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8 ELL Mistakes You're Probably Making in Your College Essays

Tonya Thompson

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The number of ELL (English Language Learners) attending American colleges and universities is steadily growing. In fact, according to a whitepaper produced by the American Institutes for Research:

From 1990 to 2014, the number of international students enrolled in U.S. higher education institutions more than doubled, reaching a total of 1.1 million students in the 2016–17 academic year (Institute of International Education, 2017a). Second-generation Americans, children born in the United States to immigrant parents, currently account for almost 20% of all U.S. college students and 24% of community college students (Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education, 2015).

American Institutes for Research
The number of ELL writers in the US is steadily growing
The number of ELL writers in the US is steadily growing. Photo by Sean Kong on Unsplash.

Mistake #1: Switching tense or incorrect tense

In my experience as an editor for many ELL clients, a switched tense or incorrect tense were two of the most common mistakes I found. In the English language (as with other languages), the tense of a sentence shows the reader whether something occurred in the past, the present, or will occur in the future. In most cases, if a paragraph is written logically, it will consist of verbs that use the same tense. For example, consider the following paragraph:

In their study of the migratory habits of birds, the authors explained that birds migrate due to lack of resources. They will move to areas with more resources. The authors note that birds look for food and nesting locations.

Notice how the first verb, "explained" is in past tense and the following verb, "migrate" is in present tense. The next verb, "will move" is in future tense. And the last verb is "note", which is present tense. Since the writer used three different tenses instead of one, the paragraph is confusing and poorly written. A better way to write it would be:

In their study of the migratory habits of birds, the authors explain that birds migrate due to lack of resources, and then move to more fertile areas to compensate. Typically, the birds look for food and nesting locations.

Not only is the above paragraph written in all present tense, I've combined the first two sentences to make it read less choppy. I've also removed the repetition of "resources" and "authors", which brings us to Mistake #2.

Mistake #2: Repeating words excessively

It's always a good idea for any writer—whether English is your second language or not—to look over paragraphs to ensure that excessive repetition isn't taking place. While your grade might not get dinged for it as a grammar error, it does come across as poor writing.

As shown in the example paragraph beneath Mistake #1, the two best ways to deal with this are:

  1. Combine shorter sentences that repeat a word.
  2. Rewrite a sentence using alternate language to avoid repetition.

Mistake #3: Using the wrong preposition

Many prepositional phrases (groups of two or more words that begin with a preposition) are idiomatic expressions, meaning if they are taken literally, they likely won't make sense. A few good examples are:

  • Beside the point
  • Behind the scenes
  • In any case
  • On account of
  • To a certain extent
  • Out of the question
  • On the other hand
  • Of course
  • In no time
  • In advance of
  • At any rate
  • At one's disposal
  • By heart
  • For a living
  • At last
  • At a loss

These are only a few of the idioms in the English language that begin with a preposition, but it is obvious how complicated they could be for someone just learning the language to understand. In fact, advanced writing courses often suggest leaving idiomatic expressions out of one's writing completely, since they can be misunderstood by a large percentage of readers (including ELL readers).

This confusion is the main reason many ELL college students use the wrong preposition in their writing. Errors like "by the other hand" instead of "on the other hand," "at a certain extent" instead of "to a certain extent," and "in any rate" instead of "at any rate" are common among ELL writers—and rightly so. These errors could arguably make more logical sense than the correct preposition, although they'll still sound awkward to the native English speaker's ear.

Mistake #4: Using incorrect articles

As a student of the French language, I often struggled with learning articles for nouns because of their masculine versus feminine qualities. Although I haven't studied Spanish, I've read that the language contains nine articles compared to the three used in English. So, I understand how article use can be confusing to an English language learner.

Just like Spanish, the English language contains definite and indefinite articles. "A" and "An" are indefinite, while "The" is definite. So, the first step to determining which to use is to determine if the noun that follows needs a definite or indefinite article.


