5 Cardinal Sins of Essay Writing

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Submitted by Jessica Peyton Roberts of Aim High Writing

aim high writingIf you’re starting papers with something along the lines of, “Throughout all of time and space and history…” – we need to talk.

As an Applications Coach, I teach students how to write compelling college, scholarship, and graduate school admissions essays. Moreover, we set the student up for long-term success by showing them how to develop a mature writing voice, research online databases, and ultimately advocate for themselves as young adults in the college environment.

The following are five cardinal sins (as in, unforgivable) of essay writing. Avoid these to impress your professor, win over your teaching assistant, and make me shed tears of joy:


The essay should not be one long paragraph, and no paragraph should fill an entire page. If it does, go back and break it into smaller points. There are several types of essays, but there are three you can expect to write regularly in school:

Narrative: Applications, especially college applications, ask for this format. The Narrative Essay is usually first-person, autobiographical, and describes a story or process from which you have extrapolated some greater meaning or understanding.

Expository: Expository essays explain a topic. Some research and analysis are required, and you are to make an argument. These are commonly compare-and-contrast or cause-and-effect papers.

Persuasive: This is probably the essay you will be asked to write the most. As the name suggests, you are expected to take a position on a controversial (or at least debatable) topic and detail your argument, refute the counterargument, and offer evidence.


If I have to re-read the same paragraph five times and I still don’t understand what you are saying, your wording needs to be reorganized.

If I have no idea what your thesis is, your introduction needs to be reorganized.

If you say you are going to discuss A,B, and C and then you never get to it, your content needs to be reorganized. Same goes for discussing A, then C, then back to A, then a brief mention of B in the conclusion.

If you close your paper with the last paragraph, rather than a conclusion, your ending needs to be reorganized.


aim high writingCliches are sayings that we are used to hearing and reading. If your eyes gloss over when reading the following list, it’s because our repeated exposure to them ultimately blunts their meaning and effect:

  • Throughout all time and space…
  • In conclusion…
  • But at the end of the day
  • All in all
  • Bright and early
  • Epic battle

Wasn’t that boring? I’m sorry I did that to you. Now stop doing it to the people grading your papers.


Filler is anything that is not immediately relevant to the topic and is an obvious attempt at padding out a weak paper. This includes ruminations on the meanings of words, quoting dictionary.com, or taking unrelated tangents.

I also warn students about poetics – if you’ve just written half a page about the meaning of life and the essay topic is World War II, go back and delete all of it. Then start over, this time addressing the actual assignment.

Avoid using filler by filling out a paper with textual evidence, which you can use as evidence to support the point you are making. Just make sure to explain the quote and connect it back to your overarching point. If you are just sticking random quotes in the paper, that’s filler.


saint martins Write out numbers 1-10. Do not write out years.

Capitalize proper nouns. Do not capitalize random words.

Do not use contractions – i.e. write out “don’t” as “do not”

Do not use “very” or “really.” The sentence sounds better without it.

“The war was really devastating” vs. “The war was devastating”

If it is a possessive, use an apostrophe.

Avoid fragments and run-on sentences.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen students write something like, “In the year of nineteen hundred and forty one, the united states entered world war II very ready to fight in the War.”

Try: “In 1941 the United States entered World War II.”

Shorter? Yes. But it conveys the same information without the grammatical errors, correct punctuation, and omits the filler.

Read the original here and consider Aim High Writing when you need assistance navigating the college, scholarship, and graduate school applications processes!


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