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College Level Essay Writing Handbook

The writing required in college courses may be different than anything you’ve encountered before. English classes taken in middle school, and sometimes in the early years of high school, provide the basics, but many students lose these skills before they begin college. In addition, for nontraditional students who haven’t studied English in a while, making the transition to academic writing can be difficult.

Professors in all majors expect students to enter their courses with high-level writing skills. A gap in skill level is often met with remedial English courses in the first semester of college. Use this guide to refresh your knowledge of basic grammar rules, and to understand what you need to know and apply in your college classes. This resource can also serve as a reference as you complete your first written assignments.

Types of Academic Writing

There are different writing styles, each with a different purpose or audience. There are situations in which one style will be more appropriate than another, and there is a variety of strategies you can use to approach the work. This section of our guide provides an overview of the writing types you will likely encounter as a college student.

Argument Papers

Assignments that require you to support a position, claim or opinion involve a persuasive writing approach. These papers are framed with a thesis statement, which introduces a focused assertion. Examples include: “Fast food consumption is linked to heart disease in low-income communities,” and “The chemicals used in pesticides pose the most significant threat to our health in the 21st century.” The remainder of the paper provides a logical argument and relevant evidence that supports the claim presented in the thesis. Tips for writing argument papers include:

  • Clearly describe the central issue, position or premise.
  • Provide evidence that supports the position presented in your thesis statement.
  • Develop a conclusion based on the evidence you provided.

Research Papers

Research papers can take multiple forms, depending on the purpose and specific requirements of your class assignment. This format can be used to describe the methods used in your own research project, present the results of a research project and to describe the research that has already been completed in an area of interest. Some assignments require a combination of these approaches. These papers typically include formal sections, such as an introduction, review of existing research literature, analysis, discussion of results and conclusion. Tips for writing research papers include:

  • Develop a clear and focused research question, hypothesis, thesis or topic.
  • Identify relevant sources, including previous research reports.
  • Analyze the results found in your sources.
  • Describe how results answer your research question, prove or disprove your hypothesis, support your thesis or expand knowledge of your topic.

Expository Papers

Similar to argument and persuasive essays, expository papers require you to research an idea or concept and provide supporting evidence. This type of writing includes a thesis statement, as well as the logical presentation of sources that address the idea you are exploring in your paper. A five-paragraph format is typical for expository essays: (1) introduction paragraph, (2-4) three body paragraphs, (5) conclusion paragraph. This form of writing is often used to evaluate your knowledge of a topic and can be included in exams. Tips for writing expository papers include:

  • Determine the approach required for the assignment: compare and contrast, cause and effect, procedure or process.
  • Write a concise thesis statement that presents your topic, but does not include opinion.
  • Research existing information about your topic.
  • Provide objective evidence and relevant information found in your research.
  • Provide a conclusion that connects supporting information with the thesis statement.

Exam Essays

Professors often use written exams to measure your knowledge of a specific topic, understanding of a complex concept or comprehension of course reading and resources. These essays can include components of argument and persuasion, research and exposition, as directed by your instructor. The first step in preparation for essay exams is to complete all of your course reading assignments, participate in discussions and organize your notes and study time. This should take place throughout the course, not just in time for the exam date. Tips for exam essay writing include:

  • Read the exam question carefully; look for keywords such as “compare” and “criticize” to direct your approach.
  • Create a rough outline that sets up the scope and sequence of your essay, as well as critical concepts and sources you should include.
  • Develop a response that presents a clear main point or argument and organized supporting points.
  • Monitor your progress if the written exam is timed.

Academic Proposals

Academic proposals are typically written as part of grant applications or for professional conference presentations. They often outline a research plan or project idea with a goal of gaining support from another group. This type of writing is more common in graduate-level study, but may be encountered by undergraduates involved in collaborative research projects with professors and other students. Tips for writing academic proposals include:

  • Pay careful attention to the instructions provided by the organization asking for proposal submissions; follow all formatting and process guidelines.
  • Grab the reviewers’ attention with a clear title and focused introduction that explains your plan.
  • Provide details about how your project meets the grant or conference requirements, as well as how it is related to relevant research and needs in your field.
  • Ask for feedback and proofreading from someone who is familiar with your topic.

