How to Write a College Research Paper

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If you thought you were done writing papers when you received your high school diploma, you were sadly mistaken (sorry Engineering majors). The fact probably came back to haunt you with a crimson “D” on your first college assignment. Fortunately, it’s not too late to gain the skills you should have developed five years ago. Rather than crawling back to your ninth grade English teacher on hands and knees, take a look at these steps to ace your next research paper.

 1. Know your professor’s expectations

Not all papers are created equal. John L. Boyd, Ph.D., the director of Washington College’s Writing Center, explained how every major has unique expectations for student papers. “If you happen to be writing a paper for a sociology class, for instance, think about why a sociologist would be interested in your topic and what methods (or kinds of research) he or she would use to investigate the topic,” Boyd said. Cater your paper to your professor’s preferences. Hint..hint…that syllabus might be useful. 

2. Lay the groundwork

Writing the paper proves much easier when you begin with a cohesive collection of research. Sorry procrastinators, this means starting earlier than the night before your paper’s due. Having to Google new information every line-break tends to slow up the process. Boyd said that getting a jump on research also allows you to check out what the competition has already said on the subject and how you would respond to them. “The best ideas, and the best writing, will come as a result of that,” he said.

 3. Nail your introduction

Don’t think your professor will be impressed by a run-of-the-mill topic sentence. Boyd said that a thesis statement should not only explain the author’s point of view on the topic, but also indicate what makes the issue complex and important. Why is your paper worth reading?

 4. Let your thesis statement evolve

After struggling through an introduction, it’s easy to call it quits and burn your way through the rest of the paper without looking back. Bad idea. You should constantly go back and revise to ensure that your thesis reflects the rest of the paper. Ask your friend, the English major, for edits. “You might start with a general idea for a thesis, but after you’ve written about it for a while, you’ll notice that new problems or questions come up, so you need to continually go back to revise and re-think what you started with,” Boyd said.

 5. Analyze, don’t recite

No matter how great your research is, merely paraphrasing someone else’s work won’t bring in an “A.” Penn State Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies, Anne C. Rose said her best students find information and then visualize it in a unique way. “To see learning in such a context requires a certain amount of imagination— a sense that knowledge isn’t dead on the page but part of the communication,” Rose said. Make an effort to actively engage with your research and adapt it in a way that makes sense to you.

 6. Go beyond spellcheck

Your professor expects proper grammar. Wow him by going the extra mile. Make passive phrases more active and engaging by reviewing your work before clicking submit. Transform “the student is walking to the bar” into “the student walks to the bar.” And by all means, PLEASE avoid writing in the first person. Do your really think your professor wants to read a paper that starts with “I believe”?

 7. Conclude with the future in mind

Despite the temptation to wrap up your paper ASAP, don’t ruin all your hard work with a half-hearted conclusion. It shouldn’t just be a summary of your paper. “They should also look forward and suggest what other kinds of research or thinking might be necessary to get a better understanding of your topic,” said Boyd. Your professor will be more inclined to remember you come grading if your last sentence left him thinking.

 8. Get the feedback

Spend time priming your paper for the scrutiny of even the strictest professors by utilizing sources such as Purdue OWL. While valuing such online resources, Boyd said that students best benefit from reaching out to professors, research librarians and campus writing centers. “They can help you pinpoint the kind of help you need, and they can guide you in the right direction,” Boyd said. Don’t be too stubborn to get help. Your GPA will thank you.


For more writing tips, check out:

Research Pro Tip: Know Your Resources

A New Approach to Paper Writing

Avoid a Failed Paper

Daniel Kuhn is a senior studying journalism at Penn State University. A great companion. Just don't feed him after midnight.

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