Love ‘em or hate ‘em, we all have strong feelings about our college papers. Ask any past or present college student, and you’ll hear about the one fantastically insightful paper that wowed a particularly difficult professor. Or, you’ll hear about the beastly project that demanded an all-nighter, refusing to take shape until the wee hours of the morning. Truthfully, we all love that those papers allow us to explore and express our wildest, most interesting ideas; yet, we also hate the slow, meticulous work required to get a project off the ground.
Despite our ambivalent relationship with our academic papers, there is no doubt that knowing how to write a successful one is crucial to your education. The paper is the language of academic conversation. Think of any important idea that’s come along in the last 100 years; it’s a good bet that it was first presented to the world in an academic paper. The Institute for Writing and Rhetoric at Dartmouth makes the point that the academic paper is “written by scholars for other scholars.” These papers cover topics that are being debated and tested within the academic community. Thinkers in all academic fields are writing papers to present new ideas and theories for their peers to consider. Those ideas form the breakthroughs in science, math, or literature that the rest of us eventually hear about in the conventional media.
So, the paper is the vehicle for new ideas being created by the academic community on your campus. And, guess what? As a college student, you are now part of that community, and your ideas are relevant to that creative process. Your job as a scholar is to get involved in that insightful, stimulating, change-creating academic conversation that’s happening on your campus right now.
Sounds exciting, right? Intimidating, too. If you’ve just entered college, you probably have some beginning writing skills, but if your college paper is going to make a contribution to a real academic conversation, you’ve got to have more than a one-sentence thesis and three body paragraphs.
You already know that academic writing is governed by a lot of rules, and you’ll learn them as you move through your major field of study. But here are three tips that will help you gain the confidence to get your ideas out into the conversation:
1. Read, read, and read some more.
The more you read and expose yourself to the ideas of others, the more your own ideas will take shape. Read the materials provided by your professors. Google up some articles by different authors talking about the ideas in your course materials. Ask a librarian to help you find websites or books on these ideas. Kat Cohen, college admission counselor and CEO of the educational consulting company IvyWise, says that lots of reading helps you define your interests. She recommends reading as a way to “become a specialist” in an area of your passion. You’ll be able to draw on that specialty knowledge as you look for ideas to develop in your college papers.
2. Argue for your unique idea.
A paper should not be a summary of ideas you are learning in your classes. Your paper should be your spin on those ideas or a connection you make between those ideas. Joseph Williams and Lawrence McEnerney of the University of Chicago Writing Program recommend that you give readers an idea that makes them say, “That’s interesting. I’d like to know more.” Think someone else may have written a play Shakespeare is getting credit for? Think our economy would be better off if we had listened to Thomas Jefferson a little more and Alexander Hamilton a little less? Give your reasons and support them in your paper. Do that, and your audience (your professor) will be hooked.
3. Rely on your freshman composition professor.
He or she is an expert in taking solid high school writers and turning them into fantastic college thinkers. It’s not an easy or short process. Learning to think and write at a college level requires a lot of trial and error. But, your professors are there to give you feedback on those errors and to help you develop your ideas. Get that feedback early and often. Check for your professor’s office hours or talk to her about times for an appointment to talk about your papers. Sometimes just talking through your ideas with your professor will help you clarify and sharpen them.
Overall, whether you love or hate your college papers, they will help you give voice to your best ideas and help you act on the passion you feel for the field you’ve chosen.