Common Writing Pitfalls

The proper use of grammar increases the clarity of your writing, and creates an easy flow of words and ideas for the reader to follow. Common problems occur when using the passive voice, incorrect punctuation and confusing word options. The examples in this section provide easy-to-remember tips to avoid these errors in your own writing.

Active vs. Passive Voice

Active voice is generally preferred in most forms of writing. It places emphasis on the subject of a sentence and the action taking place. Active voice usually requires fewer words than passive voice and communicates action more clearly to the reader.

  • Passive: It was decided by the administration that new databases must be added to the library.
  • Active: The administration decided that the library must add new databases.

Punctuation

Some of the most common forms of punctuation are listed below, along with tips for putting them to use.

Comma

Commas divide sentences into separate components, which improves readability, creates a pause and connects thoughts. They may be used with conjunctions (e.g., and, but, for, so), to separate items in a series, or to emphasize a phrase or clause.

Examples:

  • Most students enjoyed the guest speaker, but faculty members said the presentation was inappropriate.
  • Before classes begin, you must complete the orientation tutorial, order your textbooks, post an introduction and read the syllabus.
  • Dr. Williams, who won last year’s teaching award, offers that course in the spring semester every year.

Colon

A colon is primarily used to introduce something in a sentence, but it can also draw attention to a list, example, quotation, noun or phrase.

Examples:

  • The course syllabus includes: assignment instructions, due dates, instructor contact information and grading policies.
  • The library was as expected: quiet and full of resources.
  • The provost set the policy in her statement: “Academic integrity is expected in all courses, and plagiarism cases will be reported to my office immediately.”

Semicolon

Semicolons separate items in a list when one or more of the items includes a comma. They are also used to join two sentences or independent clauses.

Examples:

  • The professor said there was a lack of reading comprehension; attention to detail and creative, thoughtful responses.
  • She enrolled in classes today; too many require expensive textbooks.

Hyphen

Hyphen guidelines are not as strict as those for other types of punctuation. Primary use includes connecting two words to create a compound adjective when they come before a noun in a sentence. They are also used with some prefixes.

Examples:

  • As a well-known expert of ancient history, Dr. Williams has the best-attended classes in the department.
  • Student protests on college campuses increased in the mid-1970s.

Apostrophe

Apostrophes and the letter ‘s’ are used to indicate possessive nouns. This is different than creating a plural noun with only the ‘s.’

Examples:

  • The professor’s textbooks are now available at the bookstore.
  • Each student has an online appointment with the library’s reference expert.

Period

Periods are used to end sentences, and in some abbreviations. Check your style guide (e.g., APA, MLA) for more specific instructions on abbreviations, since the rules vary.

Examples:

  • A complete thought can be expressed in a single sentence.
  • She was going to interview with Consolidated Cogs, Inc., however, they did not offer the benefits, etc. she needed.

Words to Watch

Many college students struggle with some of the most common punctuation and grammar mistakes. Review the words listed below, along with tips for proper usage.

They’re, their, there

These words all sound the same, but have different meanings. They’re is the contraction of they and are; their is possessive (as in, it belongs to them) and there is a location (as in, here or there).

Examples:

  • They’re going to be glad they discussed the project with a reference librarian.
  • Their project earned an A!
  • I’ll meet you at the library, but won’t park there.

Two, too, to

These words all sound the same, but have different meanings. Two is a number (as in, one, two, three). Too is used to say “also” or as an alternative to “very.” To is a preposition (which often indicated movement) or as part of an infinitive (e.g., to write).

Examples:

  • I just ordered two more textbooks.
  • She needs textbooks, too. They are getting too expensive!
  • I will go to the bookstore to buy my textbooks.

Its, it’s

Its is a possessive pronoun. It’s is the contraction of it and is. If you get confused in your writing, try replacing the word you want with “his” or “her.” If you can do this, use its (without an apostrophe).

