10 Ways to Ruin a College Paper

Avoid these common mistakes students make when tackling writing assignments.

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Learning to write well is one of the most important skills you can learn at college, yet many students think paper writing is something you do only in a "writing" course and then never have to think about again. Wrong! Many employers today are looking for workers who have strong communication skills, and that includes the ability to write. You'll be sure to improve your writing skills if you know the 10 biggest mistakes college students make in writing papers—and how to avoid them:

1. Writing too much. Some students think the suggested page limits are just a general guideline, and it's a good idea to go over them. Usually it isn't. While a professor may not mind a paper that's slightly above the limit, especially if the content is good, students who go on and on show a lack of discipline and focus that usually dooms their work.

[Read 10 Secrets to College Success.]

2. Writing too little. It's common for professors to encounter papers that trail off well short of the minimum page limit. This is often a sign that the student just doesn't know enough about the topic, hasn't put enough thought into what he or she is going to say, or merely gestures at key points rather than explaining them in detail. If you find your paper is coming up short, do more working.

3. Not answering the question. Some students view the paper assignment as a chance to free-associate. They consider the question or task assigned by the professor as more of a suggestion (or "prompt") of something to talk about, rather than a focused request for discussion of a specific issue. Professors, especially ones who have spent hours writing up the assignment, don't view this kindly. In our experience, students lose more points from not answering the question than for making errors in what they write.

4. Including irrelevant material. It's a continual mystery to professors why some students feel compelled to include material that clearly isn't relevant to the paper. From time to time, we even see a confession that these items "aren't really relevant, but they seemed so important that I somehow had to get them in." Resist the urge to throw extraneous material into your paper. Writing a good paper is a matter of judgment­—about what to take out as well as what to put in—and irrelevant material detracts from the overall quality of your paper.

5. Lacking a thesis. All college papers should have a thesis—that is, an overarching idea or point—clearly set out at the beginning, around which the paper centers. It needn't be something complex or obscure, just a statement of the main point: the one-sentence answer you would give to the question, if you had to answer in just one sentence. Funny how it's hard to write when you haven't figured out in your own mind what your single main point will be. (Again, judgment plays a key role here.)

6. Not having a direction of argument. College papers need to have an order of presentation: a carefully thought-out logic in which each point follows the previous one with some reason. This creates a feeling in the reader that the paper is proceeding in an orderly fashion toward some goal. It's frustrating for a professor to read a paper in which he or she has no idea why some point is being made now, and not even a clue about what point might come next. No reader likes the feeling of stumbling around in the dark.

7. Including sentences that do no work. All the sentences in your paper should make some definite contribution to developing and proving your thesis. Sentences that do something, that have some muscle, play a real role in advancing your main argument. Sentences like: "The Civil War was an important event in American history" or "In this paper I will be discussing a number of issues relating to the Civil War" should be eliminated without hesitation.

8. Not writing in paragraphs (or writing in one-sentence paragraphs). Paragraphs are the building blocks of any paper and it's critical to construct a paper using paragraphs of about four to five sentences each. Who wants a single, ginormous building block? And college papers aren't like some newspaper articles in which each paragraph is just one sentence. You're expecting to develop a (small) thought, even within a paragraph, and no one can do that in one sentence.

9. Making errors in spelling and grammar. College professors don't always consciously take off for spelling and grammatical errors, but it's hard to give an A to a paper that shows great carelessness in preparation. We're in the age of automated spelling and grammar check. Surely you can recognize those red and green squiggles on your screen and fix them. (And while you're at it, proofread your paper the old-fashioned way: with your eyes. No spell checker will catch those annoying wrong words or homonyms.)

10. Not writing your own paper. With Internet paper mills and ample materials on the web and in books, it's always possible—but totally deplorable—to take someone else's words and submit them as yours. Not only can you screw up your career if you get caught, but you cheat yourself out of your own education. Why would you want to do that?

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