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    What Goes into a College Paper

    by Meghan Kowalski on 2024-03-27T08:00:00-04:00 | 0 Comments

    This time of the semester, there's a lot of paper writing happening. But what goes into a college paper? Understanding what goes in to these kinds of assignments is a fundamental skill. In this blog post, we'll break down what you'll want to consider when preparing for and writing your paper.


    Read the Assignment (More than once)

    The first thing you should do is read the assignment. Then, read it again. The better you understand the requirements the more guidelines you will have to help shape your research and writing. Your assignment will have information about page length, required material, citation style, formatting, and more. If you have any questions about the assignment, ask your instructor early. It's much easier to adjust your work now than it is the night before the assignment is due. (Don't forget to put the due date on your calendar!)


    Before you can dive into researching and writing, take some time to brainstorm. This can help you identify a topic and create a thesis.​ ​When brainstorming you want to consider:​

    • The who, what, where, when, why, and how of the general topic​
    • What do you find interesting?​
    • What do trends do you see?​
    • What gaps can you identify?​
    • What questions do you have?

    Write a Working Thesis

    Essentially, a thesis is a question you are trying to answer or an argument you are trying to make. More specifically, a thesis is a sentence or a few sentences that express the main idea, argument, or viewpoint of your assignment. ​​When it comes to getting started on your paper, it can help to have a general idea for your thesis before you start researching. This is called a "working thesis." It is the general idea, argument, or viewpoint you use to help shape your paper.​

    Consider What You Might Need

    It can be helpful to create a list of what you need to find before you start your paper. Items on that list could include:​

    • Sources to support your argument (including sources to support each individual aspect of your argument)​
    • Sources that are against your argument​
    • Sources that are examples of your argument​
    • Data or statistics​
    • Images, graphics, illustrations or other visual elements​

    Make sure you find and include everything required by the assignment.

    Start Researching

    Once you have your assignment parameters and working thesis, you can get started on your research.​ There is a lot of information available in the world – but you can't go wrong in starting with library resources!​​

    Exactly where you look depends on your assignment requirements and topic. For example, you wouldn't look for scientific research on Facebook. You might, however, use Facebook to find examples of how people use social media.​

    We know this can be overwhelming, which is why the library is here to help you find sources like books, articles, and online material.​ You can schedule an appointment with us online, send an email to, or chat with us.

    Outline and Organize

    Once you have some material to start working with, it's a good idea to organize your thoughts and how you are going to support them. Outline your paper using bullet points or lists. For each page (or paragraph), list the main idea and then include any supporting ideas or evidence you have found. A well-structured outline not only helps you organize everything but can make the writing process easier. Outlining helps you maintain focus and shows how your paper will flow from idea to idea. The more comprehensive your outline, the easier the actual writing may be because you've already done a lot of the work.


    Each paper's structure will depend on the assignment parameters, so make sure you know what is required. Most papers, however, require the following:

    • A strong introduction where you share your thesis and how you are going to support it.
    • Supporting arguments or points which make up the bulk of the paper. This is where you provide evidence (all that research you did!) to support your work.
    • A conclusion that wraps up everything and can work as a summary.

    Depending on the assignment, you may be required to include a literature review, annotated bibliography, visual material, data, or appendices. Just check your assignment!

    As you write, make sure to incorporate your research. This is a three step process. The order of these steps can change, but each part must be included:

    1. Introduce the source
    2. Use and synthesize the source into your writing by quoting/paraphrasing/summarizing, providing your opinion, contrasting/comparing, or using it as an example. (You can more about using sources in our blog post on Using Sources in Your Writing.)
    3. Cite the source (this is both an in-text citation and full citation in your reference list).

    Throughout your writing, don't forget to include your own voice, experiences, opinions, and thoughts. This is what your instructors want to hear most! How does your voice fit in with or counter existing research or ideas? How would you change things? How would you support things? What do you think about the topic you are writing about? The bulk of your paper should be these ideas. You can then support your work with the research you have found.


    Once you've drafted your paper, it's time to read it through. Editing methods change from person to person, but it involves catching typos, clarifying language, removing unnecessary material, and making sure every source is cited correctly. It can be helpful to read your paper out loud. We catch things when we speak that we don't when we read. You can also ask a friend or classmate to read your paper. Use their feedback to make your work stronger. 

    Final Review

    Before you hit submit, give your paper one final review. Use the assignment as a checklist to make sure you use the right citation style, have correct formatting, and didn't leave any weird notes to yourself. And make sure you put your name on the assignment!

    Turn It In and Celebrate

    Submit your paper as required by your instructor. Make sure you get it in by the due date (or extension date). Then celebrate! You worked hard and you deserve it.


    This blog post is adapted from a previous post Getting Started on Your Research. (October 4, 2021)


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