Essay Writing Home Page
How this guide is used on social science history courses at Middlesex


By Andrew Roberts, Chris Burford and Sue Mew

This guide cannot tell you what your mark should be. It can only indicate what it could be. One reason for this is that essays will not fall neatly into the same grade on all points. In deciding what weight to attach to the strong and weak points, you will have to use your judgement.

Start at the bottom (plagiarism - naughty) and work past Fail to the Pass Grades.
Our rule of thumb in constructing the guide to each pass grade
Pass Grade: Concentrate on:
third degree of demonstrated knowledge
lower second
degree of focus
upper second. strength of argument
first. excellence in all the rest, plus originality

As well as the descriptions of grades we give the numerical values used in Middlesex University's twenty point scale.

At Middlesex University, degree level is level three (the second and third year) . First year modules tend to mark essays on a more generous scale. The guide will suggest the quality of work you need to achieve level three (degree level) marks.

How British Universities Mark Degrees

In British Universities, degrees with honours are classified in First Class, Upper Second, Lower Second and Thirds. At Middlesex University the class a student gains is calculated from an average of the grades achieved on assessed work after the first year. First year marks are not included. The first year is a period when students are learning what makes good assessed work.

Whilst there are rules that say how many marks out of 100 are needed to make each grade, marking in the humanities and social sciences has to involve a qualitative assessment that cannot be turned mechanically into a figure. There are no golden rules that tell staff markers what to classify a piece of work as. But markers have their own rules of thumb, which tend to follow similar patterns. These guidelines are based on the rules of thumb that SHE staff markers use, but they have been compared with guidelines produced by other people, and have been discussed with staff working on other modules.

Feedback on our guidelines is always welcome.

Because different courses have different aims, they expect different forms of essay. You need to find out what kind of essay is required in each area.

Using the Guide

You should grade your essay by checking upwards. This is why the guide starts at the bottom and works up. Each ascending grade requires all the virtues, and none of the vices, of the grade below.

For example, an essay with a good argument (a virtue listed for upper seconds) that does not clearly show the student's knowledge of the subject, will be fortunate to pass with a third.

Think about


find out what a benchmark is

To mark, you have to identify and name the qualities and deficiencies of your essay. You will have to understand the technical meanings that markers give to words like argument , basic [see below] , competent [see below] , critical [see below] , discursive [see below] , focus [see below] , interesting [see below] , original [see below] , sophisticated [see below] , and structured [see below]. They are words taken from everyday use, but they have been given technical meanings that are tighter, or different than, the common meaning. To find out what markers mean by these terms, just click on the coloured words.

These technical terms are used as benchmarks to assess and talk about the level of an essay


PLAGIARISM: is representing someone else's work as your own - which is what you do when you copy. In practice it means that your essay has passages, apart from quotations , that are:

 the same as in a book, journal or another student's essay, or
 the same as in a book, journal or another student's essay, but with some words altered.

In the academic scale of values, plagiarism is counted as worse than failing.

So first check that your essay does not contain any passages, apart from quotations, copied from a book or other publication. (Including passages copied with some words altered). Also check that you have not copied passages from notes that might have been another student's essay draft, a lecture or tape that you listened to, or the soundtrack of a video you watched.

plagiarism is treated as an academic offence

Plagiarism is treated as an academic offence - Even when you did not intend to do it. Be careful. Click on the cartoon my uncle Stan (the one in red) drew for you and learn how to write in your own words

FAIL: Essays may fail because they are very weak, but we advise you not to suggest a fail mark for your own essay.

To pass, an essay must be sufficiently clearly written to show that you have understood the subject. To achieve any third class grade (16, 15, 14 or 13) an essay must show you understand the subject and the question you are answering and must demonstrate knowledge of the subject. The more understanding and knowledge demonstrated - the better the third class. However, third class essays are often noted by the feature that prevent them from being lower seconds. These are faults that you should consider working on.

Third class essays are often discursive (rambling, unfocused) and bring in unrelated (or not directly related) issues. Poor use of English can hold an essay down to a third.

Even if well written and focused , an essay with clearly incorrect information, or showing that the reading has been badly misunderstood, may be graded as a third.