Examples:

  • The library kept its doors closed during the holidays.
  • It’s time to go home for the holidays!

Weather, whether

Weather is a reference to the atmosphere and conditions like rain and snow. Whether introduces alternatives and is similar to the word “if.”

Examples:

  • The weather forecast calls for rain; bring your umbrella!
  • She’s deciding whether she should take that class in the spring or summer.

A lot

The use of alot is usually considered an error. Use a lot (two separate words) to indicate a large number or many.

Example:

  • The new library database includes a lot of new journals.

Grammar Resources

For additional assistance with grammar and punctuation, try the following writing tools and resources:

Citations

Citations provide a way for you to give attribution to the authors that inform your writing, and help you avoid plagiarism. Citations should give credit to those whose ideas or concepts you include in your work, direct quotations and paraphrasing. Style guides provide a structured way to format citations so that they are consistent and verifiable. There are many style guides to choose from, but the three presented in this section of our guide are widely used by colleges and universities. Check with your instructors to make sure you are using the preferred style guide in your classes.

MLA

The Modern Language Association (MLA) writing guidelines are used by a wide range of schools and professional publications. Students in English, foreign language, cultural studies, literature and arts programs typically use the MLA style for their written assignments. See the examples below:

Book

King, Stephen. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. New York: Scribner, 2015. Print.

Journal

Allen, Darryl E., and Jo Lacy Idlebird. “Depreciation’s Effect on Capital Budgeting Metrics Needs More Educator Focus.” American Journal of Business Research vol. 7 no. 1 (2014): 45-51. Questia. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

Video

Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham. “Research Methods for Educational Enquiry: Methodological Approaches for Small-scale Research.” 05 July 2012. Online video clip. YouTube. Accessed on 24 Nov. 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXIjnAgijS0

Website

“French Revolution.” History.com. A+E Networks, 2009. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

In-text citation

(Author, page number)

Students have difficulty computing capital recovery of investments (Allen and Idlebird 45).

According to Allen and Idlebird “the format of the statement of cash flows did not affect students’ accuracy” (45).

“The format of the statement of cash flows did not affect students’ accuracy” (Allen and Idlebird 45).

Footnotes/endnotes

MLA style recommends in-text citations (as illustrated above). However, longer, explanatory notes may be included as footnotes (placed at the bottom of the page on which they appear) or endnotes (listed on a separate page at the end of the document). These options provide readers with additional resources and background information not necessary needed in the main text of the paper.

  1. Studies by Jones (102) and Williams (40) provide similar conclusions related to needed research in the area of student business finance skills.

Footnotes can also be used instead of the parenthetical in-text citations described in the section above. Check with your instructor to confirm what is expected for your assignments.

  1. Stephen King, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams (New York: Scribner, 2015) 224.

APA

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA), originally published in 1929, is currently in its 6th edition. It has been adopted for use primarily in the fields of psychology and education, as well as many social science disciplines. See the examples below:

Book

King, S. (2015). The bazaar of bad dreams. New York, NY: Scribner.

Journal

Allen, D. E., & Idlebird, J. L. (2014). Depreciation’s effect on capital budgeting metrics needs more educator focus. American Journal of Business Research 7(1), 45-51. Retrieved from https://www.questia.com/

Video

Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham (2012, July 5). Research methods for educational enquiry: methodological approaches for small-scale research [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXIjnAgijS0

Website

French revolution. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/french-revolution

In-text citation

(Author, year of publication, page number)

Students have difficulty computing capital recovery of investments (Allen and Idlebird, 2014).

According to Allen and Idlebird (2014), “the format of the statement of cash flows did not affect students’ accuracy” (p. 45).

“The format of the statement of cash flows did not affect students’ accuracy” (Allen & Idlebird, 2014, p. 45).

