We asked Lancs students to show us their harshest ever essay feedback

Everyone’s a critic

To the more diligent, academically inclined or just plain weird student, the sight of an email letting you know that you’ve been given feedback on your essay is one of joy and anticipation. To the rest of us, it’s one of dread and nausea.

While feedback is an essential part of developing your skills at university, it often arrives in the form of disparaging comments by irritable and underpaid lecturers, ready to dispense criticism brutal enough to crush the spirits of even the most eager undergraduates.

The majority of us have been subject to the occasional “come by my office hour” or “add more detail.” Still, sometimes, markers go the extra mile to deliver a hammer blow of harshness that even Jeremy Paxman would describe as “a bit much”. We asked Lancs students for the most brutal feedback they’d received on their essays and picked the worst of the bunch.


Here we have a phrase that would normally be more at home in a year seven group chat as opposed to a work of academic critique. Nevertheless, a Lancs student (who wished to remain anonymous for obvious reasons) opened up their feedback file and spotted this devilish acronym nestled in the margin.

Possibly the three worst letters to combine where serious feedback is required, this handy bit of advice was included in the margin of our unfortunate student’s maths homework when they got a question wrong. Clearly, the marker found their mistake hilarious, but as Mat Baynton would say, “It’s not funny at the end of the day, is it? It’s serious”.

No words, all punctuation

Writer Henrik Ibsen famously once said, “a picture paints a thousand words”, but he wasn’t very clear on the exchange rate where punctuation is concerned. Our next victim/student didn’t even get the dignity of being criticised by letters, instead receiving an all too helpful “?!” on a piece that they were stuck on.

Known in linguistic circles as an “interrobang” (I don’t take linguistics so correct me if I’m wrong), this grammatical equivalent of a confused scream was deployed in the feedback of a STEM student who was already feeling lost and apparently felt even worse when their lecturer decided that words just couldn’t accurately express their displeasure, instead of resorting to a response that looked like they’d written it by faceplanting on their keyboard. Our advice would be to send them an email consisting of nothing but a selection of your favourite punctuation marks -“&:;!!*,”

One costly mistake

Often, it can be more gutting to be penalised for only making one error on a piece of work. For this engineering student, a mixture of erroneous labelling and lecturer pettiness cost them five per cent of their report grade.

Spite is a powerful motivator; we’re not sure what caused this student’s marker to wake up on the wrong side of the bed today, but they spared no time picking a target to take their pedantry out on. As the student explained to us, they had submitted their assignment well on time and with no immediate concerns. Still, they found out when they got it back that marks had been deducted due to them using full stops to label their equations rather than hyphens – hardly the most serious of indiscretions.

Regardless, the marker in question decided that this deserved serious punishment and ensured that a good chunk of the student’s grade was lost over this minor slip-up. Some people really do need hobbies.

A couple of questions

If we’ve learned anything about essay marking while hearing your stories of harsh feedback, it’s that lecturers are more than willing to attach hefty word counts to essays and then barely contribute a sentence in return. In no instance is this more apparent than with our next contribution, a history student who was burned by yet another marker’s decision to be frugal with their word count.

Rather than being provided clear, considerate instruction on maximising their academic potential, this student was greeted with nothing more than three question marks in the margin. This wouldn’t be so bad if a little more advice was included at some other point in the feedback, but the disheartened historian was alarmed to see that their marker had provided literally nothing else in the way of constructive criticism.

Now to be clear, there is nothing wrong with asking “why?” I’m sure that’s also what this student was asking: Why have they included nothing else? Why bother setting this work? Why am I even at this uni? But when you can’t even be motivated to write anything more than three question marks, you’re not exactly offering the supportive learning environment spoken about in the Lancs Uni prospectus.

Don’t be a tool

Our final submission comes from a politics student who it seems was a bit too blunt in their assessment of geopolitics for their conveyor’s tastes. Academic advisors will often tell you to make your judgement clear in argument-based essays and veer away from excessive descriptive language. However, when these students followed that instruction, their lecturer greeted them, remarking that they “weren’t afraid to call a spade a spade”.

I’m not sure what gardening utensils have to do with diplomatic relations, but it would’ve been helpful if the marker could have used said spade to dig deep and find some more constructive feedback.

Related stories recommended by this writer:

Room inspections and bad guacamole: Lancfessions of the week

The best walks in and around Lancaster for students pressed for time

21 things you could buy for the average lecture salary they miss out on through strikes