How To Write A College Paper

This guide will help you to understand your college paper, and teach you how to form a title, how to research your paper and how to format your college paper correctly.

What is a college paper?

The term 'college paper' is used interchangeably with 'term paper'. It is an paper you may be asked to write at college, to demonstrate your understanding of a particular issue or to document your research and reading on a particular topic.

Whilst many students, faced with their first college paper assignment, feel daunted, there really is no need to be. There is a very specific formula for writing a good quality college paper that is guaranteed to achieve a decent grade if followed closely. The key to a good college paper is good planning and so before you sit down and write a word of the final piece, you should devote just as much time to planning and researching what you intend to write about.

Forming a title for your college paper

The key to picking a good title for your college paper is to keep it simple and focused. You need to make sure your title is narrow enough to show that your college paper is focused on one particular topic or issue. So, for example, your paper will never be titled something as wide as 'Philosophy' or 'Science'. Neither will it take a name like 'The Arguments of John Mills' or 'The Reasoning of Stephen Hawking'. These titles are simply too wide. You are not really going to write down everything John Mills or Stephen Hawking ever discussed. You need to narrow it down much further to something like "Stephen Hawkin on singularity in space-time".

A superior title will usually pose a question which you can then answer in your college paper. For example, "Is Stephen Hawkin's theory on singularity in space-time universally accepted?". This helps to focus your paper, so you don't write absolutely everything you know about Stephen Hawkins or his theory - instead, such a paper will be looking at what other people have said about the theory and whether it is justified.

Researching/gathering information for your college paper

Start your college paper research by compiling a list of keywords that relate to your subject. Because you're interested in synonyms as well, try Google's Keyword Tool for this. When we type in 'singularity' we get a whole list of related keywords that may help the research process by identifying areas that you need to look into.

Once you have a list of keywords, you need to start looking for material to use to enable you to write your college paper. There are various sources you may wish to consider:

  • An amazing list of sources 'beyond Google' is set out here. All of these are free and full text is available online.
  • Google Books - this gives you access to thousands of books that have been scanned in, which are searchable.
  • - this helps you find new publications and you can 'search inside' some books if you've ordered from Amazon before.
  • Questia - for a small fee, this gives you access to thousands of books and journals.
  • Open University Web Resources - this is a comprehensive list of online databases which includes some that require an Athens password, and some that don't.

The types of source you may consider for your research paper are:

  • Books - found online or through your library.
  • Journals - found through the online database listed above.
  • News articles - found through sites like CNN.
  • Magazine articles - found through sites like Lexis Executive, if you have a subscription, or Questia (mentioned above)
  • Government statistics - usually online, through sites such as FedStats

However, for each of these sources, you need to decide on the quality of the information. News reports and magazine articles are not considered to be reliable sources. They are good for generating ideas but you need to go and find the actual source of the data they quote, rather than relying on reports which may be inaccurate.

Once you have gathered together sufficient research for your college paper, you need to go through the materials and sift out any unreliable, outdated, excessive or unnecessary information. Keep your title in mind and ensure that the source material you choose is relevant to that title, and not just the topic area in general.

Refining your college paper topic

Now you've got a good collection of research material for your college paper, could you refine your topic? You may wish to do this if you have realized there is too much information available and your topic is therefore too wide. On the other hand, if your search reveals little relevant material, you may wish to consider widening the college paper topic to ensure you have enough quality material to analyze.

Creating an outline for your college paper

Many students get straight into the writing process without thoroughly planning their college paper. This is unfortunate because if you plan your college paper carefully, the paper practically writes itself.

Your basic structure will include an introduction, body and conclusion. Each element of the college paper has a different purpose and can further be broken down as follows:

The introduction to your college paper

The introduction to your college paper identifies what you are going to write about. It highlights the issue to be discussed and states what the paper will achieve. You might say in the introduction that you are going to explain two sides to a particular issue and reach a conclusion about which is the stronger of the two. Alternatively, you might say that you are going to identify all responses to a particular controversial issue and weigh up the merits of those responses.

The body of your college paper

The body is the main bulk of your work. To plan the body, write out the MAIN POINTS you hope to cover and a note of the source materials you are going to use to support these. A plan for the body of your college paper might look like this (you need to actually fill in the issues and the evidence you intend to present for them):

  • Point 1 - Explain an issue relating to the topic
    • Explain the main view on this issue
    • Explain the opposing view on this issue
    • Reach a conclusion on this issue - which opinion seems stronger? which is better supported?

  • Point 2 - Explain another issue relating to the topic, following on from point 1
    • Explain the main view on this issue
    • Explain the opposing view on this issue
    • How does this issue relate to point 1?
    • Reach a conclusion on this issue - which opinion seems stronger? which is better supported? does this affect your views on point 1?

The conclusion to your college paper

This can take the following format:

  • This paper set out to ...... (brief summary of the goal of the college paper)
  • Summary of main points made (keep it brief)
  • Overall conclusion - and, if your title was a question, ANSWER THE QUESTION!

Writing your college paper, clearly and concisely

Once you have a plan in place, writing your college paper will be easy. You just need to fill out the points you have made, taking things section by section. It is a good idea to make notes as you're writing the body to help you write the conclusion. So make notes of the main points you identify and conclusions you reach - you will then have practically written the conclusion before you get to it, and again, it will just be a case of 'filling it out'.

To help keep you on the right track, look again at your college paper title and relate every point you make back to this. If you can't relate a point back to the title or question you have set yourself, it probably isn't necessary or relevant and you should get rid of it.

Writing your college paper 'clearly and concisely' means cutting out any waffle, unnecessary words, phrases or expressions, excessive material or lengthy direct quotations. Try and use your own words rather than someone else's, and don't use 50 words to say something you could actually say in 10. Most college papers have a word count, so you need to make sure every word is essential to the title - if not, get rid of it.

Formatting and referencing your college paper

Your college paper is nearly finished - you now need to make sure that all of the material you've used is properly referenced and then listed at the end. You will need to check the referencing style that your college prefers - for example, ACS, AIP, AMS and APA are all popular referencing styles.

There is a slight difference between a bibliography and a reference list. A bibliography contains all of the works you have used to write the college paper, whether or not you actually referred to them in your writing. If you have conducted any background reading, you should add this to your bibliography. The reference list contains only the works you have actually cited within the text. Make sure you include a reference to everything, and you make it very clear which words belong to you and which are actually someone else's. If you ignore this point, you may fail or worse, be asked to leave your college, for 'plagiarism'.

You need to also check the College's presentation style for papers - some have a house style and others make specific requirements, such as in relation to font size, margins and spacing. Follow these closely - not only will they impress your instructor but they may also carry extra marks, which could be just the marks you need to achieve a decent grade.

Editing and proofreading your college paper

Last, but not least, you need to edit and proofread your college paper to ensure that the content is both exceptionally presented and technically correct. The editing and proofreading process includes:

  • Eliminating unnecessary words, information, references, data and other material that is not essential for the title you have chosen
  • Ensuring you have answered the question or dealt with the title adequately, and referred to it throughout your writing (remember, relating each point you make back to the title helps keep your writing focused)
  • Running a spell check and grammar check using a word processing application
  • Reading your work out loud and having another person read it over to check for errors
  • Double-checking your college guidelines to ensure you have complied with everything that is required (including referencing and formatting)

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