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How Not to Write a College Paper

Jul 1, 2008 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 4 Comments

College can be overwhelming at first—especially when it comes to writing papers.  College papers must be well-written, well-organized and well-argued, and many college professors will expect your thinking to be on a higher level than what you experienced in high school.  Here are a few things to avoid doing when writing a college paper—if you want a good grade.

Write The Wrong Type Of Paper

There are several different types of papers you may be assigned to write.  An expository essay, for example, explains a concept in detail.  An argumentative essay makes a claim and supports it with research and reasoning.  A narrative essay gives a vivid account of a certain occurrence or course of events.  If you don’t know what type of paper is being assigned and what the professor expects to see in the assignment, you’re asking for trouble. 

See Also: Online Essay Writing Skills

Don’t Use A Strong Thesis Statement

It’s absolutely crucial to be clear from the very beginning what your essay will be about.  State your claim in the first paragraph, and then stick to it throughout the paper—everything in your paper should be there to support your thesis statement.  Organization is valued highly in college-level papers, and lack of a thesis statement will automatically get your paper judged as disorganized.

When writing a college paper, you can use a generic, relatively bland thesis statement—or you can make things interesting.  Interesting thesis statements often go against common opinion, reframe classic works in modern terms, or reframe modern life in classical mindsets. 
Defend the behavior of a villain or make an unlikely and unusual connection.  If yours makes memorable claims, you’ll stand out from your peers.

Don’t Back Up Your Assertions

Unless you’re writing a narrative essay, you need to back up every statement you make.  Your proof should be specific real-world examples you’ve observed that prove your point; quotes from literature or research; or the results of experiments performed either by you or by other scholars in the field—depending on the type of paper you’re writing and the class you’re writing it for.  It’s rarely acceptable to make general statements without proving what you’re saying.  Make sure you’ve defended each claim you make, instead of simply stating it.

Don’t Consider Your Audience

In most cases, college papers have an audience of one: your professor.  Write with your audience in mind: what does your professor like to see in his papers?  What are his expectations?  If he wrote the book you’re citing in your essay, be sure to get your quotations right.  It may take a little time to learn your professor’s preferences, but it pays to be observant.

Don’t Worry About Organization

Organization begins with a strong thesis statement—but it doesn’t end there.  Your essay should usually be composed of a series of claims, backed up by support in the form of research, quotations from sources, and your interpretations of these, that support your thesis statement.  Keep your support paragraphs organized and focused, and avoid writing about anything that isn’t related to your thesis statement.

Don’t Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

Online plagiarism is a serious offense.  Not only can you ruin your grade if you’re caught; you can even get expelled from school.  And as a first-year student in college, you may not even realize you’re plagiarizing.  To play it safe, cite everything—whether it’s a direct quote or a paraphrase of something someone else wrote.   Unless you’re making a completely original statement, you need to attribute every idea you write about to its source.

Don’t Proofread

College professors don’t have much patience for spelling and grammatical errors; you’re expected to have these problems under control by the time you get to college.  Check your papers over several times before handing them in.  If mistake-free writing isn’t your strong point, have a friend read your paper or take it to the college’s writing or tutoring center for an evaluation before you pass it in.

Your college professor will read dozens of papers for each assignment he gives.  Make your papers the ones he looks forward to reading.  Make sure they’re error-free, well researched, and well organized.  Even better, write interesting, unusual thesis statements and then back them up with well-reasoned arguments and thorough research.  If your papers are interesting, well written and organized so that they’re easy to follow, you’re sure to get good grades.



Lmariehemphill Over a year ago

Some good points in this paper. I will use it with my 9th graders to prepare them for college/

Best essays Over a year ago

Thanks for sharing these wonderful tips to write down a purposeful essay. I have been looking for this kind of knowledge for many days.

essay writing service Over a year ago

I don't agree. Low grader students will be the one who will use that kind of method. I think the opposite of those things are the most important factors in writing an essay for college. It is also a common task to proofread your essay to know if your article is correct or not.

Sarah L Over a year ago

Great advice and tips and I definitely agree with all of them.. thanks Jennifer


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