Getting through college requires a lot of work - not only is there always a lot of reading to do, but it seems that every professor wants at least one paper per course. How can the busy college student do it all? Well, in my years of experience as both a student and a teacher, I have come up with some tips that should both save time and give you a good grade, to boot!
1. Plan Ahead.
Make sure that you have set aside enough time to complete the assignment. Now, knowing how much time to set aside comes with experience, but for beginning students, assume that you will spend at least several hours researching for the paper, compiling the information, planning it out, and actually writing. You will also need to allow time for revision and rewrites. For information that is difficult to find, you may actually need to order materials, such as specific journal articles, which require several weeks' advance notice. Do not expect to do well on a paper that is put together at the last minute, because believe me, the professor will be able to tell. Not only will you lack good quality materials, but also you won't have the time to polish it and make it your best work. The best time management plan for beginning writers is to start researching several weeks before a paper is due (depending on the level of difficulty and amount of information and sources required) and leave at least a week to write and revise.
2. Use an Outline.
Many students make the mistake of writing papers without a clear idea of how it will be organized. The outline needn't be perfect, and in fact, you will probably tweak it along the way as you begin writing. You may find that a point you had planned to discuss in a certain part of the paper fits better somewhere else. But at least begin with a framework from which to build. It will help keep you on track as you begin putting all your information together.
3. Use the Resources at Your University.
These include your professor, the library and librarians, and a university writing center. A lot of students think that they are just out there to "sink or swim" but most professors would tell you that they only wish their students would come to them with questions or clarifications. When I was teaching, I made myself available as much as possible to my students but they usually didn't come to me. When they did poorly on an assignment, it was often because they didn't do the assignment correctly. A good idea would be to write your outline well in advance, and then run it by your professor to see if you are on the right track. He or she would probably be more than happy to help you. Furthermore, your university librarians are excellent sources that are often underutilized. They are trained to find information - they know the best databases, journal source possibilities, Internet search engines, etc. Ask them to help you at least get started. They are usually more than happy to help. Finally, seek writing help if necessary, at your university's writing center. Again, this is an underutilized resource. They are there to help you with everything from proper grammar and punctuation to style and flow of your work. They can't rewrite it for you, but can teach you what good writing looks like and how to transform your ideas into such writing.
4. Don't Forget What you Learned in High School!
I have been shocked in my teaching experience to find students that seem to have forgotten how to write a paper, and by this I mean the basics. These are:
Your paper should include an introduction, a body and a conclusion.
Each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence and the rest of the sentences should provide further information to either support or clarify that topic sentence.
5. Don't Plagiarize!
Even fifth graders know to cite their sources, so don't expect to breeze through college copying someone else's work. Professors know, and even if they can't tell themselves, there is sophisticated software out there that detects plagiarized information. Most schools have an academic integrity policy that provides for severe punishment, if not outright expulsion for plagiarism. Just don't do it! If you are unclear about how to cite information taken from other sources, ask! There are many citation style guides available on the Internet. If your professor didn't tell you, ask which citation style you should use for your research essay or term paper
and do it to the letter!
6. Follow the Professor's Instructions.
I saved the easiest, and most obvious one for last. But it never ceased to amaze me how many of my students would lose points (and often a lot of points) simply for not following the directions. This includes making sure you are answering all the aspects of the assignment, have followed the professor's instructions regarding format, writing style, and citation style (if given), and have turned it in on time. While it seems incredibly obvious, so many students simply start writing a paper, go off on tangents (because they didn't have a plan, an outline, or didn't follow the other tips above), and turn in something that isn't even appropriate for that particular assignment. When preparing your plan, your outline, and gathering research, make sure to refer to your assignment from time to time, just to make sure that you are on track.
Learning to write well takes time and practice, but following these tips will most certainly help you to avoid some of the pitfalls common to college student writers.
Good luck and happy writing!