The #1 Mistake Students Make on Writing Projects


Published: January 2, 2019

Peter Mosley, Ph.D.

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Image courtesy of Daniel Gonzalez

About 75% of the students who come to see me because they received a low grade on a writing project did not read and follow the assignment guidelines.

Most of them skipped or merely skimmed over these guidelines because they assumed the instructions were redundant. This is not surprising. It is tempting to assume that the book review in your graduate class will has the same requirements as the one you aced in undergrad. If an assignment in your Tuesday class is somewhat similar to the assignment in your Monday class, it is easy to hastily assume that all the requirements for the two assignments are the same. When a professor assigns two papers with the same assignment title in the same course, you might miss the fact that the requirements or standards for each assignment are different.

In addition, when you skip over the guidelines and begin writing the paper, you become increasingly less likely to compare what you write to the assignment expectations.  After all, you worry, they might indicate that you have to change something significant. The more we write, the more most of us want to defend what we have written.

As a result, students often write long papers and are surprised at the low grades they receive when they get them back.

There are few experiences worse than finding out that a paper you worked hard on does not fulfill assignment requirements. It is obvious that getting the low grade would be frustrating to you, but the experience of giving the grade is also usually frustrating for the professor grading your paper. Professors have strategic goals for each of their assignments; they may not be as personally invested in your grade as you are, but they are concerned about whether or not you are learning. They know that when your paper significantly deviates from assignment requirements, you are crippling the ideal trajectory of your educational development in the course. Every assignment in your class is carefully tailored to ensure that you develop relevant skills, so failure to follow assignment guidelines can negatively affect your long-term professional performance.

Following assignment guidelines requires a strong understanding of the assignment’s purpose, an awareness of any rubrics associated with the assignment, and as strong grasp of the formatting guidelines.

1. Understand the Assignment Purpose

Determine the professor’s overall purpose for the assignment, and try to make it your purpose for completing the assignment. Figuring out the professor’s purpose for the assignment usually is not guesswork; most professors in graduate school will spend considerable time and effort explaining how your next assignment will contribute to your long-term development. Every lecture, reading, assignment sheet and syllabus, correction on previous papers, and professor-student email may provide further insight into the purpose the professor has for the assignment.

Remember that different professors often have very different purposes in the assignments they give students, even if each professor’s assignment has the same title. For example, two professors might require a 2-page book report in each of their respective classes, but one professor might be more focused on your ability to synthesize and summarize information, while the other might be much more focused on your ability to present a well-considered opinion on the information you read. Paying attention to nuances in focus will do more than ensure a higher grade; it will also ensure that you are gleaning what you were meant to learn from each class, preparing you more thoroughly for effectiveness outside of the university.

Thinking about these different focuses also prepares you for publication, as each journal you submit an article to will likely have a unique perspective and goal. If you develop your skill in identifying the goals of your professor’s assignment, you will probably be more successful identifying perspective and goals in the professional realm after you graduate.

Think about:

  • What is the professor trying to prepare you for in the long term? What does your professor say about the connection this assignment has to what you will be need to know to be successful in the field after you graduate?
  • How is the professor trying to prepare you for other writing projects? What does your professor say about how this assignment will prepare you for future assignments?
  • What has your professor said about how other assignments or information taught in lecture has prepared you for this assignment?

2. Pay Careful Attention to Rubrics

Second, look carefully at the breakdown in the rubric of any assignment. Pay special attention to how much of your grade each category of the rubric is assigned, and prioritize the parts that are the largest parts of your grade first. Often, over the course of a semester, you will see some significant differences in each rubric provided for each writing assignment. Maybe your professor realized that most students would struggle with synthesizing their articles early in the course, so “organization” had a low weight of 15% in the beginning of the course, but over the course of the semester your professor wants to provide an incentive for you to pay attention as they teach that skill, so that “organization” has a weight of 30% by the time the course reaches the final project. If you write papers the same way each time, without paying attention to the rubric, you are likely to receive lower grades on papers as the semester progresses because you will not be paying attention to the areas in which you are expected to improve. Read rubrics carefully, and read the syllabus carefully to catch any information that is not in the rubric.

Think about:

  • How is this rubric different from previous or future rubrics in this course? What does this difference say about the way the professor expects me to progress throughout the course?
  • Which rubric category is weighted most heavily? Least heavily? In the time I have, how can I ensure that higher-rated categories are addressed, without neglecting the lower-rated categories?
  • How do rubric category descriptions correlate with or enhance what the professor has discussed in this course?
  • How does the description show that this assignment has different expectations than assignments with similar titles that I have done previously?
  • Are any parts of the description difficult for me to understand? When can I talk to the professor for clarification (ideally, you will do this ASAP after receiving the rubric, not at the last minute)?

3. Understand and Follow All Formatting Guidelines

Finally, make sure you are clear on the paper parameters. Minimum word requirements may be there to ensure your project has a certain degree of depth, maximum word limits may be present to encourage succinctness, and no word requirements may imply that the professor wants you to be firmly aware of the assignment’s goals so that you can be prepared to take on similar projects outside of the course. Professors who are strict on formatting may want to teach you the importance of following writing guidelines exactly. Do not miss or gloss over the “technical” requirements; every parameter given for a paper is important. Additionally, if you follow assignment parameters that your colleagues missed, you show that you are paying attention and will make a strong positive impression on your professor.

Think about:

  • What is the minimum length requirement? Does this length requirement exclude any cover pages, abstracts, appendices, and reference/works cited pages (it usually does, but double-check)?
  • Which style guide should I use? APA, MLA, AMA, Chicago, AP? Another? What fonts are standard in the chosen style guide? What citation style? Should the paper be double-spaced or single-spaced? What are the rules on comma usage in a series? Spaces after a period? The more exact you are here, the stronger your writing will come across.
  • What explicit directions on format does the professor provide? Anything about font size and type, margins, cover sheets, line spacing, or any other elements?
  • How does the description show that this assignment has different expectations than assignments with similar titles that I have done previously?
  • Are any parts of the description difficult for me to understand? When can I talk to the professor for clarification (ideally, you will do this ASAP after receiving the rubric, not at the last minute)?

In most cases you should seek to understand these guidelines as soon as you receive an assignment, before you put one word down on the page. Unless your professor explicitly states that you should hold off on your questions because the assignment will be discussed in more detail later, it is better for all concerned if you ask for any needed clarifications the day you receive the assignment. You want to avoid asking the professor at the last minute and implying that you only recently started working on the assignment; do it ASAP.

Do you have any comments, questions, or additional concerns? If so, please let us know in the comments below.

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