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6 Ways to Grade College Essays Faster and Easier

After over 20 years of teaching college English, the author loves to share tips, teaching plans, and information about the profession.


Grading Essays Is Hard Work!

Do you dread grading essays? Most English teachers do. As an English Instructor for over 23 years, I estimate I graded well over 13,000 Freshman essays. Since I usually look at drafts as well as final papers, I've probably read over twice that many! This article contains the tips and tricks I've used and gathered from colleagues over the years to make essay grading better, faster, and easier!

The 6 methods for grading college essays quickly:

  1. Custom Rubric
  2. Standardized Short Comments
  3. Quick Grammar Marking
  4. Rubric Code Method
  5. Use Grammarly or Turnitin
  6. Read Aloud Grading

1. Custom Rubric

I've seen many simple graph rubrics, but students always wanted me to explain them. So I developed this detailed rubric which is based on the guidelines for grades set out by our English Department. I find the detailed explanation of the differences between "A," "B" and "C" in each area of the paper not only cut down on what I had to explain to students, but also helped me to make a decision on grades. You are welcome to use my rubric below or customize it for your own grading standards. In fact, I sometimes change the rubric for specific essays to reflect what I'm emphasizing on that paper. See my Sample Custom Rubric at the end of the article.

2. Standardized Short Comments

Sometimes, you want to make the writing more personal and what you want to say isn't on the rubric. I also find that short, personal comments (2-4 sentences) can be a way to point students to the most important thing I want them to work on as well as a way to give them some praise. So most of the time, even when I use a rubric or other method, I leave a small amount of space to write a personal comment; however, to make this easier, I follow a standard format using a few of the following sentences (when I've graded electronically, I had these comments or starting parts of sentences ready for cutting and pasting).

  1. The best part of your essay is...
  2. You did excellent work on...
  3. What I liked best...
  4. I can tell you have improved on...
  5. Your final paper is better than the draft in...
  6. Two things you need to work on next...
  7. What did not work as well...
  8. Please remember to...
  9. Don't forget to...
  10. Follow the instructions better on...

3. Quick Grammar Marking

Another technique I've used to make comments about grammar and mechanics easier is to use a Grammar Error List. At the end of the grading rubric, I include a list of the common grammar errors I see in many student papers. That way, as I go through the paper, I can just:

  • Put a checkmark on the side of the paper where the error is.
  • Circle or underline the error.
  • On electronic grading, you can highlight the error.

When I finish grading, I circle the rubric for the errors the student made which helps me and the student keep track of what they need to learn. Then the student is responsible for going back, correcting the error, and learning the grammar principle. If you have a tutoring service at your school, this can be a helpful way for students to use that service. If you give personal help during office hours, this can help you to quickly scan the paper for errors to talk about. However, I always ask students to try to correct errors on their own first before coming to me.

4. Rubric Code Method

Want to save trees and your hands from getting sore? The video below shows a method for creating a Rubric Code that you can give to students at the start of the semester. Then, instead of writing a lot of comments, you just need to put the number and letter of the code on the paper. This method can be used for content comments or for grammar errors.

5. Grading Using Grammarly or Turnitin

I love using Grammarly for editing my own documents, and I've frequently told my students to use the free version too. Using Grammarly Premium, you can also have a tool for grading essays. Have your students submit electronically, put Grammarly in editing mode, and you can have the program do part of the work for you while you type comments in Review-mode bubbles. If your institution subscribes to Turnitin, you can use the grading mode in that program in a similar way. Although it took some time for me to incorporate all of my personal comments into the Turnitin platform, once I did, I was very pleased with how the system allowed me to make detailed comments more easily. Both Grammarly and Turnitin can also help students understand their errors by referring them to grammar handbooks (a Grammarly premium subscription can be cheaper than most college grammar handbooks).

6. Read Aloud Grading

One colleague of mine handled his grading in a very different, personal, and time-efficient way. He had students come to his office and read their papers out loud to him. He read along (on a second copy) and made brief comments as they read. In the end, he gave them a grade and told them a few brief comments. This method does require you to be able to handle student reactions to grades in real-time and means you will have to spend time during office hours and scheduling students. However, this method definitely keeps your time per essay down to 10-15 minutes.

Use these tips to grade that stack of Freshman English essays faster and better!

Use these tips to grade that stack of Freshman English essays faster and better!

Custom Grading Rubric

Name______________________ Essay #___________

Check = error in the sentence.

A=9 or 10 (exceptional work) B=8; C=7; D=6; F=5 or below

______ Pre-Writing Assignments, writing center visits

(A) All assignments completed carefully and thoughtfully.

(B) Assignments completed.

