Getting Help with Assignments




In China, there is a very strong emphasis on study, on achieving qualifications, on satisfying family expectations, on meeting ever more stringent job market requirements. As a result, Chinese students studying abroad tend to pursue demanding courses at exacting institutions, tend to be working close to their maximum capacities, factors that are reflected in the grade classifications that they receive: whereas about 70% of all students get a grade classification towards the upper end of the scale (a 1st or a 2:1), only about 40% of Chinese students do so. Given these academic challenges, Chinese students often seek additional support when it comes to completing the assignments on which their grades depend.

But are you allowed to get help with your assignments? The answer depends on exactly what form that “help” takes:

  • Tuition: always allowed

  • Essay mills: never allowed

  • Proofreading/copy-editing: usually allowed



Universities have no problem if you seek tuition in order to improve your oral or written English language skills. Should you decide to do so, there are a number of factors to consider.

First, pick the low-hanging fruit: when it comes to improving performance in most activities, there are some skills that can be improved quickly, easily, for a modest amount of effort – the low-hanging fruit – and some skills that cannot – the fruit which, to continue with the metaphor, can only be picked if you first expend the not inconsiderable effort involved in climbing the tree. When the activity in question is improving your English language skills, some skills – such as identifying the collocation patterns most apposite to express your thoughts – have to be finely honed through many years of intensive language exposure; but some other skills – such as using the correct grammatical constructs and the appropriate forms of punctuation – can be mastered for a modest amount of effort. So when seeking tuition, focus on those skills that will yield the most benefits academically, and will do so expeditiously.

Second, most English language courses don’t concentrate on helping you to improve your writing skills – when seeking tuition, identify those that do. Even when courses focus on the development of writing skills, they so often present material from a deconstructivist perspective: they present you with specimens of complex sentences and then deconstruct them – a far from ideal approach for ESL/EFL students. Far better is the constructivist approach: one that starts from the simple sentences that you can generate at present, and then shows you how these sentences can be combined and enhanced – by way of different types of initial, medial, and final lexical elements, by way of different types of internal punctuation – to produce the complex sentences that will be expected from you in your written assignments.

And, finally, ensure that your tuition is personalized: it should show you how to identify and correct the errors that you make most frequently; it should start from and enhance those skills that you have at present – it should neither reinstruct you in what you can already accomplish nor attempt to instruct you in what is at present beyond your grasp.

Essay Mills


If you haven’t come across them before, let me explain how essay mills work. You supply an essay mill with the title of an essay that you’ve been asked to write to fulfil an assignment. The essay mill asks one of its ghostwriters to write the essay for you. Then you submit the essay as though you had written it yourself.

You’ll find many essay mills advertising their services online. Of course, they say that they are simply providing you with an example of what a well-written essay on the topic of interest looks like; they never suggest, at least directly, that you submit the essay as though it were your own.

Universities disapprove very strongly of students submitting essays written by essay mills. Should you get caught using an essay mill to compose an essay that you submit as your own work, your final grade classification might suffer, or you might even be excluded from your course of study.

While universities claim that their disapproval of the use of essay mills by students is based on ethical considerations, the real reason for their disapprobation is the financial impact that the widespread use of essay mills would have on their revenues. If employers find that students who have obtained high degree classifications at a particular university are lacking in ability, then their estimation of the university will fall, leading to a decrease in the university’s league table ranking, and, subsequently, to a decrease in the university’s revenue.

Technological developments now make it much easier to spot essays produced by essay mills than was the case in the past. The cost of writing an essay from scratch is substantial, but ghostwriting is a competitive business. And so ghostwriters frequently take shortcuts to improve their productivity: they may copy some of the text for an essay from an online source. However, universities now make use of anti-plagiarism software, such as Turnitin, software that compares each student’s essay, sentence by sentence, with all relevant online sources to see if there is a match – making plagiarized material easy to spot. Even if a ghostwriter does not rely on online material, he or she is likely to be repeatedly writing essays on the same subject, and so is likely, advertently or inadvertently, to reuse some text from a previous essay when writing a new one. Organizations that offer plagiarism detection services maintain databases of the essays submitted by students; they also run their anti-plagiarism software against these databases, and so reused sections of old essays are readily identified.

But technology can go still further. Even if you were prepared to pay the high cost of ensuring that all your essays were written from scratch, a university would still be able to determine that the essays you submitted were not your own: software that was once used solely in forensic science for the purpose of identifying individuals based on their writing styles is now being used by universities to compare different essays written by the same student: as an essay mill will farm different essays out to different ghostwriters, the differences in their writing styles will be readily detectable even when all of them are writing their essays from scratch.

So, it seems that universities have all the technology they need to eliminate the ghostwritten essay. If so, then why is it that many students – both native English-speaking students and ESL/EFL students – make use of essay mills, and rarely get reprimanded? While tutors may suspect that particular students are using essay mills, those tutors are usually reluctant to raise formal complaints. While software may flag up a student’s essay as likely to have been ghostwritten, the university’s administration is usually reluctant to take action.

