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Writing a Research Paper at Colleges and Universities

By Peterson's Staff updated on Tuesday, January 29, 2013

After you start college, at one point or another, you're going to have to write a heavy-duty research paper. This isn’t your high school English teacher’s five-page requirement, either. This is going to be the 28-page monster you’ve heard about, but hoped wasn’t really true, and it will be a task that you’ll likely have to repeat more than once during your college career. But you are not alone. Students at colleges and universities across the country are probably facing the same daunting task.

There is hope, though. No matter how long your paper must be or how little time you have to complete it, there are some general tips that will help you complete a first-rate research paper. Use the following college guide by Sharon Sorenson, author of "How to Write Research Papers":

Plan your time
Some instructors give you ten weeks to complete a project, while others might allot a measly four. Plan backward from the day your paper is due and map out a schedule that allows you enough time to finish.

Choose your topic wisely
You may not be given a choice about the topic of your paper, but if you’re fortunate enough to have the option, then select a subject that interests you. If you choose something outside your scope of interest, you may find yourself nodding off and have difficulty finishing the task, which is not a good impression to make at college. Information is crucial; keep your topic broad enough that you can find enough resources to cover it, but narrow enough that you can successfully develop and support your ideas.

Write a top-notch thesis statement
All research papers must contain a thesis statement, which reflects the main topic and the order in which supporting ideas will develop. For example, if you write a paper entitled "Teenagers Coping with Alzheimer's Patients," your thesis statement might look something like this: "Understanding the emotions of both the patient and the family will help reduce everyone's frustration."

This statement implies that your paper will discuss patient and family emotions, as well as the reduction of their frustrations. With any paper you write, feel free to fiddle with your thesis statement as you go along to better reflect the results of your research.

Use excellent secondary resources
If at all possible, don’t rely heavily on one source when writing a paper at college. Search for and consult as many varying sources as humanly possible. You want to provide a well thought out, persuasive argument. Make sure you aren’t using outdated resources, and gather information that will prepare you to address potential arguments to your ideas.

Build an outline
After you’ve gathered your most valuable resources, develop an outline of what you plan to cover. This will help keep you from drifting into uncharted waters as you write. Developing a structure or plan is great college info for any task you encounter, not just writing papers. It helps keep you focused.

Create a first draft
Complete a first draft, then go back and check your facts. Did you forget an important argument or piece of information? Does the content flow easily from section to section? Make sure you used your own words and quoted all sources.

Proofread
Before you hand in your paper, go back through it again to catch any errors. This time, look specifically for grammar and keyboard errors. If the thought of staring at your paper one more time makes your eyes glaze over, ask a friend or relative to read it and provide constructive feedback.

Writing a research paper can be a daunting task, but breaking it down into small steps makes the work much more manageable. If you develop a system for completing your research and putting your paper together, it will serve you well at whatever colleges and universities you attend. It may not get any easier, but the more you write, the better your papers will become.

About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

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