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How to Avoid Making Stupid Mistakes on Assignments

Paper ball of paper

It always happens. You get your subject outline and quickly scan through in the first week of semester. Everything seems straightforward. No need to start early. There's eight whole weeks before that paper is due. Future-Student can deal with that problem, Beginning-of-Semester-Student has to watch half a dozen episodes of How I Met Your Mother, right?

1. Read the instructions, idiot.

Weeks go by and considering the amount of work you’ve done this semester you may as well be on holidays. Oops! Better get cracking on that assignment! In a state of last minute panic you start wildly researching and jump straight into writing. Many caffeine-fuelled hours later you emerge with completed assignment and submit it just in time.

But then you re-read the instructions and realise:

  1. You didn’t address the question properly

  2. You got the deadline completely wrong

  3. Yes to 1. and 2. and more.

As basic as it sounds, you cannot read the instructions too many times. Contrary to popular belief, your lecturers do not want you to fail. The instructions and marking criteria are there to provide you with everything you need to do well in that essay… so read them!

It’s pretty unlikely that you’ll take in all the necessary information in one go so read and re-read the question as many times as it takes for you to be confident you’re doing what’s expected of you.

2. I still don’t know what I’m doing

No drama. Chances are you’re not the only one. So long as you’re not asking for the answer to the assignment, teachers are pretty happy to answer student questions. My tip would be to read all the assessment advice and read your lecture notes first. Chances are your problem is really straightforward and you can work it out for yourself. If you’re still unsure, speak to your lecturer.

By doing this reading first you can save yourself the embarrassment of asking your lecturer something that you later realise is so basic that you’ve basically told them, “I haven’t read the instructions and I’ve skipped every class this semester.” If you don’t take our advice be prepared for your teacher to say something like, “I think the instructions are clear enough.” Ouch.

The other advantage that comes from doing some preliminary reading and research before seeking advice from your lecturer is that you have a better chance of asking the “right” questions. If you have a fairly good idea of what the assignment is asking for, then you can get help on the tougher aspects, rather than wasting class time on basic questions about word count and due date.

In the alternative you can:

  1. Speak to your classmates

  2. Check out the online discussion boards for the subject to see if the lecturer has already answered similar queries there

  3. Read any sample answers provided by the lecturer

  4. Attend classes or listen to lecture recordings. Teachers often give hints in class so it’s worth paying attention.

3. Allow time

Most mistakes are made when there isn’t enough time so avoid the last minute frenzy if you can. I know you won’t have your essay ready two weeks before the due date, but more time generally means a better assignment and a better mark.

If you don’t have time to sleep between starting your assignment and handing it in, then that’s very bad news. Sleeping helps you to feel refreshed and alert- we all know what an assignment-written-on-autopilot sounds like after a good night’s shut eye.

If you give yourself time to write an assignment then you can take breaks- yes, you can sanction your own procrastination. The thing about taking breaks is that it helps you to take a step back from your work and consider your whole argument. After a break you always look at your work with fresh eyes. After a break I find I always make really good progress, pick up on little mistakes and find it easier to address issues I was previously grappling with.

4. Don’t forget the basics

Answering the question well is essential but it isn’t the whole equation. Teachers hate it when an assignment is brilliant but the really straightforward things are wrong.

Spelling and grammar check

While those little green and red squiggly lines under words are ultra annoying they are actually your friends- listen to them. If your spelling and grammar is rotten the marker won’t be giving as much attention to your brilliant arguments.

Word count

You can go a little over or a little under, but make sure that it’s within accepted limits. And don’t try to fudge your word count because an extra 800 words won’t go unnoticed.


This is the only time I ever really think about punctuation. Do I use a comma or a full stop? Is it a colon or a semi colon? Doing footnotes and bibliographies is the most painful exercise of academia but you have to do it well, and you have to do it. Academic misconduct is easily avoided by simply indicating where your information came from. Those hours spent checking comma placement are well worth it in the end.

Handing It In

The due date is not a guideline. Be aware that lecturers can be very strict about submission dates and sometimes if an assignment is received after the due date they may refuse to mark it altogether.

Be sure to put your name and student number on the front of your assignment and check if submission is online or as a hard copy or both.

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