In some ways students, like professional academics, write essays to explore new information and perspectives. But if you assume this is your only task, you’re taking an unnecessary risk. Your task as a student also involves proving yourself to your professor, and a major part of proving yourself is showing that you can accomplish specific tasks. Assignments are designed to lay these tasks out for you, so you need to properly and thoroughly understand assignment sheets.
Easily one of the biggest mistakes you can make as a student is to assume that you know the assignment after a brief glance at the assignment sheet. I’ve marked essays for a number university classes, and in each class, otherwise competent students have bungled their essays simply because they did not fully understand the assigned task.
Below I offer some tips on how to approach an assignment sheet, and then I offer an example of how to parse an assignment sheet.
Approaching the assignment sheet
Read it. This is self-explanatory, but an alarming number of students don’t.
Read it again, looking for anything confusing. Find any issues that you need clarified. Assignment sheets are written by your professors, but sometimes the sheet will contain errors or confusions. Don’t be stymied just because you didn’t ask for clarification.
Identify all of its key components. Identify and highlight, or otherwise mark off, each key component of the essay. This means not only the goals of the assignment, but also deadlines, length specifications, formatting, submission method, and any other directions it gives. Also identify anything at all that you think you might forget.
Parse it. Simplify the assignment so that you have a clean list of everything you need to do. You can think of this as making a sort of bullet-point list, if you like.
Check it as you write. While you’re writing the paper, and especially while you’re editing the paper, make sure that you cross off each item in your list. You need to make sure you get everything done, and this is one failsafe method.
The following is an assignment I gave to a class recently. It’s fairly elaborate, and it required students to pay close attention, but notice how simple it becomes when parsed.
Argumentative Essay Assignment
Deadline: Oct. 3, by midnight
Submission: Submit through the course website and to my e-mail
Late penalty: 20%/day
Assignment: Identify a few of the most significant innovations or processes that contributed to a historically significant invention. The invention itself should be an apparatus (an instrument, piece of machinery, tool, material, etc.)—large or small, it does not matter. “Innovations or processes” might include more abstract developments, such as certain theories or theoretical discoveries, but they might simply include other inventions that had to precede the one you focus on in your paper. (Please note that these “innovations or processes” should include interesting developments, which is to say ones that are not completely obvious; for example, were you to take the automobile as your “historically significant invention,” referencing the invention of the wheel as a necessary precursor would only take you so far.)
How this is argumentative: Notice that 1) this essay requires you to establish a connection between a process or innovation and an invention, such that I am convinced the process or innovation was important to that invention—the task of convincing me requires argument. Also, notice that 2) the claim that a given invention is historically significant will require some justification. In other words, this essay will require some discussion of the consequences or uses of the invention, which will take the form of an argument that the invention is, in fact, historically significant.
Format: The document should be double-spaced, in 12 point font, using Times New Roman, or some other formal, serif font. It should also include page numbers. No title page is necessary, though your name, my name, the course name and number, and the date should appear somewhere (if you choose not to use a title page, this information should be presented in this order, each element on its own line, at the top of the first page, left-justified, above the title of your paper).
Citation style: APA or Chicago citation style should be used throughout, but I ask that if you do use APA Style you also use page numbers for each in-text citation—notice that this is a slight modification of APA Style citation rules.
Evaluation: This paper will be marked solely on its structure, grammar, style, and rhetorical efficacy. In other words, this essay is being evaluated on the quality of the writing. Notice that this does not mean that the content of the paper does not matter. For example, insofar as the content and tone of the paper create a sense of credibility—or insofar as the paper uses all and only necessary information—the content of the paper makes a difference.
Shane finished his master’s degree in English literature in 2013 and has been working as a writing tutor and editor since 2009. He began proofreading and editing essays with Scribbr in early summer, 2014.