In this episode, I dive into the biggest barrier to higher essay grades, exploring what truly holds you back from achieving the grades you desire.

By listening, you'll uncover actionable insights to help you break through these barriers and enhance your essay writing skills.

I address common challenges adult learners face, from not knowing what skills to improve, to struggling with time management and understanding feedback.

This episode is packed with practical advice and empathetic understanding, ensuring you feel supported and empowered to take control of your academic journey.

Tune in to discover how to turn feedback into progress and elevate your essay grades to reflect your hard work and determination.

This post originated as a podcast episode which you can listen to below or search for episode 160 of the Chloe Made Me Study podcast. Or, if you’re more of a learn-by-reading student, carry on for the rough-and-ready blog version based on the podcast script.

Ways to listen:


How to Actually START Your Essay

Workbook + video training to take you from procrastination and overwhelm to understanding your question and mapping out your ideas with momentum. Easier, faster essay writing (and higher grades) await.

Start Your Essay

Welcome to episode four of this six-part series all about how to write better essays. The first part, episode 157, shared the 5 simple, essential requirements of every first class essay. Then, episode 158, shared how to use the PEEL method to write powerful paragraphs. And last week, episode 159 was all about my simple technique to stop the tangents so you can actually answer your essay question (and achieve high marks). So be sure to check these out if you haven’t yet.

In this week’s episode we’re going to talk about the biggest barrier to higher essay grades – what’s getting in the way of you achieving epic essay grades that reflect your hard work and determination.

Now there could be a few things holding you back from achieving the essay grades you really want. But I want to talk about what I see as the biggest one with the students I work with.

It’s super important that you move through your studying journey in a present way. By that I mean that you have the curiosity to reflect on your process – what’s working, what’s not, and why that might be. We are all unique learners, furthering our education from our own unique situation of strengths, weaknesses, fears, experience and expectation. So developing self awareness will help you to identify the right strategies and then change them up when you need to.

The biggest barrier to higher essay grades

OK, so the biggest barrier to higher essay grades I see with the students I work with is that they’re not improving their study skills between essays and as they progress through their studying – either at all or enough to see their marks increase.

Four core reasons for this big barrier to higher essay grades

I’m going to break this down into what I see as the four core reasons why students don’t improve their study skills enough or at all between essays.

#1 You don’t realise you have to improve your study skills between essays

As you progress through your qualification, more will be expected of you. Not only will you be learning new stuff, and that knowledge will likely become more complex over time. But you will also be tested on higher-level skills as you progress. For example, critical thinking refers to a set of evaluation skills that may not really be expected of you at all in your first year, and then gradually throughout your modules you will be expected to go further and further down this rabbit hole. Well, without improving your critical thinking skills regularly, you won’t be up for the ever-more-challenging task and your marks will reflect that.

A tutor once told me something that really stuck with me. She said that, in her experience, achieving 70% in an essay at level 1 or year 1 of a qualification would equate to achieving 60% at level 2/year 2 or 50% at level 3/year 3. Now, the percentages don’t really matter here, it’s the sentiment. Because, without improving your essay writing skills, your grade would actually drop year on year. It’s common for students to fear the step up to the next level of studying. I can understand their nervousness but as long as you work to improve your skills as you study you’ll more than cope with the jump up. 

The issue then and the reason for this big barrier to higher essay grades is that not all students know that they need to improve their grades in alignment with the increased expectation from their course. This is not a lesson that is taught at university. And actually, I would argue that in some higher education settings the OPPOSITE message is communicated. Some universities seem to focus on the idea that getting into university means you’ve won. You’ve done the hard work, you obviously have the intelligence and talent and skills to be here. But this is a false hope that can actually leave students struggling and then doubting themselves completely. Instead, you want to focus on seeing your university journey like a video game. The levels will progressively get harder but that’s OK because along the way you’ll be levelling up and gaining more skills and better moves.

Related to essays, here’s the stages of the cycle that need to happen if you want to improve your essay marks as you go.

  1. Write an essay.
  2. Get feedback on this essay.
  3. Improve your skills based on this feedback and your own reflection.

Then you go round the cycle again. But this time you:

  1. Write a BETTER essay
  2. Get different feedback, on other skills or at a deeper level.
  3. Improve your skills again.

So you write an even better essay. And so on and so forth.

Now, there are some problems that can arise with this cycle. So let’s go into some of these with the rest of our four reasons for this big barrier to higher grades.

#2 You don’t understand what essay skills to improve

The biggest way to understand the skills you need to improve is through the feedback provided by your tutor/lecturer. The quantity and quality varies MASSIVELY between universities so I can understand your frustration if you don’t get any feedback, or it’s minimal or it’s pretty vague. One of the ways round this is to communicate with your tutor – either to ask for more feedback or to clarify the feedback that’s been given. Because, for example, “could be more critical” is not good enough feedback. Ideally you want an example, or specific areas highlighted that could have benefitted from criticality. You might feel nervous to reach out to your tutor or not know what to say.

