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1 to 5 of The Top 10 Essay Mistakes Students Make

Updated on January 3, 2013

From A Frustrated Tutor

I have been a university tutor for several years now. Along with tutoring in particular subjects, I also tutor just in how to write in an academic manner. This is a sadly lacking skill. Again and again I try to highlight how an essay should be written. Then I cry into my glass of red wine when I read through the essays I have to mark. So I have come to the conclusion that maybe if I put a list of the top mistakes on the Internet and my students google them, then they might listen. Here’s hoping anyway.

I have ranked these from simple ignorance, through lazy and annoying, right to number ten, which is my ‘Darwin awards’ of essay writing.

Tip 1: Footnote – Do it, and do it properly.

This includes: not footnoting, footnoting incorrectly, using footnotes for long discursive discussions on the meaning of life, and trying to footnote manually.

a) Not footnoting: what can I say? Bad little scholar, bad! That’s it. Like Nike says: Just Do It.

b) Footnoting manually: Yes, I once had a student who didn’t know how to footnote, so typed in a number ‘1’ at the end of the sentence, super-scripted it then typed in a number ‘1’ at the bottom of the page and wrote his reference. He got very upset when he had to edit his essay and all the numbers got mixed up. (And seriously, you can just YouTube it.)

c) Not keeping references ready to footnote: I must admit it was my best friend in first year who was handing in her essay and looked down at the footnotes to see ‘reference, damn can’t remember, make sure you check this later…’. Similarly, I have had essays that just say ‘ref’ in the footnote. Not good, not good at all.

My solution to this is: learn to use Endnote or similar programs. Most universities will have a free copy for students, and run seminars on how to use it. It will save you a lot of time and embarrassment. Also, it is allows to easily change all your reference formatting in case you move across departments and they no longer want APA but Chicago or MLA.

If you can’t get Endnote or similar, here is my tip: when reading through a book, start by making a complete bibliographic note of the book in a footnote and keep that footnote in your copy and paste clipboard. Every time you note ANY idea from the book, copy the footnote and just add in the page number. Then the reference will always be there. Just before you hand in the final draft, abbreviate all the reoccurring references. This will make sure that you never lose or forget a reference.

Tip 2: Resources – Not just the recommended reading, but definitely the recommended reading.

I recently had a student I was helping for one of her subjects, who was otherwise wonderful. However, come essay time I asked her to show me a draft of her work which she did. At the time it had no references, footnotes or bibliography. I pointed out that this was a very bad way to write an essay, but that if she included these, and increased her evidence for these particularly points, etc., this would be okay.

A few weeks later she came back having received only an average mark. The marker had noted that it was well written and constructed (having forced her to re-write her contention numerous times until she could say it in her sleep, I gave myself a little pat on the back) but that she had only used references from the required reading! The student looked at me totally blankly as if this were my fault. In return, I tried not to look at her as if I wanted to strangle her.

On the other hand, I myself, in my younger days, received an essay back that I had personally thought was brilliant. I had looked at a whole new area of research. Unfortunately, this is not what lecturers want in undergraduate essays. As I had not clearly laid out the major theories and then expanded on them, I received a relatively low mark.

Markers want you to show that you have read and understood all the required material, and that you have then taken it further.

Do the reading, then go further.

Tip 3 – Waffle.

This includes people that go off topic, that don’t appear to have much logic in their structure, and my most hated – people who use big words to sound important when simpler ones would have been much clearer (you know who you are!)

My aunt was a university lecturer in law until she retired very recently, and this was one of her biggest dislikes. In true law lecturer fashion (I don’t know why, but they get to be meaner than we humanities tutors get to be) she would take any essay that waffled too much and just refuse to mark it, saying it was not on topic.

Stick to the essay writing formula: tell us what you are going to say, say it, and tell us what you have said, all while using TEEL: topic sentence, explanation, evidence and then linking sentence.

Nothing more, nothing less. Waffle – only with whipped butter and maple syrup.

Tip 4 – Demanding to Write an Essay Off Topic.

There is only so much help we can give you as tutors. We give you the topic and state very clearly: write an essay on this topic.

If we wanted an essay on ‘the subject as a whole’ or ‘your favorite part of the subject’ or even ‘this really cool bit of tangential information’, we would have asked for that.

This is not a time to show off everything you know, save that for the exam or pub trivia nights. Instead, we want you to show that you can differentiate relevant and non-relevant information for a particular topic. This is a very useful skill for everyday life. For example, if you can do this, you will then save yourself from giving the MacDonald’s staff a dissertation about why Coke Zero is better than Diet Coke when he asks you if you want fries with that. That is what a lot of you are giving us in essay terms.

Tip 5 – Not Using Primary Sources.

What is a primary source? That is a very good question, because obviously a lot of students really don’t know.

Here is a useful way to think about the broader, abstract concept of primary and secondary sources. You can dispute the use of a primary source, but not its validity. Primary sources are not wrong, just misapplied. On the other hand, secondary sources are opinions on how to interpret the primary source, which you can agree or disagree with. It is possible that these can be wrong.

Therefore, if you only use secondary sources, you have no idea what everyone is talking about. It is a lot like me trying to make an argument about the meaning of Jimmy Hendrick’s lyrics just from sitting in a bar listening to two drunks discuss the matter, without ever listening to any of his songs. Okay, I probably shouldn't compare academia to two drunks, at least not in public. But you get my point. You want to be part of the discussion? Listen to the primary source before opening your mouth.

To be continued...


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    • BuffyG profile image

      Elizabeth (Buffy) Greentree 5 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      Hey Joan,

      Thanks for the encouragement!

      We should work together and make a list for ESL students. I haven't taught ESL for a few years now, but found they had their own particular mistakes.

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hey there, welcome to Hubpages! This was a fun read, and so interesting, especially to me, I train students in ESL for TOEFL, IELTS; GMAT and so on! You yourself can certainly write! I hope to see you around! Have a good day!