How to write a college paper: A step-by-step guide to academic success

Writing an essay is a complex and complicated task that is challenging for almost any student worldwide. The argument inexperienced students usually have when ignoring essay writing practice is that the task is self-explanatory and there is nothing complicated about just composing a paper. This argument is, however deeply incorrect and the longer you study – the wider the difference becomes between normal writing and essays. And the worst place to realize the full extent of the problem is in college. Not only is it important to score high in college – to write a college paper, but you also have to know A LOT! Structure, rules, requirements, etc – it’s a complete mess for someone unfamiliar. And that’s why this blog exists! Let’s get started.

What is a college paper?

Writing tasks are probably the most popular tasks any student gets throughout the education process. Such assignments are simply the most useful and offer a flexible format that is compatible with most disciplines. You can write about a book you read, about the difference between viruses and bacteria, describe a physical law or a historical fact, and so on. It is the simplest way to show you knowledge in a way that lets a teacher easily rate this knowledge and further analyze it. And between all the different written tasks – essays, or papers, definitely stand out.

In a broad sense – an essay is just a text that states the author’s opinion. In a more strict educational environment, an essay is a medium-sized text (a couple of hundred words probably) that follows a sometimes strict structure and states the author’s opinion together with the arguments. The involvement of arguments is usually an important feature – an essay is not about describing something, it’s about making your point and giving your arguments that support it. A paper is an even wider term – it usually includes any texts or pieces a size of an essay or bigger. A one-paragraph answer on your history test is not a paper, basically, anything larger is.

 And what is so special about a college essay or a college paper? In essence – nothing, it’s just a paper or an essay assigned in college. College pieces are usually a bit bigger than the ones you compose at school, but the biggest difference is the requirements. The further you go – the more strict and complex the tasks get. Big college papers are essentially a simpler version of professional scientific papers and work and thus – contain all the same requirements, such as full originality, the listing of sources, and qualified research. College essays are not as complex and strict but still require well-structured arguments and general awareness of the requirements regarding your thesis, arguments, and examples. Any college piece is more complex, and requires more time and effort than the same piece written at school.

How long should a college paper be

The size of a paper is a crucial thing in any circumstance. An experienced writer must know how to present his arguments in a set amount of pages, paragraphs, etc. Sometimes the size of your essay can play a bigger role than your thesis and arguments. However, let’s divide all our cases into two big groups: you either have the size mentioned in the task or the task doesn’t mention it.

If the size of the paper is mentioned, you have to, once again, HAVE TO follow the requirements. If the size is advised (write around 300 words, the paper should be around 5 pages), you have some freedom of decision. Try being reasonably close – but don’t focus on getting the exact number of pages or words. Writing more is usually not as bad as writing less (when 300 words is a recommended size, 200 looks worse than 400), so it’s better to write just a bit more than asked to be safe. If the exact size is mentioned (300-500 words, at least 10 sentences, up to 20 pages), make sure to meet the requirement. Sacrifice the most useless part of your essay, and maybe add an extra (watery if needed) argument if the piece is short. Such things are rarely punished while not meeting the size requirement might fully disqualify you.

If the size is not mentioned, try being reasonable. An average essay answering a question, stating your thoughts and arguments on a book, etc is usually a couple of hundred words long while a paper on a scientific topic or coursework would be at least 20-30 pages altogether. However, in this case, it is, on the contrary, better to go for a shorter text. Make sure to include all the necessary things: thesis, arguments and examples, conclusion, etc, and even if the resulting piece is not as long as expected – just go with it. The size was not stated in the task so you can’t be punished for a shorter essay and a smaller text means a lower chance of making a mistake or writing something boring and watery. However, the best tip would be: simply to remain reasonable!

What to include in college paper

Any writing has a structure. On the lowest level: it contains the beginning, the main body, and the ending of your text. The beginning usually sets the scene, asks the question, and/or states your own thoughts. The main body concentrates on researching the topic and stating your arguments and evidence confirming your thoughts are correct. The ending, naturally, concludes the paper and sums up all the arguments and evidence. 

There are a lot of structural complications. For example, your main thought (usually written at the end of the opening paragraph or at the very beginning of your main part) is called a thesis and is an absolute must in every college paper, influencing your final grade. It is also very usual to give a separate grade to every argument in smaller essays (especially when the amount of arguments is fixed). In this case – your logic and evidence are the keys to a better grade. Sometimes the main body is divided into a couple of parts: for example, if you are arguing for and against something, you could make a paragraph about the benefits and a paragraph about the flaws of the said thing or decision. You could also divide the main body into multiple parts if you feel like your arguments are complex and need to be listed one by one. You could also include a list of sources at the end of the piece. In bigger papers, you would usually have way more things included: theoretical basis, illustrations and citations, points about your goal and relevance of the paper, etc.