The problem for universities is that student fees, especially overseas student fees, generate a very substantial amount of revenue. If a university does censure a student for using an essay mill, then the fact that it has done so is likely to spread very rapidly on social media. As a result, prospective students – both domestic and overseas – may drop the university in question from their shortlists; it’s not that the students in question are necessarily intending to make use of essay mills, but rather that prospective students are wary of universities that they perceive to be treating their existing students harshly. So the detrimental repercussion for a censuring university is that its revenue stream may plummet. So a university cannot act alone. If it does so, then students will go elsewhere. Even if all universities within a particular country were to adopt the same stringent policy against ghostwriting, then doing so would only drive students to universities in other countries where enforcement was lax. So, given the business model adopted by universities and given the absence of globally enforced standards, the use of essay mills by students remains a practice that universities are disinclined to police effectively.

However, if –  like many Chinese students – you are tempted to use an essay mill, you are unlikely to realize any long-term benefits. First, even though universities in English-speaking countries favour the personal assignment approach, you will still have to sit some tests and examinations. Getting good grades on your essays is not going to compensate for getting failing grades on tests and examinations. Indeed, one way that some tutors compensate for the absence of effective policies against ghostwriting is to give more weight to examination scores when these scores are much less than the scores obtained for personal assignments. Second, employers are not stupid: they want, and they will only employ, competent, highly productive employees. You are not going to get and retain a highly paid job based on your university grade classification alone. Employers may ask you to sit additional tests as part of the job application process. Even if they decide to give you a job on a trial basis, you won’t retain that job for long or you won’t get promoted if you can’t “deliver the goods”, if you don’t have the skills that the employer needs. So – tempting though it may be – relying on essay mills as an alternative to working hard while at university will not help you to improve your skills, will not serve you well in the long run.


If you use a proofreading/copy-editing service (the terms are often used interchangeably), then you prepare your assignment in the normal manner: you read the recommended materials and sources, you make notes, you structure your essay so that the issues are dealt with in an appropriate order, and then you write the essay putting forward your best arguments to support the points you wish to make. At this stage, you send the draft manuscript to a proofreading service; it will correct errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling, and may also reword any awkward constructions (depending on the level of copy-editing that you have requested). Then you submit the edited version for your assignment.

The use of a proofreading service is generally allowed by universities – almost always for postgraduate students and often for

undergraduate students (though permission to do so will depend on the course). It all comes down to how your assignment will be graded:

  • For example, the proofreading of research papers prior to publication is the norm – the lecturer who teaches your course probably uses a proofreading service prior to submitting his or her own research for publication. The reason why there is no objection to this practice is that the authors of research papers are not being judged on their English language skills, but are, instead, being judged on the quality of the experimental research that they have undertaken and on the quality of the arguments deployed to support the theories that they have advanced. By improving the quality of the presentation though proofreading, those experimental results and those arguments are made clear to readers of the research paper, putting those readers in a good position to understand and evaluate its contents. The same logic applies to many university assignments – such as those involving the production of MSc dissertations and PhD theses. And so, in many instances, getting a draft manuscript proofread is acceptable, and even encouraged.

  • For example, suppose you are studying journalism and your assignment involves interviewing some people about a particular issue and then writing up what you have discovered by way of an article. In these circumstances, the quality of the writing may play a major part in determining your grade classification, and so getting third-party assistance to improve it might not be acceptable.

So, there is no simple answer as to whether the use of a proofreading service is acceptable: the position will vary from course to course, from university to university, and from country to country – sometimes using a service is acceptable and sometimes not. Search your university’s website to see if it has a clear policy on the use of proofreading services; here is a typical example, taken from the University of Essex:

  • … it is acknowledged that certain types of student texts are quite often submitted for proofreading to a third party, and that such assistance is at times actively recommended by supervisors. This is particularly the case for doctoral dissertations which typically aim for publication standard in their presentation. In addition, students whose first language is not English may want to have Masters level projects and dissertations proofread. There are no University regulations forbidding the use of proofreaders for other types of work …

If you can’t find such a policy, then ask the supervisor who has given you the assignment to clarify what is acceptable and what is not.

There is an important point to consider. When native English language speakers use a proofreading service, their objective is to improve the presentation of a particular document, not to improve their English language skills. But for the ESL/EFL student it’s a different matter: you should use a proofreading service to improve simultaneously both the document presentation and your English language skills (unfortunately, universities provide very little by way of feedback on the quality of presentation of the assignments that their students submit). Some proofreading services will not only correct your document but will also show you exactly what changes they have made to the draft manuscript. Viewing these changes can be facilitated by enabling the “Track Changes” feature within MS Word prior to editing the document, or it can be facilitated by providing you with a separate document in which all the changes to the original are marked up and highlighted. So if you decide to use a proofreading service, ask in advance whether you will be able to see the changes that have been made when assessing the merits of the candidate services. Viewing these changes is important, as you will typically make similar language errors in assignment after assignment. If you can determine what these errors are and can understand what you need to do to correct them, then you can steadily improve the quality of your writing as you progress from assignment to assignment.


For more information about what’s involved in proofreading/copy-editing read the section entitled New to Proofreading/Copy-Editing? on the Services web page.