10 reasons students lose marks, and how to avoid them

Before you tackle your next essay, take a moment to read my guide to avoiding the simplest mistakes that so many students make, losing them valuable marks.

Let’s kick off with the top 10 reasons students lose marks when they’re writing essays:

  1. Misunderstanding the question
  2. Straying from the question
  3. Writing everything you know about the topic
  4. Missing parts of the question or failing to address certain issues raised by the question
  5. Not giving enough attention to the most important issues
  6. Being descriptive (for example, describing 2 different points of view, rather than comparing them critically)
  7. Failing to support views with recognised authority
  8. Failing to reach a well-reasoned conclusion
  9. Using sources that are unreliable (or biased, without recognising as much)
  10. Failing to check spelling, grammar and referencing, losing out on valuable presentation marks (as much as 5% of the overall marks available)

In order to avoid going off on a tangent, you’ll need to decide what the question is asking you to tackle.  Pick out the key words in the question, and they will help you decide what the nature and direction of the question is – or in other words, what you should be focusing on.  You may then begin your essay by making a few general observations, showing some awareness and understanding of the question you’ve been set.

Books in the library


Sketching some sort of analysis of a question is one thing, but at some point you will need to develop you opinions into an argument. This is where you weigh up the possibilities that that the question suggests – you look at different sides to the argument. This way you are able to show the reader that you can deal with different points of view, not just your own, and demonstrate awareness of them. You can then give your own opinion at the end of your essay or incorporate it into parts of your text, but this isn’t always desirable.

There are many different ways of researching information for your essay. For example, if you are a psychology student, you may do some of your own experiments to gather information and support an argument, but the majority of research will be spent reading and taking detailed notes to include in your work.

If you are stuck, it may also be useful to look at past essays discussing similar topics for ideas and inspiration. But remember, not all information on the Internet is valid and some is unreliable, so check information before you incorporate it into your essay.  You should also know that you don’t have to read entire books – you’re trying to construct a clear argument so make sure the research you’re doing is relevant – read the relevant chapters and passages and try to improve your skim reading skills!

Make sure that whilst you are reading, you take down notes including names, page numbers and any information you will need to reference your work. This is very important, as it will be difficult to find this information later on! Also note the book’s title, its author, publisher and date of publication for the bibliography.

Planning an essay


Once you feel you have done enough research to write a good, in depth answer, you must then assess and order your research, forming some sort of structured plan. At this stage, you should have some idea of the structure you want to follow in your essay. Its a good idea to write down a running order of your ideas to follow – and if it doesn’t work, you can try another until you feel your ideas run smoothly. Once you have ordered your ideas into what seems to be a logical pattern of thought (which will then be written as paragraphs for your essay), write down the quotations and sources you will need to support them next to each idea.Before writing your essay, its important to make sure that your essay will be:

If you feel there is anything that needs changing – anything that is not clear enough or seems like a weak point, now is the time to change it. Remember that it will be much harder to change the structure mid-way through your essay, so thorough planning is important! And take a deep breath!


By this point the general structure of the essay and your argument should be clear. And it should be obvious that providing you have spent enough time planning, most of the work needed to be done to answer the essay is already completed. However, one very important thing remains!

An introduction and conclusion

In order to create an effective introduction, you will need to do three things:

  1. Address the issues that the question implies
  2. Give the reader an overview of what is to follow
  3. Keep it clear and simple

A conclusion is a way of “tying up’ the issues raised in your essay. It should reflect the strength and balance of the points you have argued, so avoid discarding the points you have discussed and coming to a firm definitive opinion, which is the trap many people fall into. Try to summarise the main points you discussed in the body of your essay, and maybe offer a thought-provoking idea – something for the reader to think about afterwards. This always works effectively!

TIP: Don’t introduce new ideas or material into your conclusion.  Think of it as a summary of your main points.


Being able to write an effective, well-polished essay in a single attempt is rare! Once you have written your essay, this should be considered your first draft. You then need to revise through your points – make sure they are clear and logical. Also remember to thoroughly proofread you work as good use of sentence structure, spelling, punctuation and grammar will gain you points. A good idea is to ask someone else to read through your essay for you – it will allow a “fresh pair of eyes’ to see whether your essay reads smoothly, and whether your points are strong and clear. Once you are happy and feel there is nothing more that can be done, all you need to do is print your essay and create your bibliography – which should be fairly straightforward providing you included references in your plan!

Job done.


Check your work with plagiarismchecker.net, the free plagiarism checker.  It has never been so important to ensure that your work is original and free from accidental plagiarism, but it’s so easy to include other peoples’ words by mixing up your notes and failing to reference properly.  Use plagiarismchecker.net to make sure you don’t fall into this trap.

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