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.
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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...
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