(C) Assignments not thoroughly done

(D) Incomplete assignments

(F) No assignments/ poorly completed

______ Draft

(A) Complete draft ready for the workshop which indicates considerable pre-writing work

(B) Complete draft, ready for the workshop which indicates some careful thought

(C) Complete draft ready for the workshop but not as fully thought through

(D) Incomplete draft for workshop

(F) No draft (draft completed and peer-edited outside of workshop=5/half credit)

______Pre-Writing, Peer Editing, Writer's Response, in-class peer editing responses

(A) Carefully considered and complete responses which indicate what is good about the paper and also give some clear and thoughtful suggestions for improvement

(B) Complete responses which offer some help to the writer

(C) Responses which are more mechanical and show less thought

(D) Responses are not complete and not carefully considered

(F) No responses

_____Title, Opening and Conclusion

(A) Title sets tone for the essay, provocative opening establishes the topic and engages reader and conclusions indicate the significance of the paper and don't just summarize

(B) Title indicates subject, more predictable opening and conclusion not as strong

(C) Title indicates subject, introduction weak and conclusion summarizes

(D/F) unimaginative title or no title, introduction, and conclusion predictable and ineffective

_______Thesis, topic sentences, organization, unity, and coherence

(A) Clear central idea that controls the organization of paper unity and coherence through entire paper and within well-organized paragraphs

(B) Strong central idea which usually unifies paper, some paragraphs may not be effectively organized

(C) Clearly stated central idea but paper not clearly unified and weak organization

(D/F) Central idea not clearly stated, the paper lacks focus, disorganized


(A) Treatment of content reflects originality, thorough development of ideas and thoughtful reading of sources.

(B) More predictable content

(C) Conventional or stereotypical content, very predictable

(D/F) Unoriginal content/ content not coherent

______Logic, Examples Details, Focus

(A) Sound logic and ample supportive details and examples make for a strong, convincing, focused paper

(B) Sound logic, middle paragraphs directly focus on the subject but sometimes not enough supporting detail or examples

(C) Clear topic sentences but not enough support or evidence; details don’t always focus on the main idea

(D/F) illogical thinking, evidence not relevant, ideas are not focused

_______Unity and coherence in Voice, Tone and Transitions and awareness of Audience

A) Consistent mature tone and voice which consistently is aware of the audience and smooth transitions

(B) Writer usually aware of the audience but some mixed levels of usage and transitions sometimes mechanical

(C) Writer not always aware of the audience and also some mixed levels of usage and/or weak transitions

(D/F) no awareness of audience, transitions missing

_______Sentence Variety and Word Choice

(A) Sentences are clear and concise with varied and effective structure. Word choice is fresh, lively, and precise

(B) Sentences are generally clear and concise with some sentence variety and few shifts in tense, voice or person; word choice sometimes inappropriate or emotional but usually clear

(C) Sentences are sometimes unclear or wordy; sentences are somewhat varied; word choice tends to be repetitive and there is a tendency to use clichés and awkward phrases

(D/F) sentence structure garbled, repetitive, incomplete or simplistic; word choice dull and ineffective, constantly unoriginal

_______ Grammar, punctuation, spelling errors

(A) Excellent (0-2 errors)

(B) Good (3 errors)

(C) Fair (4 errors)

(D) Poor (5 errors)

(F) Unacceptable number of errors (6 or more errors or more than 2 serious errors)

Grade: ________________

Some weaknesses in your paper circled below. See grammar book or writing lab for help in these areas.

  1. ORGANIZATION PROBLEMS: thesis statement, topic sentences, paragraph organization, whole essay organization, sentence organization, argument idea weak
  2. DEVELOPMENT PROBLEMS: undeveloped topic, the audience not clearly defined, draft not significantly improved, details not sufficient, details don’t focus on topic, details not specific enough, evidence weak, repetitive
  3. LANGUAGE USE PROBLEMS: adjectives, adverbs, transitions, prepositions, awkward word order, sentence fragments, misplaced modifiers, word choice, repetition, sentence variety, run-ons, coordination and subordination, pronoun reference, mixed and incomplete sentences
  4. GRAMMAR PROBLEMS: parallelism, pronoun errors, verb tense shift, subject-verb agreement, spelling, comma errors, semicolon use, quotation punctuation errors, apostrophe, hyphen


Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on March 24, 2020:

Hi Natasha! Glad you found this helpful.

Natasha Humphries from Maxwell, NM on March 24, 2020:

Great Post!

Nataly Havrysh on January 09, 2017:

Hi, the idea of circling from among the most common mistakes at the end of rubric is great. It can really make grading easier but it will also be a good notice for students about what to work on, because they usually do not make meaningful conclusions from all the in-text remarks.

I do not really agree with your assessment of content. Of course, essays presenting arguments on unexpected positions are more challenging and more interesting to read, but I don’t think students should refuse from their positions, even if they are common and thus may sound stereotypical.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on May 30, 2013:

Thanks so much nifwlseirff for your great comments. You are absolutely right that in the end no system can grade essays for you even though they can make some of the task easier. Yet, I still have to tell myself, "no more checking email--just grade!" to get through them. My college just subscribed to an online plagerism and grading system that I've started using. I have put this grading rubric into the system. I'm not sure it is faster to grade, but I do like the grammar/spelling checker feature and the fact that I have a copy of all my comments.

Kymberly Fergusson from Germany on May 30, 2013:

After spending heaps of time marking technical writing and professional communications essays while teaching at uni, you definitely need a clear marking guide or rubric or it will take forever! This is especially true when working with a group of markers.

If' it's an assignment that has been run in a previous class, I release the assessment rubric to the students, so they know what they are aiming for.

If submitted electronically (preferred!), they first get run through a plagiarism checker. It compares work to online sources and to each other submission. No point spending time marking copied work!

I then randomly select 5 or so, and see how they stack up against my rubric. If in a team, we then discuss any changes we need to make.

I try to avoid seeing the student's name on the submission to remove any bias, and set aside difficult / borderline essays for a second set of eyes.

Other than this, I just power through them!