How to write a successful academic appeal letter

1. What is an appeal?

An academic appeal is something you send to a university or college when you want to dispute a decision they made against you.

The decisions you disagree with could be anything. Here are some examples that we often see:

  • being made to withdraw from a course due to plagiarism (cheating)
  • given a lower or totally different qualification to what was expected
  • not being allowed to retake an exam that you failed

Sometimes it can be a combination of things that you're unhappy about and you can dispute all of them in an appeal if you wish. But first let's see what it takes to write a good appeal letter.

The first step

Start looking into your institution's appeals and complaints procedures as early in the year as possible. Most people only research it on results day which doesn't give them much time to prepare.

Your institution should let you know how to go about making an appeal. The best place to look for this information is by asking the Registry, Students' Union, or searching on the university's website.

There's only a few days after you get your results in which appeals are accepted. This isn't a lot of time, especially when you consider the colossal amount of preparation involved.

Be sure you know what the deadlines are and how long it takes the university to consider an appeal. Ask for an extension if you can't meet a deadline.

2. Having a reason to appeal

Having good, sound reasons for appealing are known as having grounds for appeal. Without this, your appeal will be rejected straight away.

The most common and accepted grounds for appealing are:

  1. You suffered extenuating circumstances during your course or assessment which
    • couldn't be prevented
    • you didn't previously tell the university about
    • affected your ability to perform as you normally would
  2. There is evidence of a 'material irregularity' (basically an administrative error) during the course or in an assessment. This error should be big enough to create a doubt about whether the institution's decision would have been different if the error hadn't happened in the first place
  3. There was bias, prejudice, or lack of proper assessment by the examiners who marked your work

Let's see what each of these mean and how you could make a claim under each of them.

Extenuating and mitigating circumstances

An extenuating circumstance (sometimes called a mitigating circumstance) is where you've had something happen in your life that has affected your academic performance. Extenuating circumstances (ECs) can be any combination of health, financial, legal or personal issues that contributed towards a poor performance. Having said this, it's usually a health issue that people claim for.

Let your university or college know about your extenuating circumstances before taking an exam or handing in coursework. In fact, we recommend that you always do this even if you think you don't need to claim – you never know when you might need to rely on it!

Don't assume that mentioning your extenuating circumstances to a personal tutor or lecturer is enough, because it's not. You should make sure your extenuating circumstances are officially recorded by the university because having to retrospectively claim for them is very tough – unless you have valid reaons.

Unfortunately, many students don't submit ECs on time or don't do it properly. If this is your situation, then you have to give a valid reason for it, and as you can guess, many excuses are rejected outright.

Here are some weak excuses given by students for not submitting ECs on time:

  • They didn't know about the institution's procedures and deadlines for submitting ECs
  • They were too embarrassed to do so
  • They feared being discriminated or stigmatised against
  • They forgot to do it
  • They felt it wasn't necessary to claim ECs at the time of assessment because the coursework or exam seemed to go well

The cause for not letting the university know about your extenuating circumstances prior to your appeal needs to be something significant and something that can't be questioned.

Some valid reasons for not submitting ECs on time include:

  • Long periods of hospital stay or frequent hospital visits
  • Inability to communicate with the University
  • Difficulty getting a doctor's note
  • Being a victim of serious crime
  • Bereavement
  • Depression and mental health issues

Just to clarify, there are two things going on here:

  1. You're informing the university about what your ECs are (or were)
  2. You're giving them a valid reason for not submitting them on time

If weren't mentally or physically fit to complete your coursework or sit an exam then you must mention it in your appeal.

To highlight this further, there are many people in the world who are completely unaware of their condition. An example could be people who suffer from a mental health condition such as depression but don't know about it. They may feel fine to take an exam even though they aren't fit enough to do so. In this situation you would have valid ECs and a good reason for not letting the institution know on time.

Administrative errors

When an institution makes a mistake that impacts on your achievements, it's known as an administrative error or material irregularity. If it's not dealt with then the university could make unfair decisions about your marks, qualification, or right to progress into the following year of study.

Administrative errors can happen anytime during the course or when an assessment takes place.

The following list show examples of administrative errors you may face:

  • Disruption to normal university services caused by campus maintenance such as building works and relocations which directly impacted on your performance at assessment time
  • Frequent absences of staff members or important staff leaving, and failure of the institution to make adequate provisions to cover this within a reasonable amount of time
  • Failure by the university to provide a satisfactory level of teaching and learning support
  • Incorrect calculation of marks
  • Loss of a piece of coursework
  • Miscommunication of assessment requirements e.g. publishing an incorrect deadline or assessment brief
  • Failure to accommodate a student's disability
  • Missing sheets from an exam paper
  • Disturbances from outside the exam room

When including an administrative error in your appeal try to convince the university that if the error hadn't occurred, then you would have put in a better performance.

