How to Write a College Term Paper: College Student Essay Writing Tips

Last Updated on December 12, 2023 by Dr Sharon Baisil MD

Need help learning how to write a great college term paper? Here are a few tips to keep in mind when you’re writing an essay for a college class.

Learning how to write a college term paper is something many college students struggle with– so if you’re one of them, rest assured that you’re not alone! High schools don’t always prepare students with the essay writing skills that college professors expect, so you might feel very frustrated. I’ve graded thousands of essay papers over the years, and let me tell you, I can tell you lots of common mistakes that students make when writing term papers. I can also give you some tips that might make college essay writing a little easier for you.

Get Help if You Need It

 If you’re just not very good at writing term papers, help is available on your campus. But you need to seek it out. Find out if your school has a study center, a writing center, remedial courses, and other resources for writing help. Additionally, if you’re facing time constraints or significant challenges, you might also consider exploring options to pay to write an essay, which can provide you with professional assistance to ensure the quality of your academic work.

Figure Out Exactly What the Professor Wants

Read the assignment sheet very carefully. If you have any questions, ask your professor for clarification. Visit your professor during office hours, and discuss your paper plan to make sure you understand the directions. At a guess, I’d say that at least 10% of my students over the years were downgraded because they did not follow directions.

Brainstorm a Great Topic

First of all, it should be appropriate for the assignment. Students often are uncreative when thinking of topics. I recently assigned students to write about international media coverage of a current event, and over half of them wrote about North Korea! Stand out from the crowd and write about something unique. You want to write about something that interests you, or else this paper assignment is going to suck. If you’re not sure what to write, visit the professor to get some help with brainstorming, and check out this article about choosing term paper topics.

Write an Outline

Professors always tell you this, and students often don’t listen. We mean it. Good organization is one of the keys to success in a college term paper, and it’s very difficult to be organized without an outline. It doesn’t have to be a very detailed outline, and you can certainly deviate from the outline as you write the paper. Consider showing your outline to the professor before you write the paper.

Find Evidence

Make sure you back up claims in the paper with sufficient evidence. A claim is a statement of fact. Evidence is material that lends support to that claim. For example, let’s say you want to claim that hot dogs are linked to child leukemia. If you’re going to state this, you need to back up your claim with evidence.

Discuss some medical studies and statistics, and include a quote from a credible pediatrician. When using evidence, be sure not to rely too heavily on examples. You can find examples of just about anything, and isolated examples are rarely good evidence. For example, a story about your cousin who has childhood leukemia and ate a lot of hot dogs is not strong evidence to back up your claim. Feel free to use this example, but use it alongside more general evidence, like statistics or medical studies.

Write a Cool Introduction

A creative introduction is one of those things that separates an A paper from a B paper. Start with an interesting anecdote, a startling statistic, or something that draws the reader into the paper. Use your imagination.

Write a Very Clear Thesis Statement

Use the thesis statement to preview what’s in the paper. This is very important. A good thesis statement is like a road map. For example, a good thesis statement might read, “In this paper, I am going to discuss the economic challenges facing three Canadian provinces: Ontario, British Columbia, and Manitoba.” Your paper should then provide information about the economic challenges of these three provinces in the order you listed them in the thesis statement. Make your thesis statement as simple as possible, and don’t deviate from it.

Use Good Sources

Students sometimes see sources as a hoop to jump through to get a decent grade. But good sources lead to good papers, so take the time to find them. Choose credible sources (i.e. written by people who know what they’re talking about and who don’t have a strong bias). Avoid outdated sources. Use sources rich with facts and ideas that you can use in your paper.

Don’t rely too heavily on one source. And never list sources in your bibliography that you didn’t use to write the paper, because that’s academic dishonesty that can get you in a heap of trouble. A little tip: if your professor asks for a minimum of six sources, she doesn’t want you to use six. She wants about ten.

Lose the B.S.

Professors are smart. We know when a student is adding mumbo jumbo to reach the page limit. Introductions sometimes become storage places for B.S., so keep your introductions short.

Never Plagiarize

The definition of plagiarism is simple: the act of taking someone else’s work and claiming authorship of it. Most college students don’t commit plagiarism because they are lazy, stupid, or devious. They do so because they are desperate.

When a Google search reveals lots of great information that would fit right in, it suddenly feels like such a relief! Or when the neighbor down the hall who got in an A on the paper last year comes by and mercifully offers to download her masterpiece, snatching it up gratefully seems like an ideal solution.

Unfortunately, both of these actions are easy to catch – and could result in a failing grade, academic probation, or even expulsion. Professors aren’t stupid, and if some of the phrases in that paper don’t sound like they were written by a college student, a simple Google search will reveal the source. Or when the professor tries to remember why that argument in the paper sounds so familiar, a simple glance through last year’s papers is all that’s needed. And even if the professor doesn’t catch the plagiarism, the student knows she’s compromised her values.

So, what are the alternatives to plagiarism? The alternatives aren’t necessarily easy. Nonetheless, considering the consequences of plagiarism, all in all, these aren’t so bad.

Ask for a Deadline Extension

Learning to deal with college paper deadlines is an important part of learning the discipline needed for the workplace. However, even the best college students sometimes have trouble with deadlines, and professors know this. Asking for an extension might be a good alternative to turning in something that’s thrown together at the last minute, and is certainly a better option than plagiarism.

If at all possible, ask for a deadline extension as early as possible. A student who politely requests an extension two weeks before the paper is due is demonstrating professionalism, and he just might get what he needs. If this is not possible, just ‘fess up and admit the paper isn’t done, and ask if an extension is possible. Be apologetic but professional.

Avoid Plagiarism

Papers that are written overnight at the last minute are rarely masterpieces, and this is not a good habit. Nonetheless, even the best students sometimes run out of time and options. The best option might be simply to sit down and write the paper until it’s done in the morning.

Here’s where available resources that could be used for plagiarism can be used honestly. If that friend down the hall has an A paper from last year, spend a few minutes looking at it. Pay attention to how the paper is structured and how she responded to the assignment. If an Internet search pulls up useful ideas, use these ideas as a start, and cite them in the paper.

Take a Lateness Penalty

If an extension without penalty isn’t possible, see if it’s possible to turn in the paper late for a lower grade. Many professors have lateness penalties spelled out in the syllabus. For example, a professor might accept a paper up to two days late with a penalty of a 10-point deduction per day. Realistically, this may result in a higher grade than an all-nighter, and it certainly beats plagiarism.

Use lateness penalties sparingly. Students who turn papers in late regularly do not make a good impression. Nonetheless, lateness penalties can serve as a much-needed safety net. Be sure to thank the professor for the opportunity to turn the paper in late.

All of these options require a student to “man up” (or “woman up”?) and accept the fact that a lesser grade might be in store. Nonetheless, painful as that lower grader might be, it doesn’t come with the risks or ethical concerns of plagiarism. The resulting paper might not be the greatest, but it’s self-authored, and that’s something a student can be proud of.

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