The Twenty Most Common Mistakes that Students Make with Essay Writing

A rundown of the top twenty things to avoid at all costs when putting together your essay! We surveyed professors and course instructors to find out what the most common student errors are in essay writing. These are the things that came up over and over again. Have a look through and make sure you're not making one of these common mistakes.

Essay mistakes

1. Not writing an outline first

The hardest part of writing is starting to write. It's understandable, then, that a lot of students don't spend enough time planning and writing an outline. You want to get it over with, so you write the introduction first and work the rest out as you go along. However, if you don't have a clear outline, you might find that by the time you get to the end of your essay, the thesis you stated in the introduction has changed. It's always worth doing a lot of your critical thinking before you even begin to write. For tips on how to do this, have a look at How to Write an Essay in Ten Steps.

2. Writing a lengthy introduction with very general and uninformative claims

Many students have the habit of starting their essays by pointing out that their topic has interested historians / philosophers / scientists for hundreds of years or since the beginning of time. Don't do this. It doesn't tell your reader anything important and it makes a bad first impression on your grader. (Sentences like this are a bit of a pet peeve for most professors - have a look at A Generic College Paper.) The introduction of a term essay is very different from the introduction of, say, a newspaper article. You need to get right to the point and avoid using too much of a chatty tone. Concisely explain what your topic is and give your thesis statement. For more detailed guidance on introductions, have a look at How to Write an Introduction for an Essay.

3. Starting your essay with rhetorical questions

Starting an essay with rhetorical questions is device that students are often taught in high school. The idea is behind many of these techniques is that the reader needs to be hooked in by something that sparks their curiosity. For a university level essay, this is not necessary – you can assume that your reader is already curious enough about what you have to say on your topic. They are instead looking for a clear statement of what that is. Including these kinds of sweeping questions in your essay make you look like you’re falling back on habits from a high school class rather than doing the work that your new context demands.

bad college paper

4. Starting your essay with a quote

This is another essay writing technique that, while appropriate for your English class in high school, does not translate well to university essay writing. Part of the problem with this style of writing is that it comes across as trite and unconsidered. Yes, this is how you were asked to write in one context, but now that you’re in a different context and have a different aim, your writing should reflect this. The aim of your university essay’s introduction, as already noted, is to succinctly provide a context for your thesis statement, to give the thesis statement, and (perhaps) to give some signposting regarding your arguments (i.e., say how you will argue for your thesis). Using a quote to open your essay, especially a generic one, does not do any of this work.

5. Choosing a thesis that is too wide or ambitious

"In this essay, I will argue that nurture is more important than nature."
"In this essay, I will argue that utilitarianism about ethics is right."

Each of these thesis statements takes on a huge debate. Even if, instead of 2,000 words, you had 10,000, you would not be able to even scrape the surface of these issues. Make sure that the scope of your thesis statement is sufficiently small. This will help you to write a more focused essay, which is what your professors are looking for. For example, you might choose to focus on one particular author's views on utilitarianism and argue that there is a problem with one of his arguments. It's good to be bold, but don't try to take on questions that are so wide in scope that you are forced to give them a superficial answer.

6. Not taking a position in your thesis statement

"In this essay, I will compare different theories of free will - specifically, compatibilism, which says that free will is compatible with causality and libertarianism, which denies this."
"In this essay, I will describe Sigmund Freud's theory of dreaming, focusing on his claims about the purpose of dreaming."

Your thesis statement should work a bit like a conclusion of an argument - it should follow from your premises. If your thesis statement claims that you will simply 'compare', 'describe', or 'observe' something, this is an indication that you might not be taking enough of a position in your essay. The thesis statements above are not arguing for a position: they are not trying to persuade the reader. (Of course there are exceptions to this rule: some questions specifically ask only for comparisons or descriptions - but most questions do not.) Comparing, observing, or describing are all useful things to do when you are arguing for your thesis, but they shouldn't be all that you do in your essay.


7. Sitting on the fence

Sitting on the fence in your essay often goes hand in hand with not taking a position in your thesis statement. It's tempting to feel like you just don't know enough about the main topic of your essay to settle the central debates. After all, these debates have typically been going on between experts for many years. Your instructor knows that and isn't trying to catch you out for taking the wrong position on something. What's important is your reasoning and evidence. You are not expected to forever resolve long-standing disputes in just a few short pages. You are expected to take a clear stance based on your evaluation of the argument(s) presented.

