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6 to 10 of the Top 10 Essay Mistakes Students Make

Updated on January 18, 2013

The Top Mistakes That Make University Tutors Want to Cry


(Continuing on from The Top 5 Mistakes)

Tip 6 – Not Using Secondary Sources.

So, okay, not using primary sources makes you a fool, but not using secondary sources makes you a person with a blog. Which is fine, I have two blogs myself. But I don’t submit them for marking.

Think of it like this, I wouldn’t read Lord of the Rings once and then walk into a fantasy convention to give the keynote address. They would eat me alive with their questions about the various meanings of what certain Elvish words meant, or I would talk on such obvious topics they would take their hairy feet and walk out.

There have already been years of discussion on your topic. You are either going to be saying something that has been said already, and probably not as well, or saying something that hasn’t been said because everyone else thought it was a foolish idea. Save yourself the embarrassment.

Tip 7 - Formatting.

Not formatting correctly is a bit like spelling your name incorrectly on the top of the exam sheet. Even if the rest of the essay is brilliant, there is always that lingering question of 'why couldn't they do this really easy task?' Every faculty has their own style guide, and yes every subject wants it done a different way to everyone else. But hey, you can get free marks just by being able to follow simple instructions.

Things to consider with formatting (take from real examples).

There is a reason it should be doubled spaced. However, that logic does not extend to mean that triple spaced is even better. You make trees cry.

When a tutor is reading hundreds of essays, it is really obvious when someone has changed the font or margins to try to make it look like less words. I would ask how stupid do you think we are, but the answer is sort of obvious. Here's to tell you, we're not that stupid.

And finally, why would you flick between styles? Why? If you are doing in-text referencing, well you might not be meant to, but at least you are consistently wrong. Mixing that in with the correct footnote referencing doesn't actually make you half right, it makes you look inconsistent AND incompetent.

Tip 8 - Refusing To Follow the Formula

The essay writing formula is very simple: intro - tell them what you are going to say, main body - say it, conclusion - tell them what you have said.

Yes, it is formulaic. But yes, you still need to use it. Why? There are a number of reasons, let me point out the top few:

1. You are not nearly as clear and concise at writing as you think you. Give us something to grab onto.

2. Your tutor will probably read your essay through once in about 10 minutes. The clearer the main message is, the more likely you will get a good mark.

3. It will help you realize that your essay has gone completely off topic and you haven't matched your introduction, main body and conclusion.

Tip 9 - Value Judgements.

I think Hitler was a bad man.

Really? Wow, a) that is so insightful, b) WTF?

One of my biggest hates in humanities essays are value judgements. It shows a complete dissonance from the academic mind frame. The point of being a scholar is that you analyze all the data, and present it in a logical way drawing conclusions that others might not have been able to see. It is not to say something is good or bad, or that you think or you believe. Evidence, baby, it's all about the evidence.

Hitler's actions were criticized by later generations as flaunting key moral principles such as.... is an academic statement.

Hitler was a bad man... is a value judgement, and who are you to say what good and bad is?

Tip 10 - The Darwin Awards of Essay Writing.

This is my all time WTF? moment of essay marking. When I actually realized exactly how stupid the student had been, I could really only roll around on the floor laughing, and then fail him.

I started off reading through the essay thinking the student must be a non-English speaker, because there were these strange sudden changes of verb tense and person. This should have been more of a red flag, but my university was letting in more and more students with inadequate English that I was coming to expect a bit of it.

I then came across a paragraph where all the key words in the topic were in bold.


Yup. There is only one way that would be done: he had typed the essay topic into a search engine and then copied and pasted whatever came up straight into his essay without even reading it enough to see this rather basic fact.

To prove this I then copied the paragraph straight back into Google and found the web-source it was taken from. I then did that with the rest of his essay as well.

I will give the writer at least the credit of taking the time to make up fake footnote references for different aspects. However, I somewhat feel this was misplaced effort, as it could not in anyway detract from having left his sin in bold in the essay.

So, avoid these 10 mistakes, and you have a fair chance of actually writing a half decent essay. Go you.

Make any of these 10 mistakes now and I will be sending my evil minions out to draw and quarter you, you sorry excuse for a student.

All the best in your studies.


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