Understanding Your Grade


Receiving feedback on an essay is often a frustrating experience. It’s hard to deal with all the red ink and focus on learning from our mistakes. In addition, students often disagree with instructors on what constitutes a good grade. An instructor might see a B- as a perfectly respectable mark, whereas the student is satisfied with nothing less than a B+.

To prevent misunderstandings, we’ve tried to describe how most instructors think about each type of grade. These grading criteria should give you some rough idea of whether your instructor’s mark is fair or not.

Common Grading Criteria

The following grade descriptions are commonly used for marking essays at the university level.

A Grade

An A grade is reserved for an outstanding essay that provides genuine insight and a persuasive argument. While complete originality is not required, the writer’s thesis should be complex, nuanced, and compelling. In addition, the essay structure is coherent and logical, the evidence is well-integrated, the analysis is detailed, and the writer is able to deal fairly with possible objections and other points of view. Essays that deserve an A grade require little correction in terms of spelling and grammar, though there is no expectation that the writing is flawless.

B Grade

A B grade is given to a strong essay that has a clear structure and an effective argument. This type of essay does require some more polish and editing, but it has an interesting thesis backed up by a sufficient amount of evidence. A B essay may be a bit rough around the edges (both in terms of content and style), but it successfully accomplishes the main objectives of the assignment.

C Grade

A C grade does not stand for crappy. It stands for competent. A C signifies that your writing meets all the basic requirements. Your work has structure, a decent argument, and an adequate amount of proof. In short, your work has potential. With a bit more work and editing you can turn your competent paper into something really good. To improve, you’ll likely also need to fix quite a lot of writing errors. If you struggle with a persistent error such as comma splices or apostrophe problems, your instructor may not give you anything higher than a C until you deal with the issue.

D Grade

A D grade is given to essays that are deficient and provide barely enough content to merit a passing grade. Such essays also contain a significant number of writing errors and tend to lack at least one of the basic aspects of an essay (a thesis, a coherent argument, sufficient evidence, and good paragraph structure). A D essay often reveals some misunderstanding of the topic or assignment and requires major revision.

F Grade

A failing grade is given to essays that are so illogical, poorly organized, and underdeveloped that the instructor cannot find any justification for passing the assignment. An F suggests that the writing is riddled with errors and that the argument is inadequate or incorrect. Note also that essays that are heavily plagiarized will automatically receive an F.

Grading Abbreviations

Can’t figure out what your instructor’s scribbles mean? Check out our sheet of Grading Abbreviations used by editors and academics.



Abbreviations are simply a short version of a word of phrase. For example, AD stands for Anno Domini, which is Latin for the year of the Lord.

Acronyms are a kind of abbreviation that is formed from the first letters (letters or syllables) of a word or phrase. For example, NASA stands in for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. What makes an acronym different from a regular abbreviation is that it is usually treated as a new word.

This page does not seek to explain every last abbreviation or acronym. Rather, it’s an attempt to describe some general attitudes to abbreviations in the context of academic writing.

Our guidelines follow the standards set by the MLA (Modern Language Association). If you are using a different set of guidelines or are working in a particular field, then you may have to apply slightly different rules.

Spell It Out

The general rule of thumb is that abbreviations and acronyms are to be avoided where possible:

Incorrect: The church was only five m. from the house.

Correct: The church was only five meters from the house.

By contrast, nobody would expect you to spell out a.m. (ante meridiem) or rpm’s (revolutions per minute).

In other words, it’s a judgment call. If an abbreviation isn’t really necessary, then spell it out. You can see this attitude in the fact that many academics prefer “and so forth” to “etc.” They mean the same thing, but in the body of the text (as opposed to the notes) it’s considered more elegant to write things out. That’s why they call it formal writing after all.

This is of course not a hard and fast rule. You’re not bound to save “e.g.” for the notes and use “for example” everywhere else. Still, it’s good to be aware of the general attitude.


Academics love their titles. It takes a while to get a PhD, so some professors insist on being called Dr. –, even though they wouldn’t be able to save anyone in an emergency.

However, when you’re quoting someone in an essay you can usually do without a title. You don’t have to write Dr. Philip Sandwich or Priscilla Blunt, MD. An exception might be if the title has become part of the name. For example, Thomas More is sometimes called Sir Thomas More, and the church father Augustine is also known as Saint Augustine or St. Augustine. Yet even in such cases the tendency these days is to do without the title.

If you use a title by itself, you should generally spell it out.

The Prime Minister (not PM) gave a speech.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

If you yourself regularly use an acronym, don’t assume that everybody else knows what you’re talking about. A lot depends on your audience. For example, Canadians know that BC stands for British Columbia, just as most New Zealanders readily understand OE to refer to Overseas Experience, a long holiday or working period overseas. Be ready to explain any acronyms if you think your audience may not understand them.

Here’s how you would spell out the acronym the first time you use it:

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently issued a report on tuberculosis. The WHO recommended …

This way you can provide clarity and still use acronyms in your writing.


If you take anything away from this page let’s hope it’s the fact that there is considerable leeway in the use of abbreviations. Where possible, spell them out. In addition, the more technical your writing (and the more specialized your audience) the more acceptable abbreviations become.

For further information about how to format abbreviations and acronyms, please visit the MLA page on abbreviations.



While abbreviations are rare in academic prose, they are perfectly common in citations.

Punctuating Abbreviations

Abbreviations that consist mostly of capital letters don’t need periods or spaces:


However, for people’s initials you can add periods and spaces unless the entire name is abbreviated:

C. S. Lewis
R. A. Shoaf

You’ll find though that the spaces between initials are often omitted, as anyone researching G.I. Joe would soon discover.

Lowercase abbreviations usually end in periods:


Lowercase abbreviations of multiple words may contain extra periods:


This rule does not apply universally. An exception would be mph (miles per hour), which does not need extra periods.


Any months longer than four letters can be abbreviated:


Common Abbreviations

Here’s a list of other abbreviations used in MLA citations:

ch. = chapter
dept. = department
ed. = edition
e.g. = for example (from the Latin exempli gratia)
et al. = and others (from the Latin et alii)
etc. = and so forth (from the Latin et cetera)
i.e. = that is (from the Latin id est)
no. = number
P = Press
p. = page
pp. = pages
par. = paragraph
qtd. in = quoted in
rev. = revised
sec. = section
trans. = translation
U = University
UP = University Press
vol. = volume

For more information on abbreviations, see Appendix 1 of the MLA Handbook (9th ed.).