8. Mentioning as many arguments as possible

This is one of the most common mistakes that students make in essay writing. Let's say that you have a word limit of 1500 words. For an essay like this to be focused and thorough, you should only be exploring one or two arguments at most. Many students think that including four or five arguments in their essays will make for a stronger case (five reasons to agree with the thesis are better one, right?). In actual fact, this almost always leads to a bad essay. Firstly, it's impossible to do justice to so many different ideas using a small number of words. Your treatment of each argument will have to be superficial to stay within the word limit. Secondly, including five different arguments does not allow you to show your good judgement in differentiating the stronger ones from the weaker ones. Picking the strongest two arguments shows your grader that you can discriminate. Thirdly, including many different arguments usually leads to the clarity of the essay suffering. Ideas in these kinds of essays tend to get run together and the reader struggles to keep track of the main line of thought.

9. Quoting too much (or using very long quotations)

Many students rely too heavily on quotations. You might think that quoting extensively will show that you have worked really hard on understanding the primary text but in fact this has the opposite effect. Your instructor wants to see that you have understood the material and can explain the ideas independently, in your own words. Be careful not to let quotations do the job of explaining for you. Direct quotation is best used when it is important to establish a writer's exact choice of words. For example, the choice of words may be unclear and you may want to explain why this is and to justify your interpretation of them. A writer might introduce a new term for something and, by using quotation, you can make it clear that this is their term (and not yours). Finally, quotations are useful if you want to provide evidence for a particular claim in your argument (for instance, when you quote an expert).

essay writing

10. Not including any references

While some students fill their essays with quotations, others forget to include any at all. Make sure to include a few quotations in your essay to support your claims, particularly if you are analysing another writer's work. Additionally, when you give your exposition, you should be paraphrasing some of the ideas that you are explaining (that is, you should be putting the ideas into your own words). And when you paraphrase something from a primary text, you can reference it: cite the source and page number after your paraphrase just as you would with a quote. While page numbers are optional in paraphrase citations, they do show your reader that you understand exactly where the claim is coming from and that your engagement with the original material has been really thorough.

11. Stating rather than showing

When you are arguing that another position is wrong, it is really important to show why this is. Claiming that their overall conclusion is false or implausible is not enough here. You need to explain to your reader exactly why the other position is a bad one. To do this, you cannot presuppose any agreement with your position: assume a neutral reader who needs persuading on the matter.

12. Making your reader work too hard

Your reader should not have to work hard to understand what you mean, even if your ideas are complicated or abstract. This means including explanations and justifications for your premises and reasoning. Of course, your professors can most likely guess what your point is (it's very rare that an undergraduate will say something truly novel - and that's ok!). However, you can only get marks for what you put on the page. Try not to think of your reader as someone who has read hundreds of essays on this topic. Instead, imagine you are writing for someone who has a similar education level to you but who has not taken your class. Keep this in mind when you are explaining your ideas and it will make your writing smoother and clearer.


13. Using a thesaurus to find new vocabulary

Every course instructor has, at some point, read an essay that has had the thesaurus treatment. Sentences are clunky and odd, and some don’t even make sense anymore. It’s clear that the writer has used a thesaurus to try to inject some more sophisticated vocabulary into their writing. However, the proper use of a thesaurus when writing an essay is not to discover new words, but to add variety by helping the writer to recall words that they already know. If you aren’t already familiar with the way a word or expression is used, it’s probably best avoided in your essay. Your professors are looking for a clear and persuasive expression of your thesis and arguments – most likely, you can do this very well with the vocabulary you already have.

14. Appealing to the dictionary definition of a concept

Getting started with an analytical essay can be difficult. The first step that many students take is to reach for the dictionary definition of their topic. Here the dictionary definition is typically not used to make a specific point about language but is rather used as a way to introduce discussion. Not only is this not helpful to the substance of the essay, but it usually serves as a red flag to the grader that the writer was running out of time or ideas. Bacause this is such a common (and unhelpful) student writing technique, it has come to annoy professors. Resist the temptation to start your essay like this!

15. Using non-academic language

This guide is not written in academic language. There are many contexts where it's perfectly fine to use informal, concise, or even slang language. However, for academic essays, you have to adopt a different style of writing. In academic writing you should avoid using any colloquial vocabulary. For example, don't use phrases like "above board", "pretty decent", and "not great". Don't use contractions like "don't", "can't", and "won't" - write out the full words. Academic writing should have a formal tone and should be as clear and precise as possible.

