Despite the fact that most university assessments take the form of essay writing, relatively few professors bother to explain the fundamentals of essay writing to their students. As a result, the same mistakes tend to recur in students’ essays.
Here are ten of the most common:
- Not following the rubric. All essays must meet certain basic requirements, such as an appropriate number of sources to include, the word count, the correct referencing style, and so on. They must also meet the deadline. Failure to follow the rubric will result in automatic deductions from the final grade.
- Not answering the question. Some students begin by answering the question directly, only to drift off topic part way through the essay. Others change the essay question without permission in order to make it easier to answer. Other, more industrious, think they need to show off as many aspects of their extensive reading as possible, even if it has little or nothing to do with the question asked. In each case, there is a failure to stick to the question asked. This can be avoided by paying close attention to the precise wording of the essay question and checking at the end of each paragraph that it answers the question in some way.
- Little or no evidence of independent research. Doing the reading is normally the most time-consuming part of producing an essay. Often students simply cannot be bothered. This results in essays that fail to situate their arguments with respect to the relevant academic literature. Such essays consequently tend toward mere expressions of opinion rather than critically scholarly analysis. The antidote is, of course, to take the time to do the reading and to make sure you refer to relevant texts in your essay. Only texts that are referenced in the body of the essay should appear in the bibliography.
- The student’s own voice gets lost. The opposite tendency to not doing the reading is to read too widely and to get lost within the arguments of other scholars. Such papers often amount to: “scholar X say this, scholar Y says that, and scholar Z says something else.” The student’s own voice is absent, drowned out by the opinions of others. The trick is to evaluate the literature critically – to say what you think about it in the context of your own argument, not simply to cite the literature for the sake of citing it.
- Poor presentation. This can take a variety of forms. For example, the essay may become increasingly illegible as the printer ink runs out. It may be printed using the wrong font type and font size (Times New Roman, size 12 is the default option), or it may inconsistently use a variety of font types and font sizes. The line spacing and the margins may be wrong (double-spaced with 2.5cm margins is the norm). There may be a large blank space in the middle of the essay because of a word-processing error. The essay might display the student’s name instead of a student number (most universities prefer the latter so as to facilitate anonymous grading). In most cases, a simple proof-read of the final copy of the essay before submission is enough to detect presentational errors so that they can be eliminated.
- Poor spelling and grammar. Good spelling and grammar are like good manners: they make it easy for the reader to follow the flow of the essay without having to pause in order to ask: what is the student trying to say here? There is no excuse for poor spelling and grammar, because all reputable word processors have a tool to check for spelling mistakes and grammatical inconsistencies. Non-native English speakers are advised to have a native English speaker proof-read their essays prior to submission in order to make sure that their English flows properly.
- Poor referencing. For most Arts and Humanities and Social Science subjects, referencing nearly always falls into one of three styles: MLA, Harvard, or APA. Within each style, students generally only need to know how to reference books, book chapters, and journal articles, as well as how to format a bibliography. Yet, a sizeable minority of students fail to invest the short amount of time needed to learn correct referencing. Consequently, they get a lower grade than they need to even if the quality of their argument is high. Referencing style guidelines are easy to find online: it pays to familiarize yourself with them.
- Failure to grasp key concepts. Where students start work on an essay at the last minute, do not read enough secondary literature, and/or fail to invest enough time in thinking through what they have read, they run the risk of not grasping key concepts. This reflects a basic failure of understanding. Usually the best remedy is simply to do the work in the first place, or else to make use of your professor’s office hours if you are still struggling to understand.
- Poor structure. Essays that have not been properly thought out tend to exhibit poor structure. There is no obvious rationale as to why ideas have been arranged in the order they have been. This makes it hard to follow the argument. There is little or no logical progression to poorly structured arguments, and their hallmark is always that the reader never knows what to expect next. Good structure is put in place at the planning stage of the essay. Do not start writing as soon as you have finished the reading; instead take a moment to be clear about what it is you want to argue and how you intend to argue it. Clearly structured essays might make arguments for and against a particular thesis (rebutting counterarguments along the way). Or they might work through material/events in chronological order. Or they might proceed topic by topic or text by text. There is no single right way of structuring an essay, but a sensible rationale must be inferrable.
- Plagiarism. This is passing someone else’s ideas off as your own. In its crudest form, students simply copy and paste parts of another author’s writings from the internet. Professors usually spot this immediately, because the writing style suddenly changes. A more subtle form of plagiarism involves paraphrasing someone else’s ideas and presenting them as your own without giving due credit to that person. Again, professors often recognize when students are stealing someone else’ argument. Sometimes students plagiarize unintentionally by not including enough references to make clear that another person’s ideas are being invoked. Paying someone else to write your essay for you also counts as plagiarism and carries severe penalties if detected. Most universities these days offer guidance on how to avoid plagiarism, and resources are also freely available online. The simplest way, however, is to make sure you include a reference every time you invoke an idea that is not your own.
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