The lowest marks in the third range (16 and 15) may be due to serious English problems, or you may not understand how to write an essay. Of course, your essay may be weak because you have not been attending to your work. On the other hand, you may be a hard-working, skilful student, with a good grasp of the issues, but get a poor third because you do not present your knowledge to the examiner. Make sure that you say and explain what you know. Do not miss relevant material out because the staff marker will know it already. If you get 15 or a lower grade, for whatever cause, you should ask for advice.

upper marks in third range (14 and 13): usually indicate that a good knowledge of the subject has been shown (but not enough to be counted as competent) and that the question being asked has been properly understood.

Essays that show a competent understanding of the subject and the question may still not get a better mark than a good third (13) if

 they are unfocused (discursive, rambling) or bring in unrelated (or not directly related) issues.

 they do not show that the student has the skill to write a competent essay.

Two examples of this are:

1) a well focused essay showing a competent understanding but with few references;

2) An essay that consists largely of quotations (however well referenced).


To achieve a lower second class grade (12, 11, 10 or 9) an essay must show a competent understanding of the subject area and the question being answered.

A competent essay demonstrates that you are capable of doing the task that was set. It must focus on the question and give a clear, structured reply. The focus should be made clear in an introduction and maintained throughout the essay. The structure will be shown by a clear and accurate outline in the introduction of the order in which you wrote about the issues.

The lowest marks in lower second range (12 and 11): The lower marks in the lower seconds indicate that you have demonstrated a competent, basic knowledge of the subject and shown that you have read and understood the required sources. Faults may include being only loosely focused and less than tightly referenced.

good lower second (10 and 9): These are essays that demonstrate a good understanding of the subject, in a well organised fashion, with an introduction that tells the marker what it is about and how it is organised, but with a more descriptive than critical approach.

All the ideas in the essay would flow sequentially from one point to the next, demonstrating that the student has not only understood the subject well, but knows how to express that understanding coherently. All points of the question would be fully dealt with.

A sharply focused essay, without an argument is probably a good lower second. It would have to be tightly referenced to required sources. It would not make assertions without indicating pages in a required source that supported the assertion, and giving the reader all the information needed to look up the reference.


Upper second essays are more than competent: they shine with a degree of special intellectual achievement. Students who are planning on an academic career will aim for upper seconds.

Whilst a sharp focus is needed for an essay to reach the borderline of an upper (from a lower), it is usually the argument that makes it an upper second. An argument also makes an essay critical rather than (just) descriptive.

The essay must demonstrate a more than competent understanding of the subject and the question. Its focus is provided by its argument , which is stated in the introduction, and the case for which is made in the body of the essay. The outline of the essay, given in the introduction, will be related to the argument, and followed by a summary of the essay.

The lowest marks in the upper second range (8 and 7): Clear uppers (8 and 7) will have all the qualities of thirds and lower seconds, plus a clear argument which is well supported in the body of the essay by very tight referencing to the required sources.

good upper second (6 and 5): A good upper second essay would demonstrate an exceptionally clear and critical understanding of the subject. The main factor separating a good upper (6 or better) from a clear upper, is the strength of its argument. The argument will be sophisticated and interesting , rather than basic, and the referencing will be correspondingly better.

For an essay to achieve a 5 it would have to show some indication of originality.


Firsts (4, 3, 2 and 1) must have all the qualities of thirds, lower seconds and upper seconds, applied in such an excellent way as to demonstrate, throughout the essay, clear evidence of original thought - or similar outstanding quality.


© Andrew Roberts, Chris Burford and Sue Mew.

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What the Guide is

As a student you should make your own assessment of the quality of your work.
This guide explains the qualities to look for in an essay. It shows you how to describe its strengths and weaknesses and how to estimate the mark it deserves.

This is to help people evaluate and improve their own essays. Although it is related to numerical marking systems that "grade" essays, we encourage you to think most about the qualitative assessment of your essay. Is it focused? Is its structure clear? How well is it introduced? Does it have a clear argument? Is there a flow to the essay and do the points you make follow one another logically?

Grades are just a method of reducing the qualitative assessment to a number that can be ranked and compared to other grades.

The guide is to grades at degree level, but by concentrating on the qualities rather than the numbers, it can be used to assess any academic essay.