Non-academic writing style: "In this essay I will talk about how the canon isn't wide enough. I feel like these days so much good abstract art is made and ignored by people who study art history."
Academic writing style: "In this essay I will argue that the canon of art history is not sufficiently inclusive. Specifically, I will suggest that it ought to include more contemporary, abstract art."

16. Using strawman arguments

The function of a scarecrow is to scare birds away from crops by appearing to be a person. On closer examination, it just looks like sticks and straw. A strawman argument is a reconstruction of an argument that has the appearance of being like the original, but, on closer examination, is in fact much weaker. Strawman arguments are of course easier to criticize. Be careful that you aren't unfairly attributing a weakened position to someone in this way. If your take on the writer whose work you have been asked to analyze is that they are completely incompetent, re-examine your analysis. The principle of charity recommends that we present the strongest possible version of any opposing arguments. This will make your own arguments stronger. Showing that you can deal with a weak objection doesn't do much for your case. Showing that you can deal with the strongest possible objection to your argument is very persuasive.


17. Putting new things in your conclusion

Conclusions should bring together the results of your essay. In a sense, they are a kind of mirror image of introductions. Do not use your conclusion to add further reasons to agree with your main thesis - this work should have already been done by this point in the essay. Explain to the reader what you were able to show in your essay. How did you prove your thesis? What, very briefly, was the reasoning you used? You might want to include a sentence or two explaining the implications of what you have shown for some wider context in society or for the future of research in your area. There's no need to be too bold here - you're not expected to revolutionize anything. Think of the kind of thing you might say if you were explaining to someone why your conclusion is interesting in a more general way.

18. Trying to get around the word limit with font size or margin adjustments

Let's say you've been working all day on your essay and you've ended up 500 words over your word limit. If you're feeling really invested in what you've written - or just too lazy to edit it down - you might be tempted to try to adjust some visuals on your essay to make it look shorter. If 2,000 words is 8 pages double-spaced, then how about narrowing the margins and changing the font size to 11? The problem with this is that, though the layout might not look all that different to you after these changes, it will look strikingly different to the 40 other essays your professor has just graded. Most course instructors will allow you to go 5 or 10% over the word limit, but disguising an extra 500 words is not going to work! Avoid any last-minute panic by making sure that you have a strict word budget in your essay plan (see How to Write an Essay in Ten Steps for tips on how to do this).

19. Missing a basic spelling and grammar check

Writing in Word will give you an automatic spelling and grammar check. Especially when you're under pressure or tired, this is a really useful feature. However, working primarily in Google Docs can sometimes mean that your essay is not automatically checked for spelling and grammar mistakes. Check that spell check is enabled in your Google Docs settings and, if you're still having trouble, try running Google Docs in a different browser. Be wary of Grammarly - this software is not yet accurate enough to be useful and still gives a lot of false positives (it flags a lot of accurate grammar or word choices as incorrect).

20. Underestimating the importance of editing your final draft

It's easy to miss this step if you are working to a deadline but it is one of the most impactful stages of the writing process. The overall impression that your essay makes is very influential on a grader. Lots of typos, grammatical errors, and unclear sentences will exhaust your grader and can potentially undermine your hard work. One great way to check for clarity is to ask a peer who is not in your class to read through your essay: if they can understand it all without guidance, that's a good sign. If they can't, ask them to highlight which sentences are unclear. Try to get some distance from your work before reading through it yourself. Leave your draft alone for a day or two and then edit it with fresh eyes. If you're running short on time, one way to quickly create distance from your work is to read it aloud and imagine that you have an audience. Do your explanations sound clear? Are any of your sentences too long? Does your essay fulfill the promise of the introduction?

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Review: top 20 essay mistakes

  1. Not writing an outline first
  2. Uninformative introduction
  3. Starting with a quote
  4. Starting with rhetorical questions
  5. Thesis too wide or ambitious
  6. Not taking a position (thesis)
  7. Sitting on the fence
  8. Mentioning too many arguments
  9. Quoting too much
  10. Not including any references
  11. Stating rather than showing
  12. Making your reder work too hard
  13. Using a thesaurus for new vocab
  14. Dictionary definitions
  15. Using non-academic language
  16. Using strawman arguments
  17. Putting new things in your conclusion
  18. Trying to get around the word limit
  19. Missing a spelling/gammar check
  20. Not editing

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