Bias, prejudice, or lack of proper assessment by the examiners

It goes without saying that the people who mark your work shouldn't have any bias or prejudice against you. Examples of this could include:

  • The examiner(s) is previously known to you
  • The examiner(s) has served as a lecturer or personal tutor and has expressed an opinion concerning the outcome or grade of your work
  • The examiner or a member of their family has an interest in the outcome of your work

If you feel any of the above to be true then mention it in your appeal with the reasons and facts behind why you believe such bias or prejudice existed, or still exists.

3. Finding help and assistance

We know making an appeal can be stressful and tiresome, especially when you're dealing with it alone. Don't worry, we're here for you.

Talk to your family and friends, or the Inscriptic Students' Entourage (see below), but please don't discuss your appeal with anyone who may have contributed to the decision you're disputing e.g. lecturers or personal tutors. They will protect their own interests before yours and could give you deceitful advice that sabotages your efforts at gathering evidence to support your appeal.

Inscriptic Students' Entourage™

You can get help and advice with your complaint or appeal by using the Students' Entourage service. This is run by volunteers who give up their personal time to help students worldwide. We advise registering an account as soon as possible because the service is not always available.

Feel good knowing that thousands of students are in the same boat every year and it's by no means a reflection on your abilities or character to be making an appeal.

Don't panic, get upset, and or make hasty decisions. Afterall, you can only put together an appeal that makes sense if you have a calm and collected mind.

4. Gathering evidence

Any institution will only act on an appeal if there's good evidence to back it up. If there's no proof, then sadly not much can be done.

"It's not what you know, it's what you can prove."

Think about what happened during your time on the course and what evidence you could collect to support your grounds for appeal. Evidence is anything that indicates that your claims as true. 'Material evidence' is something that refers to you by your name and is dated. Anything written by yourself or family doesn't count.

What's acceptable as evidence will depend on your grounds for appealing. Here are some examples of evidence you could provide for each ground:

Evidence of extenuating circumstances

  • Doctor (GP) or hospital letter
  • Solicitor's letter
  • Death certificate
  • Medical certificate
  • Court letter or Police letter

In the case of a doctor's letter, ensure it states that your condition will have had a considerable effect on your performance.

Sometimes doctors can be vague in describing the extent of your symptoms and offer little elaboration on how they would have affected you. Look out for non-committal phrases such as "he/she feels that…" or "it could have…". These show that the doctor is not committing to an opinion himself and is merely re-expressing what you told him.

Evidence of material irregularity or administrative error

Due to the variety of administrative errors that occur, it's your choice what evidence you wish to provide to back up your allegations. These may include:

  • Witness statements
  • Photographs and video clips
  • Dates and times of staff absences (available from HR)
  • Dates, times and location of disturbances such as building work
  • Coursework acknowledgment slips to prove you submitted your work correctly
  • Assignment instructions with erroneous information
  • Screenshots from online learning resources e.g. Blackboard
  • E-mails

Evidence of bias, prejudice, or lack of proper assessment

This can be a tough one because simply speculating that the examiners acted unfairly is not enough, you actually have to prove it.

You can include anything that will support your claim but don't put down opinions and suspicions as facts. Try to provide some evidence that gives doubt to the impartiality of your examiners, such as the comments they made during lectures or showing favouritism towards others.

Evidence can be in the form of:

  • Witness statements
  • Photographs and video clips
  • E-mails
  • Published comments made by an examiner showing bias or favouritism or incompetence. Try looking at social media accounts and media publications they may be involved in (including the comments reply sections).

5. Composing the appeal letter

This section deals with helping you learn how to write your appeal and structure it logically. Everyone's appeal will be unique so feel free to adapt it to your liking.

First let's lay down some principles and then we'll give you a structure to follow so that your appeal contains the right information, in the right order.

Get into the right state of mind

Writing an appeal requires a rational state of mind above anything else. You may be feeling humiliated, upset, and angry especially if you've been a good student. You may also feel that you've let yourself and your family down. These emotions are unavoidable and also unhelpful so don't let them cloud your thoughts.

Writing an appeal is quite similar to arguing a case in a court. Entering the courtroom full of panic and anger is not going to get you very far. (Here is an interesting article on how to convince others of your innocence when accused of a wrongdoing).

Stick to your regular daily routine and make sure you're eating, exercising, and sleeping as normal. You want to stay healthy, focused and organised to win the appeal.

Do it yourself

Write your own appeal. By all means get help from your family and others but don't let anyone else write it for you.

Any slip-ups in what you say will be identified by the panel deciding your case. This is a formal process where emotional pleads don't work – even from your parents.

Only mention what needs to be mentioned

As we've seen, the reasons for appealing vary widely. They can range from a serious health issue such as depression all the way through to trivial reasons such as staying up too late playing video games.

If you've failed your course due to excessive partying and late nights, it's probably best not to mention it in your appeal. But if you have been suffering from something like depression then you must include it.

