Writing the perfect college essay takes time, a lot of proofreading, and sometimes requires an all-nighter. Sure, essay writing may seem painless for some, but it’s still an area where we all could use some improvement. Regardless of what major or academic interests you have, crafting a well-written essay is a major component of learning to write (and is a key skill needed in nearly every type of job). In fact, it’s something I am constantly working to improve despite being a journalism major. Since everyone has a little room to grow, I decided to pinpoint the most frequent mistakes and ask students who work at their university writing centers how to avoid them. Keep reading for some solid advice on how to sculpt an essay that’s sure to make your professors proud (and hopefully get you that A).
Error #1: Overworking the Introduction
Your introduction may be the first thing your readers view when they pick up your essay, but that doesn’t mean it has to be the first thing you write. In fact, writing it before you have all your ideas fleshed out can leave you with an introduction that doesn’t match the rest of your work—something that’s common in college essays.
How to Avoid It: Casey Nalley, a senior who tutors at the writing center at University of Kentucky, says, “Students often fret over how to write a strong introduction. I suggest leaving the intro for later. Write the body of whatever you’re working on first, that way when you go back to write the intro, you know exactly what you’re introducing.” When you’re ready to write that intro, Casey says, “The thesis statement is the most important part. When you go to write your introduction, make sure your thesis is already crafted. Once that’s done, a great way to introduce the thesis and the rest of the essay is with an anecdote. Think of an interesting story or experience that relates to your thesis and use that as a way of building up toward the rest of the essay.” One commonly accepted intro format is the inverted pyramid, in which the thesis is placed up front and the smaller back-up points trickle down behind it.
Error #2: Missing Thesis
Your thesis statement is a clear sentence or phrase that outlines what you’ll be talking about throughout your essay. It’s the stance your essay is making or the argument you’re trying to persuade your readers to believe. Students might forget a thesis statement if they haven’t taken the time to flesh out their argument before writing or if they’re afraid of coming off too strong too soon. Think of your thesis like a challenge you really want to conquer. Being bold is best! And like a prize that isn’t worth chasing, an essay with a weak or missing thesis isn’t worth reading. Sculpt a killer thesis first and then use the rest of your essay to chase after it.
How to Avoid It: Jillian McCarthy, a sophomore at Marist College says, “The thesis in your college essay is the most important component. It establishes the main ideas to be developed and discussed throughout the essay. [Without it,] your points may get lost in the details.” To fix this problem, Jillian says the thesis “Must be [at] the beginning of the essay, and preferably the intro paragraph.”
Error #3: Incorrect Word Usage
I’ve had personal experience with this rule, as my grammar professor tore me apart for making this mistake multiple times. So if you’re prone to incorrect word usage, you’re not alone. An example of incorrect word usage is confusing the words “aggravate” and “irritate.” To “aggravate” means to make something worse, while “to irritate” means to annoy. The difference between these words is slight, but mistaking one for the other can change the meaning of your sentence.
How to Avoid It: Incorrect word usage often occurs when you’re rushing to fill space in an essay. And thanks to the English language, there are a lot of similar-sounding words to get confused with during a time crunch. Try slowing down and giving yourself time to find the right way to phrase your thoughts during the writing process. Monika Flickinger, a junior who works at the writing center at California University of Pennsylvania says, “To combating incorrect word usage, use an online dictionary or even the built-in dictionary in Microsoft word to look up a definition that [you] may not be sure of. If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. Double-checking is always best.”
Error #4: Misplaced Commas
A common error that occurs with commas is comma splices. A comma splice occurs when two independent clauses are joined by a comma (even though the comma should be a semicolon). For example, the sentence “Don’t use a comma splice in your writing, it’s bad grammar,” has a comma splice. Had I written, “Don’t use a comma splice in your writing since it’s bad grammar,” or, “Don’t use a comma splice in your writing; it’s bad grammar,” it would be correct. This is an easy mistake to make when focusing more on how your sentence sounds than how it looks on paper. While commas sound the same as semicolons when read aloud (they’re both silent), the grammar rules surrounding them are very different.
How to Avoid It: When detecting comma splices in your own writing, ask yourself whether the clauses you are trying to connect are complete phrases on their own. If a period could take the place of your comma, then your phrases are independent of each other. In that case, you’ve just used a comma splice. If one of the clauses is dependent, and therefore cannot stand alone, you’re in the clear.
