A number of my classmates often wondered why they got a C on their English final research paper. Most attended nearly 100% of the lectures and scored a good solid C or B on each test. They shot the shit with the TA and laughed at the professor’s jokes about international culture and European travel, but at the end of the quarter they failed to earn the easy A on the 10-page research assignment.

What the hell happened?

Above all, they seemed to forget that the TA didn't touch their work. She was too busy doing assignments that were relevant to her career and they wasted some of their beer on her, the poor sods.

The middle-aged professional Renaissance lutenist and music historian with the doctorate--my professor, of course--did all of the work.

Here is the best way to learn how to earn the easy A: find out from the professor. No bribery is necessary, and they turn out to be a better person to shoot the shit with anyway. If there’s nothing to talk about, it might be helpful to bring your paper topic and outline to him well before the due date so he can tell you what works and what could be different. It is possible that he might even recommend a source or two. Do your own research and share your sources, as he is probably familiar with them.

Now, all that must be done is to write a well-written and properly-formatted paper while following the outline. Writing well is covered elsewhere, but doesn't the professor have guidelines?

Understand how the professor grades your paper

At the time, it seemed to be a difference between what some of my classmates thought and reality. I admit, though, my professor did not help much. All he did was put every word of it in the syllabus, right under our noses, and laugh at us when we didn’t notice. It almost seems like some kind of sick joke that he rehashes on the new class each year.

Following the guidelines is imperative

My professor had a five page paper evaluation that included everything he might nickel and dime in our truly sorry-ass assignments. They were even put into categories: content (e.g. "lack of musical examples"), organization (e.g. "does not follow outline"), sources (e.g. "excessive reliance on the textbook"), bibliography (e.g. "punctuation"), footnotes (e.g. "formatting of footnote reference in text"), quotations (e.g. "no introduction to quote"), paper format (e.g "foreign terms not italicized"), mechanics & grammar (e.g. "number agreement"), and style (e.g. "too many repeated words or phrases"). I got hooked up with this document after much intense website navigation, but allegedly it could sometimes be found on the piano after class.

Here are some common mistakes to avoid:

  • Use MLA even though the professor asked for Bellman and will probably barf when he sees your citations.

  • Use Arial and 2.2 spacing to get those extra few inches on the paper.

  • Completely ignore the margins the professor asked for.

But, it's still all about the writing

Excellent. Now you have a clean slate--a mental template for the perfectly-formatted paper that excruciatingly follows the professor's personal rubrick--and all you have to deliver is a well-written piece. You know how to do that, though.

Undergrads can be cynical, too.