Resist blaming everyone you know

When you're in the state for blaming others, it often ends up being your word against theirs.

A panel considering your appeal letter will want to see that you have a clear understanding of what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how you propose to resolve it. Throwing the blame around for simple things will lead to a losing appeal.

Sometimes tutors can mark your coursework incorrectly and give you misleading feedback on your work. Try not to point the finger at everyone you ever met and instead focus on the specific people who have had a direct impact on your results or situation. Get their names and note down how their actions have affected you.

Don't lose e-mails or letters between you and the university during the entire duration of your course – you never know when you're going to need them as evidence that an event took place (e.g. you e-mailed your faculty about a grievance many months ago that they ignored). In fact, it is recommended that you backup your e-mails regularly so that you have your own copies of them: you can do this by e-mailing them to your private account or performing a backup and saving the file on your own storage (USB or cloud).

Never compromise your integrity

Don't lose your self-respect by writing an aggressively worded letter. Keep it polite and courteous.

You can achieve this by staying positive and, if it helps, pretend that you're writing the appeal for someone else. If things start to get too personal then take a break and come back later.

The panel considering your appeal are like a jury in court and it's your job to win their votes. Your appeal should be clear, consistent, factual, and professional. The university or college needs to know that you're a person of integrity and are serious about your education.

Consider what you want

Planning what you want to happen if your appeal is successful is just as important as the reasons for appealing.

The appeals panel will be interested in knowing what you're considering doing next if they decide in your favour.

Don't ask for an increase to your exam mark or degree classification – it almost never happens. Instead ask if you can re-take an exam without any restrictions or cap on marks (normally re-sit exams are capped at 40% which means even if you produce results worth 80% you will only awarded a maximum of 40%).

A step-by-step structure of an appeal letter

  1. Write your name, student number, and contact address.
  2. Date the letter.
  3. Insert automatic page numbering (any word processing software will allow you to insert page numbers).
  4. Write the name and address of the department that handles appeals (and the name of the person who deals with appeals. If no name is known, then simply write "to whom it may concern".
  5. Mention the name and qualification aim of the course you're studying e.g. BSc Biological Sciences.
  6. Introduce yourself to the reader by stating your name and mention why you're writing to them (to appeal a decision).
  7. Begin by writing what decision(s) you're appealing e.g. awarded a lower than expected qualification.
  8. Summarise under what grounds you're making the appeal (see reasons/grounds for appealing).
  9. Explain each reason for your appeal, starting with the most significant e.g. extenuating/mitigating circumstances and including all important dates of when events occurred. Make references to your evidence so that the reader knows what to look at to appreciate the legitimacy of your claim.
  10. Don't jump from one reason to another in the middle of a paragraph.
  11. When explaining your reasons, try to be clear, concise, and convincing.
  12. Limit your reasons for appealing to the most important ones. Right now everything seems important, but claiming for every single reason under the sun could dilute the worthiness of your appeal by making you appear dishonest.
  13. The people (appeals panel) who will be reviewing your appeal will have seen hundreds previous to yours. They will also likely be giving up holiday time to consider student appeals. Making it easy for them to understand your appeal could win you some favour.
  14. After you have finished explaining your reasons, provide a summary of the key points at the end of this section. If one extenuating circumstance is the cause of another, then you can convey this by demonstrating how a 'cause and effect' relationship existed between the circumstances. Don't assume the reader will make the connection themselves.
  15. If you present multiple reasons and explanations for your appeal which appear to be completely disjointed then the reader will get annoyed. You want them to be aware of each reason, and then appreciate how the sum of those reasons affected you. This is because each reason in isolation may not appear worthy of an appeal, but the sum can often be greater than the parts when it comes to extenuating/mitigating circumstances.
  16. Now it's time to write down what you wish the outcome of your appeal to be. That is, what do you want the university or college to do if you're successful?
  17. Do not ask for your mark/grade to be increased. Universities and colleges will rarely do this. Instead ask to retake the year or an exam without any restrictions, or if it's a case of progression then ask to be allowed into the next year of study.
  18. Finally end your letter with a simple "Yours faithfully" line, followed by a gap for your signature, and then finally your full name and student number.
  19. Take a break. Come back after a few hours and read the entire appeal from start to end. Make any alterations or add new information you feel necessary. Remember that once your appeal is submitted you cannot add more information so make sure you've included everything now.
  20. Print the appeal letter, staple multiple sheets together, and sign it accordingly. Place it in an envelope with the correct name and address displayed where you want it to go.
  21. Collect all your evidence and include it separately in the same envelope.
  22. Hand the appeal in person at the relevant office in your institution if possible, and be sure to get something that acknowledges receipt of your appeal. If you cannot hand it in person then make sure you send it by a fast delivery service which requires a signature from the recipient. Without a signature the university or college can deny ever receiving your appeal and you will have nothing to prove otherwise.

6. Sample appeal letters

Sample appeal letters will appear here soon.