Writing in College: Tips for New Students

studying in class

As we’re heading into the last six weeks of the semester, if you’re anything like me, you are beginning to freak out a bit about all of the “semester-long” papers that you have definitely just started to think about. While some of you are in your final year and are seasoned essay pros, for freshmen and sophomores that are still new to this whole college writing thing, I have put together a few tricks of the trade.

First, a quick disclaimer: I am a SPEA student, so my tips cannot be applied 100% across all subjects and disciplines. If something I write here conflicts with specific instructions given to you by your TA or professor, please by all means disregard my advice and follow their direction.

Now that that’s out of the way, here we go:

  1. Formatting – When in doubt, you can’t really go wrong with standard 12-point, Times New Roman font. This is to be accompanied by 1-inch margins, double spacing, page numbers, and an adequate header. Unless specifically instructed to format your paper otherwise, this should be the default for any and all papers submitted in college.
  2. Citations – At many high schools, MLA citations are all the rage. In my experience, most college professors would prefer a more scholarly format such as APA or Chicago style. However, if they do not specify which they prefer, try to research what styles are commonly used in your field and make an educated choice based on your research. No matter what though, the most important thing is that you remain consistent.
  3. Structure – Obviously, the structure of your paper is going to have the most variation depending on your assignment and field of study. For our purposes, I will focus on a basic essay. While in high school there was a large emphasis on the five-paragraph theme, college writing provides a bit more freedom. A good college essay is typically less formulaic, however the basic outline of the paper should be the same. An introduction (including a thesis), a presentation of your argument, evidence to back up your claims, and then a conclusion. Some more technical fields may also required a methodology section to explain data collection methods (literature review, statistical analysis, laboratory experimentation, etc.). Most importantly, the structure of a college essay should be clear and direct. In my experience, headings can be very useful for identifying the sections of a paper and ensuring that the reader has a clear roadmap for where the paper is going.
  4. Research – This point should be a bit more obvious, as it isn’t much different from high school. However, in college, most professors will not be as forgiving as a high school teacher for using non-credible sources. Be sure before you cite something that it is from a reputable organization, such as a government or academic institution. Some nonprofit and private entities may also be credible, but you have to be a bit more careful. The best citations are academic reports, journal articles, or other primary data sources. Finally, and this should go without saying, NEVER CITE WIKIPEDIA.
  5. Style – Last but not least, I would argue that the clearest distinction between high school and college writing can be observed in writing style. In high school, writing assignments are often confined to English classes reviewing literature with the occasional research paper thrown in for good measure. High school students tend to produce papers containing a lot of repetition, summarization, and quite honestly, a lot of “fluff”. In college, there is no time for fluff. When a professor asks for a five page report, they are looking for five pages of original and substantive analysis that demonstrates a deeper understanding of a subject than just the four W’s associated with high school writing (Who, What, When, Where). A quality college paper will be concise and to the point. Sentences should not be crowded with excessive words, and paragraphs should be direct and straightforward. This is not to be confused with choppy writing or the use of an elementary-level vocabulary. I simply mean that college students should avoid saying the same thing five different ways and calling it a paragraph. Each sentence should bring something new to the paper, and each paragraph should follow a clear outline: main argument, evidence, tying the evidence to the argument, conclusion.

In the spirit of my own advice on brevity of writing, I won’t further belabor this subject. However, if you are looking for more information on how to be an effective writer in college and beyond, here are a few resources that may help:

Tips for Writing in North American Colleges: The Basics

College vs. High-School Writing

Writing in College

What is an Academic Paper?

Also, please take advantage of the IU Writing Tutorial Services on campus. These are students who are trained to help you submit the best writing assignment you possibly can for any class offered at IU. And the best part is, they’re FREE!

Happy writing!

Lauren Butz
Lauren Butz

Accelerated MPA Student, class of 2019

My name is Lauren, and I am a senior working on my Accelerated Master's of Public Affairs through SPEA. I started out studying Trombone Performance at Jacobs, but after a year I realized that law and public service had my heart. I have participated in the Washington Leadership Program and am a Herbert Presidential Scholar. I have worked my way through a number of jobs from barista to White House Intern, and I'm just keeping on until I achieve that American Dream.

School and work keep me pretty busy, but I can always find time to relax at the end of the day with a cup of tea and some jazz on the record player, pretending that I have it more together than I do. But college is for figuring it all out, right?

I hope I can share with you some of the lessons I've picked up along the way, and eventually we will master this whole adulting thing together. Go Hoosiers!

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