Footnotes/endnotes

APA style recommends in-text citations (as illustrated above). However, longer, explanatory notes may added as footnotes. These notes provide readers with additional resources and background information, which may not be included in the main text of your paper. APA style does not include the use of endnotes. Check with your instructor before adding footnotes to your written assignments.

  1. Studies by Jones (2001) and Williams (2010) provide similar conclusions related to needed research in the area of student business finance skills.
  2. This research presented in this document focused on undergraduate students enrolled as entrepreneurship majors; the preferences of additional student populations may be relevant to review when creating new curricula in this area.

Chicago

The Chicago Manual of Style is published by the University of Chicago and is currently in its 16th edition. It is often required for students in the humanities, arts and social sciences. This guide is one of the most comprehensive writing manuals, providing detailed formatting instructions for a wide variety of writing situations. See the examples below:

Book

King, Stephen. 2015. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. New York: Scribner.

Journal

Allen, Darryl E., and Jo Lacy Idlebird. 2014. “Depreciation’s Effect on Capital Budgeting Metrics Needs More Educator Focus.” American Journal of Business Research 7: 45-51. Accessed November 24, 2015. https://www.questia.com/read/1P3-3725860091/depreciation-s-effect-on-
capital-budgeting-metrics.

Video

Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham. “Research Methods for Educational Enquiry: Methodological Approaches for Small-scale Research.” YouTube video, 1:06:12. July 5, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXIjnAgijS0.

Website

History.com. 2009. “French Revolution.” Accessed November 24, 2015. http://www.history.com/topics/ french-revolution.

In-text citation

(Author, year of publication, page number)

Students have difficulty computing capital recovery of investments (Allen and Idlebird 2014).

According to Allen and Idlebird (2014), “the format of the statement of cash flows did not affect students’ accuracy” (45).

“The format of the statement of cash flows did not affect students’ accuracy” (Allen and Idlebird 2014, 45).

Notes and bibliography

Chicago style includes two primary options for citing referenced works:

  • author-date format (presented in the examples above)
  • the notes and bibliography format (illustrated below)

Check with your instructor to see which Chicago approach is appropriate for your class assignments.

Notes are often abbreviated versions of the citations provided in a bibliography. Note the formatting differences in the following examples:

Note:

  1. Stephen King,The Bazaar of Bad Dreams (New York: Scribner, 2015), 100-101.
  2. King, Bazaar of Bad Dreams, 100-101.

Bibliography:

King, Stephen.The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. New York: Scribner, 2015.

Additional Writing Types

While you may not encounter these as class assignments, the following are important forms of writing that you will need for college admissions and course communication, as well as in your career after graduation.

Personal Statement or Letter of Intent

College applications at the undergraduate and graduate level typically require some sort of written statement that includes your interests, goals and reasons for applying. These essays may also be part of scholarship applications, and are similar to cover letters used in the job search process. Tips for writing personal statements include:

  • Focus on the purpose of the letter or application and provide only the most relevant information.
  • Take a direct and open approach to sharing your interests and how the application will help you reach specific goals.
  • Be concise and follow all instructions related to length and format.

Email

Email is a primary source of communication in many education and employment settings. As you engage in email conversations with college officials and professors, keep in mind that this is a professional exchange. There are expectations for the composition of messages and the etiquette used. Tips for email use include:

  • Provide a clear but concise subject line that conveys why you are sending the message.
  • Do not type using ALL CAPITAL LETTERS because this can come across as a form of screaming.
  • Include salutations, such as “Dear Professor Williams” or “Hello, Mr. Jackson.”
  • Keep your message focused on the subject; write in short paragraphs that are easy to read.

Blogs and Journals

Some courses require students to maintain personal blogs as a way to submit assignments, encourage reflective learning or to develop portfolios. Whether this is part of your program or something you pursue on your own, it is important to understand the impact of effective writing in these formats. Tips for student blogging include:

  • Watch your language; consider this a type of professional communication and be aware of the potential reach of your words if your blog is publicly accessible.
  • Explore writing in the first person as you share your ideas and opinions about assigned topics, as well as other relevant areas of interest to you.
  • Review each post for spelling and grammar errors to publish the best writing possible.
  • Read other students’ blogs to learn more about the format and compare different writing styles.

