11 University Professors Reveal the Biggest Mistakes Students Make in their Essays

Essay writing isn’t easy. If you don’t quite make your desired grade, it’s hard to know exactly where you went wrong. Because detailed feedback isn’t always possible, students are often left to do some guesswork regarding where they made mistakes and what they could have done better.

But wouldn’t it be great not to make those mistakes in the first place?

We asked university professors from some of the top universities in the UK and beyond:

“What is the number one mistake university students make in their essays?”

We received 11 excellent responses that could really help when it comes to writing your next essay.

Here’s what the essay writing experts had to say:

1. Failure to outline the structure of the essay in the introduction (in exams)

Professor Henry French, Head of History, University of Exeter

In exams it is not using the introduction of their answer to define the key terms in the question, and then to use these definitions as the basis of the essay structure. This is what we mean when we advise students to ‘read the question’. This type of engagement with the question shows the marker HOW the student has read the question, responded to it, and in the best answers begun to question the premises on which the question is based. Simple structural things like this can gain them quite a few marks.

2. Simply stating the arguments of scholars instead of your own

Professor Alec Ryrie, Head of Theology and Religion, Durham University

Number one mistake? They quote published scholars’ arguments rather than actually advancing, and justifying, arguments of their own.

Visit his Blog

3. Making major spelling mistakes where you should’ve known better

Professor David Morley
Professor David Morley, Head of English and Comparative Literary Studies, Warwick University

Carol Anne Duffy instead of Carol Ann Duffy

Wasteland instead of The Waste Land

Mis-spelling of tutor’s name on essay header (always galling, esp for the famous).

4. Not narrowing down the topic thus making more difficulties for yourself

Professor Ian Roberts
Professor Ian Roberts, Chair of the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages, University of Cambridge

Not narrowing the topic down properly, and thereby attempting to achieve too much.

5. Failure to make a strong or comprehensive argument

Professor Emily Budick
Professor Emily Budick, Director, Center for Literary Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Essentially, students fail to distinguish between a subject and an argument. The paper has a subject but no argument. Therefore, the essay lacks depth and coherence.

6. Not naming specific examples or referencing specific information

Elisabeth Jay
Elisabeth Jay, Professor Emerita, Oxford Brookes University

Offering generalisations, rather than thinking a little harder about the implications of class, gender and race:

e.g. “The Victorians (substitute: Elizabethans; people in the Middle Ages) thought that …

7. Failure to establish links between arguments and ideas

John Richetti
John Richetti, A.M. Rosenthal Professor (Emeritus) of English, University of Pennsylvania

I would say that the number one mistake (or rather neglected feature of good writing) university students, undergraduates, make is proper transitions between ideas. An argument consists of clear links between assertions, and in my experience at least this is the hardest thing for students to grasp and to employ rigorously in their writing.

8. Not fully understanding what you’re writing about

Professor Tim Crane, Chair of Philosophy, University of Cambridge

One persistent and damaging mistake in students’ philosophy essays is: writing things down that they obviously don’t understand. Students should aim to write down only those sentences they think they understand.

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9. Failure to answer the question at hand

Dr Louise Sylvester
Dr Louise Sylvester, Reader in English Language, Dept of English, Linguistics & Cultural Studies, University of Westminster

I think that the main mistake that students make is not answering the question they are asked. There seem to be a number of reasons for this: (1) they do not understand the question and mistake the topic that they are being asked to discuss; (2) they haven’t revised the topic so they begin by including the idea in the question but then go off in a different direction, one in which they know where they are going (but isn’t where they were asked to go); (3) error: in the heat of the moment they don’t read the question carefully enough. All of these make the marker think, ‘what a pity’.

10. The introduction isn’t an efficient summary

Professor Luc Bovens
Professor Luc Bovens, Head of Philosophy, London School of Economics

Professor Luc Bovens, Head of Philosophy, London School of Economics

Students often think that they have to give long introduction placing the issue and I am sorry to say that they are often told to do so. Rather, when writing an essay, you have to ask yourself: What is the minimal background that is required to make the point that you wish to make in a comprehensible way. The point that you wish to make should come very early in the essay so that you entice the reader to continue reading.

11. Failure to answer the question in the conclusion

professor Igor Maver
Professor Igor Maver, Dept of English, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia

Professor Igor Maver, Dept of English, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia

They sometimes fail to address and answer, in some way, the initial thesis question at the end of the essay. Then there are also referencing problems present occasionally.

How useful are those tips!? Here you’re getting some actionable advice from the kinds of people that will mark your essay. Every student needs to see this, so go ahead and share these tips on Facebook and Twitter guys!

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