When you don't have an outline ahead of time, you can still be successful by writing as you go. Sometimes you may not quite know what you will write three paragraphs ahead until you get there. Whether or not you have an outline, one of the greatest pitfalls to avoid is straying from the point. You might get halfway through the essay and have a completely different direction. That might be ok, so long as you fix the problem: you can (a) throw out the irrelevant material, (b) make it relevant by relating it back to the point, or (c) change the point in a way that permits you to use the material.
Another common problem in many essays occurs within a paragraph: you may start writing about one point and jump ahead to the next point. If your paragraph has more than eight sentences, you probably strayed ahead; split the paragraph in two. Be strict about the rule of one point per paragraph, and stay focused on the goal of each paragraph.
Finally, an academic essay differs from a looser narrative essay in that the paragraphs normally do not merge into one another organically. In other words, some writers like to use the last sentence of a paragraph to introduce the topic of the next paragraph. That model seldom works in an academic essay. Put such a sentence in the paragraph where it belongs.