How to Write a College Paper

How to write a paper

It’s been a long time since I wrote an essay so I’ve delegated the discussion of this topic to Dr. Genevieve Carlton. She’s had a lot of experience writing and grading papers. We appreciate her advice and you should too.

How to Write a Great Paper, by
Genevieve Carlton Ph.D

A college paper is the standard assignment in humanities and social sciences. You need to master writing essays if you want to earn the best grades. But writing papers isn’t just about the grade. It’s about honing your language and persuasion skills – the most powerful tools you always have at your disposal. 

If you’re intimidated by the basic five-page paper, you aren’t alone. But college essays are not rocket science. Regardless of whether you’re writing a paper for history, English, sociology, psychology, or any other class, these simple methods will raise your grade on any college paper.

Let’s jump in.

Start Writing Your College Essay at Least Two Weeks Before The Due Date

There are a lot of different approaches to writing an essay, but they all share one thing: start early! Never put off writing an essay until the last minute, you’ll make sloppy mistakes or risk late penalties that will destroy your grade. Instead, start at least two weeks before the due date. Btw, Shovel makes this easy. Just set that you want to get started 14 days before the essay is due. Shovel will let you know if it’s enough time and will remind you when to get started. 

Why is it so important to start early? If you pull an all-nighter right before the due date, it will show. You’ll end up with mediocre argument, poor evidence, and a lack of polish… trust me, professors can tell. And you’ll miss out on the opportunities to gain feedback from your professor during your writing process.

There’s no secret formula to writing a perfect paper right before the deadline. Writing a great paper takes time, so you need to start early.

Read, Read, and Re-Read the Essay Assignment

Some professors might not admit it, but here’s the truth: every professor wants something slightly different from your paper.

Your English professor wants you to emphasize narrative styles, while your art history professor cares about technique. Your history professor wants quotes from the reading, while your psychology professor expects you to summarize (and cite!) the sources. One professor might knock off points for using in-line citation, while another hates footnotes. Even professors in the same department might want completely different essays.

So how are you supposed to figure out what your professor wants? It’s easy: study the assignment and ask questions. Even better, ask if your professor uses a grading rubric for essays. Then you’ll know exactly what your professor wants to see.

Studying the assignment is your key to getting an A on every paper. Your professor tells you exactly what he or she is looking for: will you be graded largely on your argument, your evidence, or your grammar? Does the professor want a persuasive argument or a descriptive argument? If the assignment doesn’t say, ask! You can easily raise your grade from the middle of the bell curve to top of the class just by making sure you’re writing the paper your professor wants to see.

You’ve Already Done Half the Work

Here’s the good news: if you’re on top of your course reading, you’ve already done half the work the day your professor hands out the paper topics.

Most essay assignments come directly from the reading: Create an analysis of race in Huck Finn. Explain Machiavelli’s attitude on power in The Prince. Compare and contrast two perspectives on World War II.

You have a major advantage if you read the material closely. And don’t just read: highlight the most important passages, write down the key arguments, and take notes on the major points. If you do that, you’ve literally done half the work for your paper.

So don’t cut corners when it comes to the assigned reading. In fact, read with an essay question in mind––look for the quotes that you’ll use to build your argument now, and it will be much easier to build your evidence list later.

Know Your Five-Paragraph Essay

College essays come in many shapes and sizes, from persuasive to argumentative, and from narrative to analytical. But they often follow a similar format: the standard five-paragraph essay, drilled into every high school student’s mind. And unless the assignment requests something different, use the five-paragraph essay as your template for most college essays.

As a reminder, the five-paragraph essay opens with your introduction paragraph, which ends with your thesis statement, or argument. The next three body paragraphs lay out your evidence. The essay wraps up with a conclusion, where you reiterate your point.

That same format works for everything from a three-page analytical essay to a fifteen-page research paper. You’ll obviously need more body paragraphs in a longer paper, and in any argumentative paper you’ll want to address counter-arguments or problems in your argument. But use the five-paragraph template to create an outline for your paper.

Always Create an Outline for Structure

Professors can nearly always spot an essay written at the last minute. And here’s why: they ramble; they don’t have a clear structure; they wander from point to point without building to anything. Needless to say, those papers don’t earn high grades.

