What is a College Research Paper and How to Write One

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Writing in College

By the time they get to college, most students have written at least a couple of research papers in junior high and high school classes. While there are many similarities between a high school and college research paper, there are also differences that can catch students who aren’t prepared for them off guard.

Just what is a college research paper? There’s no simple answer, since it depends largely on the subject and teacher. But in general, a college research paper is focused on informing your audience about a particular topic, using quotes and information from outside sources to support your arguments. College research papers are often longer and more serious than high school papers, and so merit a variety of special considerations. With that in mind, here’s a list of what every college student should keep in mind when writing a research paper, regardless of the class it’s for.

Choose a Focus

This may seem obvious, but choosing a focus is an often overlooked and not always easy task. Of course, sometimes your teacher will assign a topic, but even then the assignments will often be vague and open to being taken in several directions. Many college research papers suffer from too broad a focus, or the student never really figures out what his or her focus is. You might have to do some research before you can settle on a final topic, to see what information is actually available.

But sometime before you start writing or early in the writing process, it is essential to figure out exactly what your focus will be. In general, the narrow your focus is the better. Instead of the history of women’s rights movements in America, choose a particular decade or movement or famous figure. Instead of trying to discuss every book ever written by an author you are researching, choose a couple important books to emphasize, or a specific theme that appears in several of the author’s books to discuss. This narrowing of focus will make your job a lot easier in the long run.

Find Credible Sources

College professors are really interested in seeing credible research sources. This means sources that are written by academics or specialists in a certain field, and are actually published. Wikipedia or someone’s blog entries just aren’t going to cut it. In fact, it’s best to avoid Internet sources if possible, unless you are absolutely certain who the author of the source is and you know that author is qualified to write on the subject. Try to find books and/or journal articles through your school library instead.

And be sure to cite your sources throughout your paper, not just when you use quotes. If you give a statistic or fact you found in a book, or summarize an author’s argument, cite that book in parentheses at the end of the relevant sentence or paragraph. This makes you appear more credible and avoids making the teacher think you just made things up. It also helps you avoid accidental plagiarism. When in doubt, cite your source.

Have an Argument

The main purpose of writing a research paper is to educate your readers on a focused topic. At the same time, most college professors look for some kind of personal argument from you. This could be as simple as “I think this topic is important and should be paid attention to” or as complex as a personal moral stance on an issue. Either way, there should be some persuasive element to any research paper. It’s important to make it clear to your readers (aka your professor) why they should care about what you’re writing about. Pay attention to the kinds of arguments you’ll find in scholarly journal articles.

Most of a college research paper should focus on giving us the facts and information on a topic, but to get a good grade you need to go beyond just dry facts and make the topic personal. The final paragraphs and conclusion of a paper are particularly good places for stating your argument.

Beware the Five-Paragraph Essay

College research papers are often quite long, anywhere from five to fifteen pages or more. Don’t try to fit that many pages into five paragraphs, and don’t try to follow the strict five-paragraph essay structure. This is college, after all—professors are looking for something a little more professional. The five-paragraph essay teaches organization, which is important, and it teaches you to write clear transitions and paragraphs that don’t wander all over the place. Keep these valuable lessons, but don’t be constrained by the narrow rules of the junior high and high school essay. In the end, your focus, clarity, and organization are more important than following any particular structure.

Know your Style

Often college professors require papers to be written and cited in a particular style. The most common options are MLA, APA, and AP. If you don’t know what these styles are, don’t panic. There’s a lot of information about each one available on the web, and probably at your college library and learning resource center. The Purdue Online Writing Lab is a good place to start. When in doubt, follow MLA in English and history classes and APA in science classes. And don’t be afraid to ask your teacher what citation style he or she prefers. It’s better to know in advance than to be marked down based on whether or not you capitalized a particular word.

Write Good Intros and Conclusions

Your introduction is the professor’s first impression of your college writing, and your conclusion is the last impression you make before you are given a grade. Pay special attention to these two paragraphs. Often it’s best to write the introduction after you write the rest of the paper, when you know exactly what the paper is about and what your focus is. As for the conclusion, don’t just summarize what came before. Tell us why the topic matters or how it is relevant to us today, or include a call to action. Make sure these two important paragraphs are meaningful and add something to the paper, and aren’t just there to take up space.

Don’t Plagiarize

College professors are very unforgiving about plagiarism. If they think you’ve plagiarized on purpose they might give you a zero for the paper or even take more drastic action. If they think you’ve plagiarized on accident, they might be open to helping you understand what is and isn’t ok. But it’s best to avoid these scenarios in the first place. Don’t ever use whole phrases, sentences, or paragraphs taken from an outside source, and be careful to use your own unique words when summarizing information. Cite all quotes, facts, and other information properly. And if you’re tempted to try and get away with plagiarizing, don’t. Professors are surprisingly savvy, and they aren’t easily fooled. Write your own college research papers in your own words, and you’ll avoid disciplinary action while learning to become a better writer.

Proofread, Proofread, Proofread

Papers written the night before they’re due generally don’t receive good grades. This is largely because there’s no time to proofread them properly. Always read over your papers before turning them in, preferably several times. Look for grammar and spelling mistakes, of course, but also for larger problems like confusing sentences or paragraphs, lack of focus or organization, and so on.

Also, be aware that non-English professors are often more strict about grammar, not less, so don’t skip proofreading your paper for chemistry class because you think your teacher won’t care. The more time you give yourself to read over, polish, and perfect your paper, the happier you’ll be when you get it back with a grade.