Your First College Paper

Writing papers is something that you’ll probably do a lot of in college. Even if your major is something that doesn’t traditionally include a lot of writing—math or computer science, for example—you still have to take other classes that involve writing. And you never know—you may find yourself writing a couple papers for your math or engineering classes before you’re done!

One of the most important things to keep in mind when writing your first college paper is to not limit yourself to the five-paragraph essay. This traditional style is very popular in high school, and consists of an introduction paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion paragraph.

While some professors will accept an essay of this style, don’t bet on it. You’re going to need a lot more substance in your paper than you can present in five paragraphs. Be ready to write a lot—but don’t get nervous about not having enough to write about. You’ll have a learned quite a bit of new information by the time you have to write a paper, and you’ll also probably have a topic that makes it pretty easy to write several pages without a problem.

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These topics are ones that you probably won’t have dealt with in high school. Instead of “write about this particular historical event” or “report on this book,” you’ll get more analysis-oriented papers, such as “describe the advantages and drawbacks of this doctrine” or “choose one critic’s interpretation of this work and defend it.” And while these topics may seem really intimidating right now, you’ll be much better prepared to deal with them by the time you have to.

One of the most important parts of writing a paper in college is to back it up with some solid research. Find out what other people have said about your topic, and reference their work (don’t just repeat what they say, but pick out sentences or paragraphs that support your ideas and show that others have held the same view). Whether or not research was pointed out as a specific requirement of your paper, we highly recommend doing it.

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Head to the library and get a solid base of familiarity with your topic and a few historical works regarding it before you start writing. If nothing else, it’ll help you get a feel for how others have taken on the project of writing about your particular issue.

Your first few papers will probably be pretty intimidating, but don’t get overly stressed about them. Whether or not you feel like you do when you get the assignment, you have a great deal of knowledge about your assigned topic, as well as the critical thinking skills to develop a strong and articulate paper about it. Relax, prepare yourself to write, and then sit down and hammer out the first draft! (Or at least part of one, no need to go crazy on the first day.)