A rainshower always makes the air smell wonderful.
The rainshower made the air smell wonderful.

In the examples above, the first sentence is referring to any rainshower—or all of them! Rainshowers, in general, always make the air smell wonderful. However, the second sentence is referring to a specific rainshower—one that happened recently or today. That particular rainshower made the air smell wonderful.

Once you have determined whether a definite or indefinite article is to be used, the final step is to look at the noun again and determine if it begins with a vowel (or vowel sound) or consonant (or consonant sound). In the case of indefinite articles, and only indefinite articles, this will determine whether "A" should be used or "An" should be used.

Keep in mind that the vowels are A, E, I, O and U. Most words will follow the general rule of "A" before words that begin with a consonant and "An" before words that begin with a vowel. However, in the rare cases that a word begins with a vowel sound but the letter is actually a consonant (such as "hour"), use "An" instead. Likewise, when a word begins with a vowel that sounds like a consonant (such as "university"), use "A" instead. This might be a tricky process for some, but eventually, you'll memorize that correct article to use in these uncommon situations.

Mistake #5: Using a thesaurus

While a thesaurus can be a handy tool for writing, it can also cause some serious confusion if the writer doesn't understand the connotation of words. For example, a "toxic relationship" means something very different than a "lethal relationship," but "toxic" and "lethal" are listed together as synonyms in a thesaurus.

One of the hardest steps to take in any language is to understand the connotation of a word. This is because much of a word's connotation develops over time and even varies by culture or region. In other words—if you're not sure of both the connotation and denotation of a word, don't use it. If you are an ELL writer, it's always a good idea to have a native English speaker look over your writing to ensure that you haven't used words that could have the wrong connotation.

One of the hardest steps to take in any language is to understand the connotation of a word.
One of the hardest steps to take in any language is to understand the connotation of a word, especially in academic writing. Photo by Nirma Safitri on Unsplash.

Mistake #6: Not getting to the point

Making definitive statements is part of academic writing and is the result of studying a topic in enough depth to be confident in your knowledge of it. However, due to the difficulty in learning another language—and even more so, academic writing in that new language—making a definitive statement can be a daunting task. However, it's an obstacle that needs to be overcome if you want to learn to write well in English.

The result of not making definitive statements is a paper full of insinuations and vague suggestions that doesn't get to the point. A professor needs to see a clear thesis statement in your paper's introduction, and then clear supporting arguments for that thesis throughout the body of your paper. Even if you feel unsure about your writing abilities, avoid this mistake for a higher grade.

Perfecting Your Thesis Statement

Mistake #7: Using the wrong verbal

As you can see from this study guide, there are three types of verbals, which are words formed from verbs but used as nouns, adjectives or adverbs. Specifically, these are gerunds, infinitives, and participles.


The gerund is a verbal that ends in -ing and is used as a noun.


Running is my favorite activity. ("Running" is the noun; "is" is the verb)
Knowing is always better than guessing. ("Knowing" and "guessing" are nouns; "is" is the verb)
She liked dancing. ("dancing" is the noun; "liked" is the verb)


An infinitive is a verb with "to" in front of it. It can be used as a noun, adjective, or adverb in the sentence.


I like to write. ("like" is the verb; "to write" is the direct object)
They have a suggestion to offer. ("have" is the verb; "to offer" is the adjective)
She wants to go to Hawaii. ("wants" is the verb; "to go" is an adverb)


A participle is a verbal that ends in -ing, -ed, -d-, -t, -en, or -n and is used as an adjective.


The shouting crowds were out of control. ("shouting" is used as an adjective modifying "crowds")
The fallen soldier is buried in an unmarked grave. ("fallen" is used as an adjective modifying "soldier")

Mistake #8: The big one

Ultimately, the biggest mistake ELL writers can make is to give up. Even native English speakers must practice diligently to become great writers. With practice, you'll find that it gets easier to do without making so many mistakes.

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