Lexa Krajewski, a junior at Boston University, recommends using the Grammarly Google Chrome plug-in to check for comma mistakes. “If you’re writing anything online—either on a blog or Google docs—Grammarly automatically checks your writing for punctuation and spelling mistakes. It catches a lot of errors, especially grammatical errors, that traditional spell-check misses!”
Error #5: Inconsistent Tense
Jumping back and forth between past and present tense is an easy mistake to make to make if you’re not careful. Doing this can and will disrupt the flow of your essay and take away from the message you are trying to convey. This is also something that’s easily identified by professors or prospective employers when they’re reading your essay, which makes it easy for them to discredit your writing abilities.
How to Avoid It: Make a habit of picking a tense before you start writing, and then jot it down so you don’t forget your decision. (Hint: Third-person past tense is a good and simple one to start with.) Also remember that if you are discussing literature, it is protocol to refer to the plotline in present tense. If you continue to struggle, don’t worry. Kendall Geisel, a junior working at the writing center at The George Washington University says “Inconsistent tense is common and is fairly easy to pick out when you read it aloud. Reading aloud is a good way identify step that is often missed.”
Error #6: Redundancy and Wordiness
If you love writing, it’s easy to get carried away. But it’s important to make sure each word and phrase you put on the page is placed purposefully. Redundancy or repeating the same words or phrases can make your essay sound jumbled and repetitive. Avoiding this is essential to keeping your writing fresh.
How to Avoid It: Kendall says she often encounters “Students saying too many words when they could say far less to portray the same point.” To fix the problem, Kendall recommends reading through your essay and “Noting the main idea of each paragraph.” Also, don’t be afraid to break out a thesaurus to find new ways to word your sentences.
Error #7: Getting Lost in the Details
Details make essays come to life, but adding them is a waste of time if you don’t flesh out your argument first. Though outlines and rough drafts are tedious, taking the time to create them (before adding in the details) can give your writing not only style, but substance, too.
How to Avoid It: When creating an outline, write your thesis at the top of the page and then bullet your main points. Leave some space underneath each point to add the facts and arguments you will use to backup your argument. You may want to write your outline down on paper or print it out so that you have a physical copy to refer back to at all times.
Monika says, “I think people get caught up in their topic and the details of it, and then forget to completely answer the question asked of them. My best advice is to read your paper from the point of view of someone who’s never heard of your topic before. You’ll notice that if you focus on the way the paper reads, you’ll find missing pieces that seem small but can greatly impact the quality of your content. Then it’s easy to go back in and elaborate or spell out more clearly what you mean.”
Error #8: Incorrect Citation Formatting
By now we’ve all been told not to plagiarize anyone’s work. While you already know not to, it’s worth noting that plagiarizing is actually a common problem. The worst part? You may not even know you are doing it. That’s because incorrectly citing research and info can have the same offense as not citing your work at all. In order to get an A (and follow the law), it’s important to double-check all your citations and make sure you are accurately giving credit where credit is due. This means they should be formatted correctly and contain all the information needed for whichever citation guidelines you are supposed to be following (MLA, APA, etc.).
How to Avoid It: Kendall says, “For citation errors—which are huge for undergrads—I recommend doing lots of research on the style and using the Purdue OWL website if there are any questions. Doing citations yourself tends to yield less errors than generators.” Not only should you make sure you have all the correct information included when writing citations, you should also have all the details formatted the correct way (according to the style you’re following). If you’re unsure, consult your style guide to check if any of your information is missing or out of place.
Error #9: Not Proofreading
After all of your hard work, don’t let a silly mistake go unnoticed by forgetting to proofread! Try reading aloud or getting your paper edited at your school’s writing center. You can also highlight mistakes manually or with the Track Changes function in Microsoft Word.
How to Avoid It: Amanda Lundgren, a senior at the University of Missouri says, “Always proofread your essay! You won’t believe how many mistakes spell-check doesn’t catch. I always read my essay again one day after I write it so that I can look at it with a fresh mind and see any mistakes or weak, repetitive sentences that I can fix.” In addition to double-checking and spell-checking, studies (such as this one reported by the Times Higher Education in 2017) suggest that it is a good idea to mark up a hard copy of your essay. By doing this, you can retain more information than you would on your laptop.
Do you have any other tips and tricks for improving your essays? Let us know in the comments below!
Featured image by @jordynwissert.