You can avoid that pitfall by writing a strong outline before drafting the essay.

An outline helps you arrange your ideas before you begin drafting the paper. Start by re-reading the assignment and jotting down the main topics your paper must address. And then think about how to order them: which of the two readings should you discuss first? Where should you address counter-arguments? Should your descriptive paragraph come right after your introduction, or can it wait until page two?

Essentially, writing an outline forces you to think about how to make your argument. It doesn’t need to be a polished document, because it will evolve as you work on the paper. At this stage, your outline might look more like a list of paragraph topics, with not much else filled in. But having that framework helps ensure that your essay stays focused on the topic.

Start with your Evidence

Don’t start by writing your introduction. The introduction is the absolutely most important part of any paper. Within that first paragraph, your professor is already deciding whether you’ve submitted an A paper or not.

So leave the introduction until you’re able to write the most focused, best paragraph that you’ve ever created.

Instead, start with your evidence. Read the essay prompt and make a list of the crucial evidence.
Use your notes on the reading to pull out the strongest building blocks for your case. Write down examples you want to pull from lectures. Collect a list of the best quotes from the readings.

And look at your outline. Start filling in the examples you’ll use in each paragraph.

Once you have an evidence list, it will be much easier to craft your body paragraphs, the meat of your paper where you lay out your argument. Now that you know your evidence, it’s time to hone your argument.

It’s All About The Argument

The argument, or thesis statement, is the most important sentence in your paper. That one sentence lays out your answer to the essay prompt and sets up your body paragraphs. So it has to be great.

While you’re creating your evidence list, jot down a few potential arguments. Don’t pick one just yet, though. Instead, try on a few different arguments and see if you have the evidence to support them. Stay open to changing your argument.

Your thesis statement will look different in an expository essay versus an argumentative essay. But the general idea is the same: your argument sums up your paper’s point of view. So make sure it’s strong.

And here’s one important rule for all types of papers: never, ever have a thesis statement that just says “Yes” or “No.” Your argument should always explain why. If the essay prompt gives you a statement and asks you to agree or disagree, explain why. If the prompt tells you to pick one side of a debate, explain why. Just make sure you have the evidence to back it up.

It’s Finally Time To Write

That’s right, there are seven steps before you get to actually write the essay. That’s one reason you need to start early.

Before you start writing your paper, you should have a clear roadmap for your argument and evidence. You should know what the professor wants, and you should have an outline to answer the essay prompt. You should feel confident that you understand the reading and that you’ve pulled out the major points.

Then––and only then––it’s time to start writing.

Start with your body paragraphs, incorporating the examples from your outline and evidence list. Open each paragraph with a topic sentence, which tells your reader what to expect from the following paragraph. Add your citations as you go, whether as footnotes or inline citations––it will save time to include them now instead of going back to add them later. After writing a paragraph, re-read it. Edit as you go to polish your ideas and make sure you aren’t leaving out any evidence.

Once you have a draft of your body paragraphs, create the conclusion. And then go back to write the introduction. Save your professor grief by avoiding opening sentences like “Since the dawn of time . . .” or “The Oxford English Dictionary defines . . .” The last thing you write should be your thesis statement.

You’ve finished a complete draft of your paper––congratulations! But you’re not done yet.

Talk to Your Professor or TA

No one makes a better editor than the person grading your essay. So you should always check whether your professor or TA will review a draft of your paper before the due date. Ask if they have a policy about reading drafts––or at least ask if they’ll read your first paragraph, which will make or break your grade.

Be prepared to send your professor or TA a full or partial draft at least three or four days before the deadline. Even though some professors have a policy against reading drafts, it never hurts to ask. And it’s a guaranteed way to improve your paper, since you’ll get feedback from the person assigning your grade.

Revise, Revise, Revise Your Essay

The biggest mistake students make in papers is never revising––in fact, most students don’t even proofread. Professors notice sloppy mistakes like grammatical errors and typos, and it automatically weakens your grade. It tells the professor you didn’t take the assignment seriously enough to leave time for revisions.