However, some things should be avoided. Don’t include long expositions, arguments, or examples that don’t support your thesis or anything that is not important to the topic discussed. Avoid water.

How to start a college paper

The beginning of any text is a key part that determines everything. Your first paragraph and beginning in general is the basis on which your entire writing will stand, it shows the mood and the style of the text, introduces the topic, and, usually, asks the question that will be answered in the essay. And, what’s even more important when writing a paper for an assignment – it influences the grade in a big way. Not only directly (you get punished for beginning the writing incorrectly), but also by setting the mood of the teacher. So how exactly does one start the essay?

Firstly, the beginning should be short. In a one-page essay, the first paragraph is usually just a couple of sentences. If you are writing a bigger paper with tens of pages – the opening is usually a page long at max. 

Secondly, you don’t start the essay with water. It is obviously better to include some pretext – my favorite strategy for short essays is using a single generic sentence introducing the topic and a second one to specify it. After that goes the thesis – the must-have in any paper. Your thesis is what states your opinion, it’s the single thought that you will be proving and explaining for the entire piece. Make sure to formulate your thesis well and only state something if you are 100% sure you can give enough arguments regarding it. In a longer piece – use the same scheme proportionally – give a short generalization and further specify the discussed question before stating your opinion. 

Your opening must follow the style and the topic of the whole piece – make sure it lines up perfectly with what you are going to write next. The beginning is the base of your writing – it shouldn’t look artificial and has to match the theme.

How to write a college paper

With our opening settled – only one little step remains between you and a successful paper – writing the rest. Yes, it might sound terrible – we’ve talked so much about different ideas and complications and the main part hasn’t even begun. There are a lot of things, smaller details and bigger rules, complications, and unexpected problems you might face and those need to be addressed. However, it is not nearly as bad when you start practising – some things become self-explanatory, and some tips never actually come in handy. The more you practice the less you have to keep in your head to achieve success. However, we still need to discuss all those issues and thoughts, so let’s begin our journey into the essay!

Every educational text or writing has to be structured. It sounds a bit weird given that humans don’t usually communicate in stylistically and structurally determined texts, but the only way to reasonably grade and examine writing (so that it can be used as a knowledgeable measurement) is by establishing a formal structure for this type of writing. Following the structure correctly by itself even if you write complete nonsense is always worth something. And, on the contrary, a perfectly reasonable essay or paper with the world’s best vocabulary, grammar, and arguments will fail miserably if it’s not written according to the structure. Thus, always research and clarify what is expected from you and follow it strictly. Write your paper step by step, from one structural element to another, and make them clearly distinguishable. This will assure that you will score at least something even if every other aspect of your writing is off. 

Make sure that every structural element is not just there, but is written according to the requirements. If it’s a thesis – it should be short and clear, if an argument – is logical, and supported by evidence, the citation has to be correctly used and represented. Such rules are usually discussed in class or stated in the assignment itself – make sure to follow and memorize them, and recall them during the writing. If a specific part of an element is unknown or not clear – double-check, ask your teacher or, if there is no other way – use the internet (multiple sources that match, preferably). 

Last, but not least – don’t forget about the logic and general thoughts that you present. An essay with a correct structure in which every element is correctly used will score high, but only if it still carries your original thought. You can’t be punished if the thesis you provide doesn’t sound right to the teacher, obviously. But you can if you don’t provide sufficient evidence, arguments, etc, or if those arguments line up poorly and make no sense. So: study and develop the structure of your text, write every structural element correctly, and make sure that it is still logical and correctly represents your idea. That’s a short but reliable scheme to write a successful paper!

Nuances of college paper format

Formatting is something that almost every student hates. Why should I spend extra time on something that has no direct influence on my knowledge, skills, or literally anything? Formatting became especially problematic when most students’ texts transferred from paper to computers. When writing something on a list of papers you don’t usually think about how big your letters are or what’s the difference between them. However, when composing a college paper on your computer, there are like ten different parameters you have to think about and correctly set for your work to even be accepted. And honestly – there is no way around it, so you just have to do it.

