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What does it mean when your professor writes “so what?” on your paper? How can you make sure you get the best grade possible? At a recent Berkeley Connect in English event, Professor Hertha D. Sweet Wong joined a panel of Berkeley Connect graduate mentors to discuss how to get the most out of instructors’ feedback on your papers.

Sweet Wong always makes sure to give constructive criticism when she grades papers. “When I respond to papers, I point out one or two really strong things, and then I talk about what could be stronger in the paper,” she explained. She told an anecdote about a professor she knew (at another university) who was famous for making his students break down in tears when he graded their papers. “I don’t think that’s professional,” she commented. Professor Sweet Wong also urged students to remember that one paper doesn’t define you.

Interacting with your GSI or professor before a paper is due is instrumental to obtaining a good grade. One of the mentors described how impressed she is when a student comes into office hours unprompted before an essay is due. “It really helps facilitate communication,” she said, which is integral to successful teaching—and learning.

“What are your pet peeves?” asked one student. All of the panel members agreed: overly vague introductions really get on their nerves. The format that is often taught in high school, in which the writer takes a concept present in the paper and defines it in broad, ambiguous terms at the beginning, is not appropriate in college papers. “Never start with something like ‘since the start of humankind,’” urged one mentor.

Professor Sweet Wong also stressed the importance of using an organized structure in papers. “You want to be clear and keep the reader from getting lost,” she explained. Short papers may seem less difficult, for example, but they can actually be more so because you have to get your point across in a shorter amount of time. The panel also discussed how paper-writers should avoid too much summarization and not enough analysis. There’s a certain amount of “setting the scene” that is necessary, but Sweet Wong advised assuming that the reader of your paper has also read the book about which you are writing.

One student brought up a prevalent issue here on campus: not getting papers back at the end of the semester. Oftentimes, papers are due at the very end of the semester, and professors and GSIs don’t have enough time to return them to students with comments before they leave for the winter or summer break. “I think it’s our responsibility to give you timely feedback,” responded Sweet Wong. She recommended asking professors or GSIs for the papers back the following semester, as she personally holds onto students’ essays for a while after she grades them. She also recommended asking your professor to mail you your essay over the break.

Getting feedback can sometimes be an uncomfortable experience, but it is incredibly important to strengthening your paper-writing skills in the future. How can you improve if you don’t know what you’re doing wrong, after all? Take advantage of office hours, and make sure you always get the commentary you need to grow.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant