How to Write a Great College Essay, Step-by-Step

1. Understand the Assignment

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The ultimate waste of time when writing a paper is to write something that doesn’t even answer the question the professor is asking. Don’t be afraid to ask the professor to explain any part of the assignment that’s unclear.

If the assignment seems vague, it’s not because the professor is trying to trip you up. Often, it’s that they know their field so well that it’s easy for them to think some things are “obvious”…even when they aren’t to us non-experts.

Remember: asking for clarification because you don’t understand the assignment doesn’t make you stupid; what’s stupid is to complete the assignment without understanding it.

Yet, when I was an English TA in college, I saw this problem all the time. Students would spend hours researching and writing a paper on a completely different topic than what the professor assigned. It doesn’t matter how good a paper is–if it doesn’t answer the question, it’s going to receive a bad grade.

Best case scenario, the professor is nice and lets you rewrite it, but why do all that extra work? Furthermore, asking the professor for clarification shows initiative–that you care about the assignment. Demonstrating this level of engagement with your assignments can only boost your grade.

Step 4: Figure Out Your Approach

We’ll break down the writing process into easy steps to help you understand how to write a research paper fast no matter how long it must be.

Start writing an intro. The introductory paragraph should begin with an attention grabber that may be:

 ★ a provocative question;

 ★ statistics;

 ★ an anecdote;

 ★ unusual facts, etc.

You are writing an academic paper but that doesn’t mean you have to be boring. Next, you need to provide the background information, explain your goals, and how you plan to approach your research paper topic.

Your outline will help you to complete this part of your paper. But you shouldn’t think that you must strictly follow it. It may evolve and you are free to revise it and make changes. The key thing is to stay on your track and focus on your thesis. You should provide your points and support your main idea.

Start each body paragraph with a topic sentence and provide arguments and relevant evidence to support it. You should write as many body paragraphs as you have the key points.

Most research papers end with restarting their thesis statements. You can also do it but you shouldn’t repeat it word for word. Paraphrase it or summarize the key points of your paper. You may emphasize the significance of your findings as well.

Your rough draft is ready. Wondering what to do next? Go on reading to find some tips on how to revise your research paper.

No one can write their first draft perfectly. So, if you want to make a good impression on your professor and earn a high grade, you should revise your draft to make sure that your project is on point.

“It’s impossible to figure out every detail of your argument before you sit down, look at your sources, and actually try to write. Most students abandon their hierarchical outline soon after their fingers hit the keyboard.”

– Cal Newport, “How to Use a Flat Outline to Write Outstanding Papers, Fast”

Ever since I learned the traditional method of outlining papers in 8th grade, I felt the system was broken. I never created an outline with bullets and numbers and letters before writing the paper. I always just made one up afterwards because I was required to turn one in with the final paper.

Starting in college, I developed my own outlining technique that was much more effective. As it turns out, my technique wasn’t so original after all. As Cal Newport explains, it’s called a flat outline. In Cal’s words, the flat outline works as follows:

  1. Don’t build a hierarchical outline. Instead, list the topics you want to tackle in the order you want to tackle.
  2. Revisit the library to find sources for the topics that still need support.
  3. Dump all relevant quotes from your sources under the topics.
  4. Transform your topic-level outline into your paper. Don’t start from a blank screen.

Isn’t this so much better? The flat outline works because it mirrors the writing process. No one sits down to write with a perfect idea of what they’re going to say. You discover what you’re going to say through the process of writing.

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Each paper you write should not feel like reinventing the wheel. Your goal when writing a paper for a college class is to fulfill the assignment requirements in a way that goes just above and beyond enough to impress the professor.

The way to make sure that you don’t get caught up in the structure is just to pick a standard structure for your discipline and follow it. Save the originality for your arguments. So how do you find these elusive standards? Ask your professor. They can point you to some relevant guides or examples.

Also, pay attention to the readings your professor assigns for the class. This should give you some idea of the academic conventions you should follow in your papers. It’s easy to go through an article and focus so much on the information that you ignore the structure (which is a good thing–the structure shouldn’t distract you).

If that seems too advanced or too much work, then another option is to Google “SUBJECT NAME paper template”. Just be careful about the source–a template from a university is fine; one on some random student’s Blogger page, not so much.

If the paper is supposed to have a final page count of 5-7, you may be tempted to write a paper that’s 7 or even 8 pages. After all, more is better, right?

Wrong. Every professor I had in college told me that they would always prefer a good 5-page paper over an okay 7-page paper. Frankly, some topics don’t need 7 pages–5 is plenty. If you try to stretch it out, you may end up diluting your argument.

If you’re not convinced, consider this: I rarely wrote more than the minimum page count, and I consistently received A’s on papers in English, History, Religious Studies, and Education classes.

Knowing this, why would you ever write more than you need to? It’s not just a waste of time or effort; it may even be counterproductive.

Of course, your paper has to be good for this to work. For advice on improving the quality of your papers, check out my post on 6 Writing Tips to Make Your Papers 300% Better.

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Editing and drafting at the same time is, like all forms of multitasking, inefficient and ultimately impossible. Don’t do it. Write with your full attention and effort, and then edit.

Similarly, never stop to look stuff up when you are writing. If you don’t know something, just make a note of it and come back to it later. At best, looking something up takes you away from writing, but even more likely it will pull you into an internet rabbit hole that will really derail the entire writing process.

The goal of writing this way is to keep you in the flow state as long as possible. Because if you can just get to a place of flow, your momentum will be unstoppable.

One of the greatest barriers to starting a paper is coming up with an introduction. If you think about it, this difficulty makes sense: how are you supposed to introduce something you haven’t even created?

This is why you shouldn’t write the introduction until you’ve finished the main body of the paper. I know it seems like a counterintuitive approach, but I challenge you to try it. This method avoids what has happened to me more times than I can count: writing the paper and then realizing that my intro doesn’t even fit with the final paper.

The same goes for the conclusion. Write it last. After all, how can you conclude when you haven’t even finished writing? If you want more advice on the specifics of writing solid conclusions, check out my post on how to write a paper.

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The thickness of your typical style manual. A productivity killer.

Adding citations is the worst, especially when you just spent hours writing a paper and are so over it. If you don’t want to spend further hours paging through some arcane style manual, do yourself a favor and use a citation management/generation tool.

My favorite is Zotero, which allows you to keep track of research sources and even has a browser extension that will pull the citation info from a library catalog web page. But I also have friends who prefer EasyBib. It doesn’t matter which one you use–just pick one and watch your citation worries evaporate.

That being said, it doesn’t hurt to glance at your citations before submitting, as these tools aren’t perfect (especially when it comes to digital sources).

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This tip isn’t strictly part of the paper writing process, but it can make a big difference in your writing speed and quality. At my college, the definition of “writing intensive” varied from professor to professor, but it always meant a class with lots of writing, often one (short) essay per week in addition to a 20 page final paper.

Each of these classes was intense, but at the end I always found myself a better writer. This went beyond just getting faster, although that was a major benefit. I also found that the quality of my arguments and analyses increased, along with massive improvements in my research skills.

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