Make sure to look, if the task mentions any such requirements. If a style is mentioned (APA, MLA, etc) – you should find all the information about the style online and follow the instructions, there is a good amount of websites and guides regarding every major style of writing. If no particular style is mentioned but other instructions are given – follow them strictly. If no instructions are given whatsoever, use the most popular and accepted font, text style, etc. It would usually be Times New Roman size 14 or 16, with everything else remaining default. If no style is mentioned and no specifications are given, you might also just use a popular writing style anyway – it definitely won’t hurt and can help to get rid of uncertainty. 

Overall – don’t do anything stupid. Your paper doesn’t need colourful text, weird fonts, or spaces between letters twice the size of a letter. Either do what you are asked to do or do something generic and acceptable if no instructions are given – it is a safe and reliable way to not get into trouble!

Different types of college papers

College texts vary depending on their size, style, theme, etc. Every type has some special features, requires specific handling, and can significantly alter your thinking and writing in general. Thus, it is important to be familiar with the common types of assignments you might get and the specifications regarding each one of them.

Research paper. A research paper is a big piece that practically copies the idea of a science paper but on a smaller scale. Research papers at a college or university are usually connected to your personal scientific experience, research, etc, and are part of a bigger project. Such texts are really strict and complex with multiple structural elements, rules, etc. It is a huge piece that requires weeks or even months of hard work. When composing a research paper you must plan everything ahead and study the structure in-depth.

Analytical essay. Every essay is a smaller piece with a simpler but still very strict structure. An analytical essay, in particular, is a piece in which you give your opinion and thoughts on something or a question – usually a book, a character, a person, etc. Analytical essays need to be well-organized and include arguments, usually highlighting both good and bad aspects of the discussed object.

Argumentative essay. Such essays are similar to analytical, but the object discussed is now an opinion or a topic, and rather than giving your thoughts you have to answer a question or take a position and then – support it with arguments and evidence.

Definition essay. A paper that explains or defines a term or a concept. Here you will have to pay attention to the theoretical basis of the discussed subject.

There are many other smaller and more unique types of papers you might encounter in a college. Whenever you meet something unfamiliar – always research the topic online before starting!

Writing college papers – do’s and don’ts

When writing a piece, don’t:

  • Write anything not about the topic. Your task is determined, a small introduction is enough. Anything not on the topic is just water.
  • Copy-paste from the internet. Any plagiarism is easily detected and punished.
  • Be chill and informal. A healthy amount of irony can be useful, but being informal is too risky to be worth it.
  • Repeat yourself. If an argument is used, if a thought is said – don’t come back to it again. Repeating an argument twice in different words does not count as having two arguments.
  • Improvise. The structure is set, and the topic is given – following it is what gives you a good grade, and ignoring it is what kills your work.
  • Lose the grip. Remember, what exactly you are writing, at what stage you are, what your thought was, and how it will continue.

When writing a piece, always:

  • Read the assignment multiple times. Determine all the tasks, requirements, etc.
  • Strictly follow the task. Doing what you are asked is what gives you a good grade.
  • Research the topic. The Internet is easy to use and contains enough information to write a billion essays!
  • Word your arguments and thesis well. A good thought has to be told in a good way.
  • Provide evidence. An unsupported thought is a thought, not a point.
  • Plan ahead. A paper needs to be well-planned before you start writing.

College paper tips for crafting a stellar academic paper

We want to finish this with a couple of tips, advice, and ideas that we personally find important and useful when writing a good text. Try them out, some might not work for you, but some will!

Revision is king. Reread your piece twice. Five times. Ten. Use software to check it for grammar mistakes or spelling errors. Look at every mistake the software highlights, and check if it needs correction. Look through your arguments, evidence, thesis, and conclusion. Check if the general theme works out and if the piece is logical. Only by multiple revisions can you find and fix all the mistakes!

Write what you can write, not what you want. Say you have a thought on the topic, but can’t really find a way to word it or prove it or connect it to your other thoughts and arguments. Then don’t use it! Structure and logic are what makes a good paper, not the most original and correct though on the topic. If there is a simple answer you know how to write and support and a more complicated answer you are not sure about – go with the first option.

Write essays in sessions. Proofread separately. Doing everything in one day, working continuously, and checking right after is an easy way to miss your mistakes and imperfections. A good way for an artist to check if his painting is symmetrical is to look at it from the upside down. An equivalent for a writer would be to look at your text on another day with a different attitude.

This explanation, tips, and advice will surely assist you in your future assignments. However, the best way to be prepared is to always do extra research regarding every particular assignment or text. So stay calm and informed and everything will work out perfectly!