University Essays: 6 Common Mistakes

If you’re in school, you’re going to be writing essays. And you’re going to have to do well at them if you want to shore up your share of good grades.

After writing and reading my own share of essays, I’ve recognized numerous areas where me and other people always seem to falter. If you want to improve the quality of essays you produce, it will be helpful to pay attention to these common mistake points.

1. Going Off Topic

It’s not uncommon, especially for long essays, to occasionally stray off from the topic in question. Obviously, this isn’t a good thing. Not only does it derail the continuity of your discussion, you can end up distracting the reader as well, diverting their attention towards something else than what is necessary. Going off topic dilutes whatever strength your argument holds, leaving readers wondering whether you’re really sure of what you’re talking about.

To ensure relevance throughout the essay, always write down the question you’re trying to answer at a place that’s visible while you compose the document, such as a whiteboard right by the study table or a Post-It note stuck on top of your monitor. This should act as a constant reminder to keep your discussion within the context of the subject matter.

Any time you suspect that you’re going into an unrelated tangent, take a look at that written reminder and compare what you’re writing to it. Ask yourself whether the discussion relates directly to the subject or if it’s a little beyond the scope.

2. Poor Structure

All essays should have a clear and definite structure. Ideally, you’d want to develop this as a plan from the onset, usually during the outlining process when the sequence in which you should present ideas starts becoming clear.

Without structure, reading an essay will feel like you’re randomly flipping through the pages of a book. Sure, the discussions seem related, but you can’t quite figure out how they all fit into a whole. That will be good if you’re writing a mystery novel — but you’re not.

The way you structure your presentation will often by determined by the nature of the subject. Will it work best with a logical progression? How about an order of increasing significance? Should you use category groupings to structure the material? And so on.

Since most essays are written to argue a position, embracing a sequence that enhances persuasiveness is usually recommended. Whether this is one of the above progressions or something else entirely will be up to your analysis of the different ideas at hand.

When a clear order isn’t apparent, I usually follow the inverted pyramid style used in journalism. This is a personal preference, so your opinion might vary, but I’ve always found it to be a helpful structure to default to. Some will argue that it doesn’t encourage readers to follow through the end, which may be the case. However, I see that as the writer’s job to keep your discussion relevant and interesting even after you get the critical stuff out of the way.

Be particularly wary of combining multiple ideas in a single paragraph. Make an effort to keep each paragraph restricted to a single subject, which you state in its topic sentence.

3. Difficult to read

When a reader complains that your essay is difficult to read, it’s not a testament to your intellectual superiority. It means you didn’t take enough care to write in a clear manner that your target audience can understand.

What can cause this? The most obvious culprit, of course, is just bad writing, which you can fix with a grammar software and some focused revisions. Frequently, though, the problem occurs on either one of two ends (or both):

Lack of illustrations. In this case, you need to add more examples and illustrations to clarify conceptual points, where the difficulty in understanding often lies. If you’re going to be discussing concepts that may not quite be crystal clear, always throw in an example or two that demonstrates it in action.

Lack of guidance. As the writer, it’s your job to guide the reader every step of the way. It’s why we write introductions that define the scope of the essay and it’s why we add transitions that prepare readers for the next idea. If your essay is a journey, you’re the tour guide and you need to lead the reader every step of the way.

4. Signposting

Don’t signpost your essay — it’s awkward and unnecessary. If you’re not familiar with the term, it refers to expressions such as “As I demonstrated earlier in the essay…” or “Now, let’s go to another example…” You’re not a TV host doing an infomercial, you’re composing an essay — just state your points and leave them to themselves.

If you feel the need to use expressions to indicate structure, keep them short, like “on one hand…” and “to begin with…” Using them is not ideal either, but they’ll do.

5. References

If you’re going to take an idea from another book, essay or study, make sure to follow the correct format for references. This will vary depending on your teacher’s (or your school’s) preferred style guide. Either way, proper referencing and citation is crucial to avoiding accusations of plagiarism. Letting the readers know which ones are your ideas and which ones aren’t will also allow your own original ideas to shine.

6. Repetitiveness

When putting together essays with sizeable word count requirements, some students resort to merely repeating ideas, disguising them by expressing each in different ways. While it’s not exactly foul (some people use repetition to ensure readers understand a point), it could end up making your work sound like it’s simply going in circles. And that’s never a good thing.

Watch out for this when you have topics that spill over across several paragraphs — it’s not uncommon for some of those paragraphs to include the same ideas over and over. Use your discretion here to decide whether to restrict an idea to one paragraph or whether it’s more helpful to repeat it over several of them.