Here is a list of ten online writing guides that can be helpful for both young and experienced students.

There are guides that are quick and easy to follow and there are very intensive ones as well. There are guides that give tips that students may use as their personal grammar rulebook. And there is even a guide that may help inspire one when composing his own essay template and plan.

All the resources suggest quite different approach and information on essay writing, so choose the one that fits your needs the best and watch your writing improve.

1. Guide to Writing a Basic Essay

This is a guide that gives very basic and general information on how to write an essay. It is not for someone trying to get the highest grade and is not for overachievers. It is for people in high school that have not written many essays and for people that need a quick refresh on writing essays. The biggest advantage of this resource is its simplicity. It doesn’t go into masses of details, that make the guide easier to use.

2. Essaymama’s Essay Writing Guide

Essaymama’s Essay Writing Guide was created by professional writers that had to write essays for their living. Over time, they have learned a lot of tricks and tips for getting higher grades, and they shared these tips via this resource. Besides, the guide has quite easy and accurate structure, so you will not have to spend much time to find the information you need. If you want to get general information on writing essays along with practical tips then you should look through this guide.

3. Guide to Grammar and Writing

This website suggests in-depth and comprehensive guide on writing, but unfortunately it has an outdated form of navigation, so you may find yourself searching for quite a while before you get what you want. If you plough through and keep searching, you will find some very in-depth and very correct information you can use to improve your writing skills and your essays.

RELATED: 7 writing mistakes you need to stop making today

4. Own Online Writing Lab

This may be one of the most correct writing websites on the Internet. There are no secret snippets of information on this website that will get you a better grade, but there is correct information about grammar and the English language. It is the sort of website a teacher may use to ensure he or she teaches the right thing. Think of this website as a rulebook for the English language that eventually will improve your writing skills.

5. Writing Center – Strategies for Essay Writing

This is not a guide on grammar or the English language like the OWL resource, nor a loaded with tips and advice like the EssayMama guide. This is a website that gives you general strategies for essay writing. The authors of the resource have written articles on each of the essay elements, that make the website easier to use and to find the information you look for.

6. Education Exeter – A Brief Guide to Writing Essays

This is a short writing guide that is probably mostly used by people that need a quick refresher on how to write essays and a quick reminder on essay writing concepts. If you are not sure how to write essays, but you are also not too worried about getting a higher mark/grade, then this resource is suitable for you. It may be brief, but it is definitely better than most of the YouTube videos you are going to see on the subject.

7. Student University Essay Writing Basics

This is another website that offers a very basic and very short refresher course on writing essays. It has been built by a university but is so simple that a high school student could use and understand it. The resource gives a list of possible steps while writing essays and tells how to succeed at each of them.

8. David Gauntlett Essay Writing Guide

This is a downloadable resource that gives you a rundown of how you may write essays. It starts with the basics and then goes into more details as to how you may write each section of your essay. If you have a tablet reader, it may be a good document to load and read in sections when you have free time or when you are traveling on a bus or train, for example.

9. College of Dublin – Guidelines for Essay Writing

If you suffer from writer’s block, then this is the perfect resource for you. It is set out as if it were an essay-writing plan. However, it is not for people that have no idea how to write essays. This is for students that consider themselves to be very good at writing essays and want to create an essay writing process and template to make the writing process easier. Think of it as a checklist or shopping list full of things you need to consider when you write your essay.

10. A Helpful Guide to Essay Writing by Anglia Ruskin University

This is a PDF file that offers a guide to writing your essays. It starts simply with thing such as how to plan and structure your essay, and then moves into writing, drafting, refining and checking your work. It then goes into the different types of essay you may write and the styles you may be asked to write. Once you have read it all, you may use it as a reference guide. So for example, if you are asked to write a research paper you can check with the PDF on how to do it correctly.

This article originally appeared on Surviving College, the ultimate source for all things college and entertainment, made for college students.

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