Unforced Errors: 10 Common Mistakes You Don't Want to Make

May 2, 2019 Lynn F. Jacobs

You may worry a lot about making errors. But the errors you fixate on usually are things like getting the wrong answer on a test or making a factual error on a paper.  But there’s another kind of slip-up that can be costly:  the unforced error brought about by not understanding, or not attending to, some course- or university rule or policy.  Want to avoid these?  Have a look at the 10 most common slip-ups. 

1. You miss (pre-) registration—and get closed out of a course you really want (or need). 

It’s easy to be confused about when, and where, you’re supposed to show up to register for courses, especially when everyone you know has a different priority.  But, like the airlines, once the good seats are gone, you’re out of luck.  Remedy? Check and double-check your appointment. And be sure to be there on time with all the relevant materials (student ID, list of prerequisites, overrides, etc.)

2. You sign up for the wrong course—and don’t get credit for a distribution or major requirement.

With hundreds of choices and advisers who sometimes don’t know what your goals are, it’s easy to pick the wrong course.   Result? Next semester you have to take something else to fulfill the same requirement:  waste of time and waste of money.

3. You don’t realize that attendance counts—and you drop a letter grade.

In many cases, there’s an attendance penalty for missing too many classes (or an attendance bonus for making all or most of the classes).  The course policy is usually disclosed on the syllabus and/or discussed in section, but make sure you fully understand it (including which absences count as "excused” and which do not).  And don’t cut it too close to the bone:  Sometimes something comes up that will necessitate an unexcused absence so be sure you hold some absences in reserve, especially early in the semester.

Extra Pointer.  If your school doesn’t have pluses and minuses (and you’re likely to be on the border line between two grades) it’s especially important to earn the attendance bonus or avoid the attendance penalty.  You wouldn’t want to be thrust into a lower grade than any of your pieces of graded work just because you blew off a few classes.

4. You miss the test because you didn’t know when (or where) it was being held—and wind up out of luck.

Don’t assume that the professor will offer a makeup just because you were confused (or overslept or got caught in traffic).  Especially in large courses, professors are loathe to administer more tests than they have to, and, as a result, you might not get any credit for that test you missed for a not-all-that-good reason.

5-Star Tip.  If the syllabus says “date to be determined” or “date subject to change” be 100% sure that you’re keeping up with the date of all tests.  If unsure, ask your professor or TA, or, for some courses, check Blackboard. And, if your exam is held at a different time and/or different place than the usual lecture room (common in science classes), be sure to be on top of this new information. 

Epic Fail! In many courses you’ll get email from the professor, usually with just the course name and/or number in the subject line.  Make sure you read all of these and don’t get in the habit of passing them by, just because the purpose of the note isn’t clearly apparent from the subject line. 

5. You don’t fill out the Scantron correctly (or fully)—and have to fight to get credit for the test.

 Forget to fill in the boxes for your name, student ID number, and other identifying information, and it’ll require negotiation to get your exam properly graded.  Skip a line on the Scantron, so that all your answers are one number off, and your professor will hold firm.  Disaster.

6. You misunderstand what you’re allowed to bring in to the exam—and get accused of cheating.

Some courses will let you bring in materials to help you with the test:  a 3x5 index card, a four-function calculator, or a print dictionary.  Bring in more than is asked (10 index cards, a scientific calculator, or an electronic dictionary) and you could be referred to the dean or “cheating committee” for investigation—or worse. (Note: “not being in the lecture when it was explained” won’t fly as a defense.)  

7. You write on both questions when you’re asked to write on one—and the professor or TA grades only the first one.

Some students think, when given a choice of essays to write on on an exam, it’d be good to answer both.  That way, they’ll show how broad and deep their knowledge is.  But, almost always, when the professor gives a choice, he or she will just read the first answer provided.   Result?  If your second answer is stronger than your first—and you knew it would be the minute you read the question—you’ll lose out. 

8. You think you’re allowed to use electronic or print sources—or consult with other students—in preparing your paper—and you find out that you weren’t.

Policies vary widely from course to course about the extent to which you are allowed to use outside sources or collaborate with other students in preparing your papers.  Before you get into a heap of trouble, find out what you are, and are not, allowed to do in your work at home.  Especially at schools where plagiarism is a known problem, authorities can come down very hard on what might seem to you to be a minor infraction. 

9. You don’t pay attention to the “drop” deadline—and wind up with an F in a course you planned to drop.

All schools have a date until which you can bail out of a course without penalty;  and some students take an “overload” with the idea that they’ll drop one course after they see how they’re doing in each.  Make sure you're fully aware of when the terminal date, and time, is.  You wouldn’t want the university website to come back to you with “sorry, deadline has expired.”   

10.  You get confused about the graduation requirements—and have to stay an extra semester.

 Though virtually all universities offer a degree check of one sort or other, it’s easy to get confused—especially if your university has many, many interlocked requirements.   Consequence? Your graduation is delayed.  Your life, too. 


Want to learn more about how to crush it in college? Read  The Secrets of College Success, 3rdEdition by Lynn F. Jacobs, Jeremy S. Hyman (c)  2019 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.

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