How to avoid 5 common essay mistakes

Do your essay writing errors leave your tutor in tears?

“My glass is half-full,” says the optimist.

“My glass is half-empty,” says the pessimist.

“Ah, I see you found my tears,” says the person marking essays.

I know, I know, the best jokes are always the ones with a twist at the end.

But seriously…

At the end of each semester, most university lecturers sit down to mark essays and assignments. Essay marking is an important time, not only for students but for teachers. This is the moment you show me you turned up to lectures, engaged with the subject, read profusely and wrote THE very best essay you could. It’s the moment I find out whether you understood what I taught you and frankly, whether that knowledge is now firmly installed in your head.

I love to teach. I love to share knowledge with my students, love them to have those lightbulb moments, love to see them excited about subjects that still excite me.  But I’ll be honest – marking isn’t an academic’s favourite job. Why? Because it's a combination of hundreds of essays, a tight turnaround time, and a fairly repetitive task. Shall I let you into a secret? When I first started out I use to treat myself to an Oreo biscuit as a reward for every ten essays I marked. I had to stop though because twenty biscuits eaten per module marked wasn’t great for my waistline, especially as I’m in a job that requires me to sit to read and write for hours on end.

Even though marking may not be one of my favourite jobs, after I’ve shared my passion project - aka research topic - with you for a semester, I am pretty interested to see what you’ve written. It gives me a huge buzz when my students do well. And you cannot underestimate how fantastic it feels to find the occasional gem of an essay in a sky-high pile of papers.

But the opposite of those ‘wow-what-a-gem!’ essays are those where the writer has committed one of these five major errors.

Not the obvious errors like bad spelling, punctuation, and grammar. These ones...


#1 Students who don’t answer the question

You may be surprised but this is one of THE most common mistakes and it comes in several different flavours. I’ll use this real life essay question from Marketing as an example:

“Describe the consumer decision-making process and critically evaluate its step-by-step approach. Use relevant examples to explain your answer.

Now there will be the student who simply ignores the question and writes absolutely everything they know about the topic – which is consumer behaviour in the case of our Marketing question here. But what I am testing with an essay is a student’s ability to listen to lectures, read widely and refine their total learning to address a particular issue. An indiscriminate ‘brain dump’ of an essay will get you nowhere but the bottom of a tutor’s pile of marking.

This differs from the student who writes a great essay. . .  but answers a slightly (or completely) different question to the one set! These are the essays that really disappoint me because the writer has clearly put time and effort into the essay even though they misunderstood the question. It’s simply not possible to give them high marks though because they haven’t done what was required of them.

Finally, there’s the student who answers part of the question. It might be that they ‘Describe the consumer decision-making process’ part but don’t go on tocritically evaluate its step-by-step approach’. If a question asks for more than one point to be covered in the answer then failing to answer all parts of the question will reduce the overall marks you can achieve.

Pro tip: When you are assigned the essay question, take the time to translate the question from ‘academic speak’ into plain language that you fully understand. This helps make the question clearer.


#2 Students who don’t include theory

Theory is the building block of academic knowledge. Academics develop theories about the way the world works and test these theories in the laboratory or in everyday circumstances. As a result, the majority of University essays will ask students to take a particular theory or theories and apply it to an example, situation, or context. It won’t come as a surprise to you when I tell you that students who don’t include theory in their essays fall short of the top marks available.

One reason for this error is that students often don’t understand that the concepts covered in the lectures ARE the theory. (You DO show up to lectures, don’t you?) Other students fail to include theory because they choose to ignore the part of the question that mentions it. Theory can be tricky. I get it. Let’s go back to our Marketing example:

Describe the consumer decision-making process and critically evaluate its step-by-step approach. Use relevant examples to explain your answer.

The theory in this example is the consumer decision-making model developed by Engel, Blackwell and Kollat in 1968. How would you know it refers to this? Well, even though the question doesn’t explicitly mention a theory, the consumer decision-making model would have been mentioned in your lecture and core textbooks included on your reading list. You’ll need to do a bit of detective work, but it will be there!

And then there are students who understand the theory they’ve covered in the lectures but don’t know how to apply it in their essay. The application of theory is a tricky skill to master and that’s why I cover it in detail on Your Best Essay Ever.