I’ve created some plug-and-play email templates that are included in my Write Better Essays programme. There’s templates for eight different emails you might want to send to your tutor throughout your degree. You simply copy and paste and fill in the blanks with your situation. All my students are pleasantly surprised (and delighted) when these templates work and they get the answers and support they need.

Also, look out for next week’s episode where I’m going to walk you through a super powerful framework for deciphering the skills you need to improve and demonstrate in your essays.

#3 Not having/making time to improve your essay skills

Earlier this year, I worked with a student who had taken a lot on. He was working full time, caring for a grandparent and also studying part time for a degree. He wasn’t happy with his current essay grades and he’d done the calculations and found that if he didn’t improve them he wouldn’t graduate with a degree he’d be happy with. So he signed up to my Write Better Essays programme because he knew he needed to improve his essay skills.

He started the self-study training, watching some of the videos and looking at the resources.

The full training can be watched in an afternoon but he didn’t have time to complete it because he needed to get cracking on his next essay. So he said he’d come back to them. The programme comes with personalised reviews for an essay plan and draft so he booked these in with me. But he became so overwhelmed working on his essay that he ran out of time to send them to me for review. So we agreed that he could use these reviews for his next essay. He sent me his essay plan and I highlighted that there were some issues with his understanding of the question and some of his planned sections. So I directed him to go back through some of the core videos (ranging from 5-20 minutes long), learn from the worked examples, and to make use of the core resources while he worked on his draft – the Better Essays Workbook to map out his essay and the Better Essays Sentence Starters to help him structure his key points.

When I received his draft review it was clear that he’d not followed my advice. I could see glaring issues with his structure and arguments and criticality. So I completed the review and offered more advice, again suggesting the key videos and resources that would really help him.

I heard back from him once he received his mark for this essay and he was disappointed as it was exactly the same as his previous essay. We spoke about it and he admitted that he’d not used the training enough while writing his essay. Yes, there were days where time was a valid excuse, but he’d also had plenty of opportunities to use his time better, where he could have written sections following the guidance in the training, he could have mapped out his ideas using the workbook first so they’d be closer aligned to the question. He could have used the sentence starters guide to help him structure his ideas. We talked some more and he reflected that even on the days where he didn’t have much time, his time probably would have been better spent improving his essay skills so the process would be easier in future, rather than spending his time repeating his same process that he knew wasn’t working, getting stuck in cycles of overwhelm, doubt and procrastination.

Now, why am I sharing this student’s story?

  1. Learning how to write better essays is a worthwhile use of your time because it will save you time later. It literally won’t take you as long to get your points down. And you’ll save time by cutting out the overwhelm, confusion and procrastination.
  2. You need to carve out time to work on your study skills. The ideal method is going to be little and often as you study. When you get the marks back for each essay you spend some time uplevelling the appropriate skills ready for the next one. But if you know that it’s a struggle to find time during the academic year, then it makes sense to use your breaks between modules to learn how to study more effectively and efficiently. This episode comes out in July, which for many students is a summer break. Taking just one afternoon or a few one-hour periods of your summer break could really set you up for an easier and more successful academic year.

#4 Not knowing how to improve your skills

Hopefully you’ve picked up some ideas from this episode already but there are lots of ways that you can improve your study skills – once you’ve identified the key ones where improvement can be made.

  • See what study skills resources your university has on its online platform.
  • Ask your tutor or lecturer for any recommendations. Tell them what skills you’d like to improve and ask if they can point you in the direction of some support.
  • Find some specific blog posts or episodes of this podcast to help you learn some new strategies. Head to chloeburroughs.com/blog and select the skills category you’re interested in.
  • Enrol in one of my study skills trainings. For essays I would obviously recommend Write Better Essays.

In just a few hours, you’ll have upleveled your essay skills with in-depth, practical knowledge and you’ll have lifetime access to resources to support you in your future studying. You’ll have The Better Essay Workbook which you can fill out digitally or by hand as you plan and work on each of your essays to keep you on track and focused. Then there’s the Better Essays Sentence Starters – a guide with over 330 sentence starters and prompts to help you structure your points – perfect if you don’t feel very confident with your academic writing.

And Write Better Essays also comes with epic personalised support. You’ll be able to submit an essay plan and then a full essay for direct feedback and guidance on what to tweak to achieve even higher marks.


How to Actually START Your Essay

Workbook + video training to take you from procrastination and overwhelm to understanding your question and mapping out your ideas with momentum. Easier, faster essay writing (and higher grades) await.

Start Your Essay

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