How to Talk Your Way to a Higher Grade (When You Think You Deserve One)

Situation #3: “I thought my essay warranted a higher grade than the one I received.”

Some students dread essays because they believe professors grade them more subjectively than they would an exam. Though the lines blur a bit when it comes to grading essays, most professors follow a rubric. If they do not, you can request that they provide you with detailed criteria as to how they graded the essay.
Once again, the best way to approach a professor about an essay issue is by scheduling an appointment. But before you do, make sure you’ve read the rubric and grading criteria thoroughly. Maybe the emphasis of the paper was to “persuade,” but you simply “informed.” Little nuances like these can cause even the best-written papers to receive bad grades.
“When you meet with your professor, begin by asking your professor to explain what would make the essay better,” said Ritchey. “Let your professor begin and detail what she was expecting—what needed to be included. This opens the dialogue and provides you the opportunity to agree with your professor and for you to show which essays meet her criteria.”
“I got a failing grade on a paper because I hadn’t done exactly what the professor wanted,” said Rebecca, a junior at the University of Southern California. “I ended up going to a one-on-one meeting with the professor, where we discussed what I had done wrong. Because I had taken the initiative to meet with him, he ended up granting me a one-week extension to make all of the corrections and resubmit the paper. I ended up getting a passing grade.”
Again, if a TA is grading your essay, you should approach him before the professor. If you then believe the TA was not adhering to the rubric, you can make an appointment with the professor.

Situation #4: “I don’t think my cumulative grade is an accurate reflection of how I’ve done on the assignments in this class.”
In most classes, chances are you’re turning in frequent assignments to professors and receiving feedback. Therefore, when you are getting mostly A’s on your assignments and you find out that you received a B in the course, this can be a cause for concern.
The likely situation is that you didn’t have a clear understanding of how each assignment was graded. “Take a look at the syllabus first to see how many percentage points each assignment or exam was worth,” said Wu. “Ask your instructor for a breakdown of how your final grade was assigned. If you believe there is a discrepancy, feel free to bring this up to your instructor.”
Because the course is likely finished by the time this issue occurs, the best way to get in contact with the professor is by sending him or her an email. If you feel you need to discuss the matter, ask to set up either an in-person or phone meeting. Although this likely will not result in you receiving a higher grade (unless the professor made a mistake), it serves as further proof that you should carefully read and follow the syllabus throughout the course to avoid this problem!
Things to Keep in Mind...

When speaking with a professor, there are a number of things to remember:

  • Stay courteous and professional at all times (Never whine!)
  • Be extremely clear and concise about your concerns
  • Don’t expect special treatment from the instructor and understand that they are trying to grade each student fairly
  • If the professor is clearly opposed to changing the grade, don’t become annoying or inconsiderate. (Professors talk to each other and you’ll develop a bad reputation.)
  • NEVER try to change an answer on a test after it has already been handed back to you. Not only is this dishonest and against university policies, many professors photocopy exams before handing them back.

“Always be polite and appreciative of the time professors are taking to meet with you,” Wu said. “If you immediately start pointing the finger at your instructor, it can instantly put the instructor in a defensive mode. Go in with an open mind, address your concerns and truly listen to what your instructor has to say first.”
Ultimately, all of the solutions come back to approaching your professor and having an effective conversation with him or her about your concerns. You may be tempted to run straight to your academic advisor with a grade dispute, but many of these issues can be solved in a one-on-one meeting in office hours or after class. If you truly believe the professor is being unfair, and you’ve tried to resolve it through conversation, then you are justified to approach your advisor. 
Lynn H. Ritchey, PhD, Professor of Sociology in the Behavioral Science Department, University of Cincinnati, Blue Ash College
Maryann Wu, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Advisement and Academic Services, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, USC
Rebecca, University of Southern California, Class of 2013
Stephanie, University of Southern California, Class of 2012