Aim to have a full draft at least three days before the due date, so you’ll have time to perfect your paper. What should you look for when revising? Eliminate any typos, correct your grammar, and delete any dumb mistakes, like sentences that simply end in the middle of a thought (yes, I’ve seen that in multiple papers). That’s the easy step.

Now re-read your introduction. Go back to your outline and evidence list. Can you strengthen your argument, now that you’ve compiled your evidence? Can you do a better job connecting the evidence back to your argument? Look for weaknesses in your paper. Are there holes in your argument? Are there obvious counter-examples you need to address?

Imagine you’re the professor, red pen poised over the paper, and ask yourself how to make your paper stronger.

Once you complete the revisions, submit the essay and take a break. You’ve earned it.

Study Your Paper

You didn’t think you were done just because you turned in the paper, right?

When it comes to college, analyzing your results is almost as important as writing the paper in the first place. Your graded essay tells you everything you need to know to ace the next paper for that professor. So study the comments––the line edits, the marginal suggestions, and the scrawl on the final page, right above your grade.

Did you lose points because you didn’t follow the proper citation style? Correct it next time. Was your argument unclear? Put an extra hour into honing your argument on the second paper. Whatever you missed this time, learn from it, so you don’t lose more points on the next assignment.

Ask About Rewrites

The last thing most college students want to do after submitting an essay is to rewrite it. But you’d be surprised how many students lose the opportunity to improve their grades, simply because they don’t ask about rewrites.

So if you earned less than an A on your paper, it really can’t hurt to ask the professor if you can rewrite using their feedback. Some professors will automatically say no, but others will let you submit a revised version for a higher grade.

When you’re rewriting the paper, don’t simply correct the typos and submit again––professors might feel like you’re wasting their time if you don’t listen to their comments. You might need to add more sources or strengthen your argument. It might require several hours of work. But if that means raising your grade on a significant assignment, it’s time well spent.

Plagiarism Is Never The Easiest Option

Yes, writing an essay the right way is a time-intensive process. And cutting corners is easier than ever, thanks to the internet. But plagiarism––representing any work as your own when it’s not––is never the right choice.

It might seem easier than writing your own paper, but it’s not. I guarantee it. Here’s why: it’s easy to plagiarize. Google any topic and you’ll find a dozen or more essays. But the cost is too high.

Take it from a professor––plagiarism is shockingly easy to notice. Essays that don’t answer the assignment, or that only cite books not assigned in class. Papers with five-syllable words in one paragraph and typos in the next, or that switch voices halfway through. Papers that include complicated ideas not mentioned in class––or that leave out core concepts from lecture. These all set off a professor’s plagiarism detector. And then there’s actual plagiarism detection software. In short, there’s a good chance you’ll get caught.

Most colleges have a no plagiarism policy. That means if your professor finds out you plagiarized, you could get an automatic zero on the assignment, or even in the class. You could get suspended from school or even expelled.

It’s not worth it to game the system. 

Time Management

Essays make up a big part of your grade in some classes––in most of mine, for example, papers accounted for 30% or more of the final grade. That means you should spend a significant amount of time on those papers.

What does that mean? You need to master time management for college papers.

It’s not always easy to figure out how much time you need to write a paper. It’s different for every student, and sometimes different for every paper. Some students can craft a perfect essay in just a few hours, while others require double that time or more. Starting early is one of the best ways to manage your time. That way the deadline won’t sneak up on you.

Consider using a tool like the Shovel app to manage your time. Shovel lets you schedule blocks of time in advance, so you’ll never run out. You can budget time for research and outlining, writing drafts, and revising the paper. And Shovel can also track your time, so you’ll know how long it takes to write a paper. The next time you tackle an essay, you’ll have an even better idea how much time you need. And if you start tracking now, you’ll benefit for your next four years of writing papers––because you’re going to write a lot in college.

Depending on your major, you might find yourself working on multiple papers every week, especially near the end of the semester. And as long as you schedule out the time in advance, you’ll never get stuck rushing to finish an essay at the last minute.

If you study the assignment, plan out your essay before you start writing, and always leave time for revisions, you can easily raise your grade on any college paper.

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