detailed analysis of quotations.
  • It aims at connective thinking among texts and ideas. The thinking gets more complex as it goes on.
  • Its style is clear, precise, pithy, and intentional. Its paragraphs are tight, cohesive, and strongly linked together with thought-transitions as well as word-transitions.

A B or B- essay often needs to address areas like these:

  • The thesis may be less than forceful, innovative, or unclear; it may gesture toward promising ideas.
  • It may not analyze evidence and passages in sufficient depth to forward the complexity of an idea or assertion; or there may be too little evidence; or there may be too little analysis of evidence.
  • Its ideas and arguments may be solid but conceptually safe, not pushed as far as they need to go.
  • The essay may not take sufficient account of counter-evidence or counter-arguments.
  • The sense of what counts as a shapely paragraph, and the paragraph’s relationship to an idea, may be wobbly, but it won’t be chaotic. The sentence style and word choice may be clear but has not started to spark up with attention to verbs, fresh diction, variety of sentence structure, and rhythm. There will be no errors of usage, syntax, grammar, spelling.
  • Structure may be less than sturdy. Strong binding links between paragraphs, or attention to the logic by which one part follows another, may need more work.
  • Sources may be engaged in insufficient depth, or used as authorities rather than as fellow-thinkers, or used as a straw man to stage an otherwise weak argument.
  • It fails to take pains in formatting elegantly.

A B- essay satisfies the criteria and norms for a C+ paper (see below), and also demonstrates these things:
  • It demonstrates awareness of its own aims, questions, and proposals.
  • It takes more risks in thinking than a C essay.
  • It articulates its aims, questions, and proposals near the start of the paper.
  • It chooses quotations more effectively than a C essay, and tries to offer in-depth analysis of the language of these quotations.
  • It makes connections among texts and ideas, and develops these connections at greater depth than in a C essay.
  • Paragraphs are solid and consistent in structure; transitions from paragraph to paragraph consist not only of word-bridges but of tighter thought-bridges.

A B- essay may suffer from frequent slides into plot synopsis or paraphrase, rather than analysis.

The C Range 
  • C+ essays clearly have a question and an aim, but may be so general as not to illuminate the specifics of a text.
  • C+ essays will aim to take up more complicated ideas and examples from the readings than C essays.
  • There may be very little forging of connections among ideas. 
  • There may be little or nothing in the way of structure.
  • There may be a good deal of plot synopsis and paraphrase.
  • Although there may be occasional misreading of quotations, this misreading doesn’t contribute to general misreading of a literary work.
  • Its aims address the assignment somewhere in the essay.
  • It may rely on summary in some places, but also assays analysis, at least some of the time.
  • It uses quotations that properly support a point.
  • The main proposal or idea may emerge most clearly at the end of the essay.
  •  Ideas may be repeated in various guises rather than developed.
  • It demonstrates fundamental correctness in syntax, grammar, spelling, and formatting.
  • Its organization may be loose.
  • A C essay may suffer from these evident troubles: The essay is content with hackneyed ideas, large generalizations, platitudes, truisms, all of which short-circuit the energy of the writer’s own mind.
  • The essay may be weak in sentence craft: awkward phrasing, many passive verbs, inattention to the polishing of words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. There may be some rudimentary errors in usage, grammar, syntax.

The D Range 

A D essay reveals fundamental problems in reading comprehension; misunderstanding or misuse of vocabulary; too-heavy reliance on summary; lack of connection among texts; avoidance of one assigned text in favor of others; rudimentary errors of grammar, syntax, and usage; extreme monotony and lack of complexity in sentence structure; incoherent or extremely short and undeveloped paragraphs; little or no analysis; no demonstration of understanding the paragraph as a unit of meaning; lack of organization. An essay may also earn this grade if it’s significantly shorter than it ought to be; if it lacks conceptual curiosity or openness to ideas.

And even below the D range!

An F essay (at Macalester, NC) demonstrates little or no interest in thinking through writing; or no understanding of the assignment; or problems like any of the above but on a much more serious level.

Grades give to you and me some specific feedback about a specific document. They don’t show feedback about your process, your improvement, or how hard you worked. They are limited in their scope, but no less useful for that.

Grades imply no judgment about your character or worth.

Grades are broad, in the following sense: Let’s say you earn a B on one essay, and work toward improvement on the next essay. You may improve in many respects, yet still get a grade of B on the second essay, because each grade is an umbrella for many skills.

If you take the craft of writing to heart, sometimes the prose will get worse before it gets better—as is the case with any complex skill. This means that sometimes your grades will decline for the very projects in which you learn and progress the most. It just happens.

Sources for quoted material on this page:
Roger Sale, On Writing. New York: Random House, 1970.