College Essay Mistakes

4 Common College Essay Mistakes

college essays We read a lot of papers. A lot.

The subjects of these papers are never the same, the styles are uniquely different, and the writing skills of the authors vary more than the number of times a sorority girl changes her dress before going out on a Friday night.

But regardless of how many papers we read, there are four writing mistakes we find in almost every college student’s paper.

Let’s explore.

1. Uh… what’s the point of this paper again?

It’s the most basic of principles, but many college students neglect to formulate a thesis prior to writing their papers.

A thesis tells the reader WHY you are writing the paper, WHAT you intend to prove, and some small justification for HOW it’s valid.

The thesis should be explicit in the opening paragraph. We recommend that it is placed as the final sentence of the opening paragraph.

2. "I’ll stick a comma here."


College papers are full of commas because students think they need them to appear "academic." However, they don’t understand how to use them correctly.

The most obvious cases occur when students use an introductory dependent clause at the beginning of a sentence. A comma always follows a dependent clause and precedes the subsequent independent clause. Those are fancy grammatical terms, so here’s an example.

"After the President gave a speech on foreign policy in the Rose Garden, he met with Congressional leaders in the Oval Office to discuss the impending debt limit."

Likewise, a comma must separate two independent clauses separated by a conjunction (e.g., "and," "but," "or," etc.). In more simple terms, this is called a compound sentence. The key here is that the comma precedes the conjunction.

"I love to write research papers, and I am an excellent writer too."

Who loves to write research papers?

Anyway, that’s not the point. To understand commas and their full use, purchase a Holt Handbook or The Gregg Reference Manual. Use either resource as a quick reference when you are questioning whether or not to use a comma.

3. Semi-colons are more than a wink with your keyboard.

The semi-colon is the most misunderstood punctuation mark by all writers, not just college students. However, with three simple rules, they are actually very easy to understand.

Use a semi-colon between…

• two closely related independent clauses not already joined by a coordinating conjunction
• two closely related independent clauses when the second clause is introduced by a transitional word or phrase
• items in a series when one or more of those items include commas

Here are a few examples:

"I left the game at halftime; I wasn’t feeling very good."
"We didn’t win the game; however, we gave our best effort."
"My wish list includes a new dirt bike; clothes, jackets, and hats; a new guitar; and a smartphone."

If these three rules are too much to remember, the same Holt Handbook or Gregg Reference Manual mentioned above will help any student use semi-colons correctly when writing a college paper.


Reference styles stink, but they are very important because they credit another author’s work in an organized format.

The problem for students is that implementing a reference style is a tedious task that requires great attention to detail.

The most common error we see is that students confuse two or more reference styles in their paper. It is obvious that they have not reviewed the requirements of the reference style before implementing it in their work.

For example, in MLA style, the bibliography is called "Works Cited." In APA, it is called "References." We often see students confuse these terms among styles, but both styles are explicit in what this section of the paper should be named.

Here’s a post on the basics of MLA style, but for a full resource, visit Purdue Owl. This free online resource is a fantastic guide to find the latest requirements for APA, MLA, Chicago, and other reference styles.

Now that you know the common errors, avoid these mistakes in your own college papers. If you need help, submit your paper to the professionals at

Good luck, and start writing!

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