Pro tip: Look in your lecture notes to match the phrases or authors mentioned in the essay question. This helps you to detect what ‘theory’ you need to include.


#3 Students who don’t provide evidence to back up their claims

Every point, claim or statement made in an essay needs to be backed up with evidence. This evidence will usually be in the form of theoretical or empirical research studies, published in academic books or journals. When you include evidence to back up your arguments it demonstrates that you’re familiar with what has already been published and understand the literature well enough to use it in your essay.

Let’s return to our example question:

Describe the consumer decision-making process and critically evaluate its step-by-step approach. Use relevant examples to explain your answer.

Here the question explicitly asks for examples, but you’d be surprised how many students fail to include them. To be honest, it’s why the question spells it out!

There are a couple of ways the problem of lack of evidence manifests itself. Either the student makes a claim or statement but does not provide any examples from academic literature to substantiate the claim, or they make a statement and give academic examples but don’t cite the authors within the text and the references at the end.

A student may state their own opinion because they believe the point they make is self-evident. And you know what? It will often seem self-evident! But you and I deal with scientific knowledge and science demands evidence gathered by thorough methods under scientific conditions. This means that you should illustrate your points with examples from the work of other academics.

Pro tip: Published books and peer-reviewed journals meet scientific criteria. Choose your examples from them and other reliable academic resources.


#4 Students who don’t write critically

Students often find their feedback says their essay was ‘not critical’ or than they ‘need to be more critical’. This feedback can confuse students who associate the word critical or criticism with disapproval. Within the context of academia, that’s not the case. To be critical means to assess, evaluate and analyse the topic.

Students who write an essay that doesn’t demonstrate critical thought tend to describe what they find in the literature without a thorough (or any) analysis. A non-critical essay would report what the student found in the literature in a superficial way – this commonly plays out as ‘X says this and Y says that and Z also agrees with Y’. Bleh! It’s pretty dull.

A critical essay considers the context and arguments of the authors they cite in their essay, rather than simply describe their conclusions. If I return to our Marketing question, a critical writer would examine whether the information they cite is recent and from a respected journal. An article in the last few years from the Journal of Consumer Research or Journal of Marketing Research would do nicely, thank you. The next stage would be to examine the articles in more detail to see whether there are inconsistencies, assumptions or errors either within the articles or between them. Honestly, you WILL uncover some if you put on your detective hat and scrutinise them well! Even published academics aren’t infallible.

Pro tip: Think of the literature you are studying as a conversation you’ve just joined at a party. Being critical means you understand the thread of the conversation and notice what is said together with what is left out before you join in.


#5 Students who don’t structure their essay properly

The importance of a written plan is often overlooked in the writing process and frequently results in a poorly structured essay.When you structure your essay well it means YOU do the hard work so the READER doesn’t have to. And as the intended reader of your University essay is usually the person marking it, your effort will pay off in higher marks! The person marking your essay will probably teach a number of different modules with up to a couple of hundred students. This adds up to a lot of essays to read! To gain high marks your essay needs have a smooth flow and be straightforward to follow. Poorly structured essays give markers a headache as they meander from one topic to another and the reader finds it hard to follow the writer’s train of thought. It’s like a five-mile hike without a map or a compass and no idea where you’ll head next!

This error usually occurs because the student hasn’t drawn up a clear outline of the essay before they began to write. The remedy is to allow sufficient time to plan before you read and again before you write. Often there’s a clue in the question that’ll help you structure your essay.

Describe the consumer decision-making process and critically evaluate its step-by-step approach. Use relevant examples to explain your answer.

In the case of our Marketing question here, the question guides us that the step by step element of the process is important. An effective answer would be structured around the 5 steps of the consumer decision-making process - problem/need recognition, information search, evaluation of alternatives to meet this need, purchase decision and post-purchase behaviour.

If the question doesn’t guide you, then make certain your essay has a clear introduction and conclusion and ensure the main body of the essay transitions from one major point to another in a logical and easy to follow format. A well thought through structure will give you the best result.

Pro Tip: Outline your essay before you start to write. Plan out your main points and organise your subsidiary points beneath them to ensure a smooth flow of ideas.

There we have it – five of the major errors that make essay markers want to cry. Remember my glass half-full of tears? I’m hoping now you’ve read this the only crying YOUR tutor will do is tears of joy!