This material was written by Megan Fung, Tutoring Coordinator, Academic and Enrollment Support Services at Penn State World Campus, and derived from materials created for the Smart Track to Success course.
Research papers can be intimidating for many college students. That’s understandable. Writing a research paper takes some work (often, quite a bit), and may require skills that are new — or perhaps have gone rusty. Crafting a good research paper involves planning, organization, research, writing, and editing. Time management can also play a critical role, as these assignments often must be completed over a period of time and completed by a firm deadline. If you do not allow sufficient time for each phase or you fail to stick to your schedule, you may find yourself in a rush to finish at the last minute, meaning you’ll be unlikely to do your best work.
Preparation can go a long way in helping you succeed. Self-discipline is essential, as well. You must focus, stick to the timeline, and avoid distractions.
The first steps
Most papers are based on an argument, position, or theory. Or you may be exploring a specific topic (or person) to offer detailed insight on why it was important, or the role it played in a larger event.
For example, in your sociology class, you may assert that the internet has changed our definitions of privacy. In the process, you might:
- gather evidence to support your claim. Maybe you would look at studies on the meaning of privacy, interview classmates about their internet use, or conduct a survey on what people post to social media.
- think about your audience, perhaps persuading them that they should be careful about what they post to the internet
Once you have gathered some initial thoughts and ideas, you will embark on perhaps the most important step of this entire process — the outline. Developing a good outline is imperative, as it will guide you along the way, helping you figure out what material you need and ensuring that you stay on track.
Your outline is a good place to start. Like the steps of a ladder (or your outline), each piece of your paper should build on the other in a logical fashion.
An organization structure for a paper, for example a paper on internet privacy, might look something like this:
In the first paragraphs, you might identify a question:
- How does social media change our definition of privacy?
In your thesis (often found in the introduction), state your argument:
- The advent of social media has changed our definitions of privacy and encourages us to be more strategic about what information we share with others.
In the rest of your essay, use evidence to support your point. (Body Paragraphs)
- You may look at what privacy meant at different times in history.
- You may cite a study that explains how people’s perspectives on privacy have changed.
In the conclusion, keep your audience in mind.
- Why should they care about the changing definitions of privacy?
Identifying your thesis statement
The thesis statement is the heart of your research paper.
Depending on what sort of paper you are writing, your thesis statement may take different forms. You could:
- explain an idea to your audience
- argue a claim
- analyze a concept
- take a stance on an issue
For example, an English assignment may ask you to take a stance on student loan debt. Should the first semester of college be free? Should all students receive more substantial federal aid? This paper is asking you to take a stance and argue for a solution to student loan debt.
A thesis statement is the road map of your essay. It gives your paper a structure and gives your readers a direction. If you could only tell someone the thesis of your paper, that person should be able to understand the topic and focus of your paper from that one sentence.
Your first draft of a thesis on the above topic might look like this:
We need to fix student loans now!
After you’ve done research and outlined your paper, a stronger thesis might read like this:
Given the sharp increase in student loan debt over the last 30 years and the staggering number of loans in default, the Office of Federal Student Aid must change its policy on deferment to include medical and financial hardship for recent graduates.
Getting from the first version to the second one will take brainstorming, and some time to contemplate the deeper issues involved with your topic.
A few tips:
- Start with an idea “We need to fix student loans” and think about how you can make it more specific by asking questions. How can we fix the crisis of student loan debt? What part of that solution will you focus on? Why does this solution matter? Who needs to make a change?
- Do research on your topic and find out more details about your topic. Use that research to make your thesis more specific.
- Return to your thesis statement throughout the process.
See other examples of thesis statements and suggestions on how to develop your thesis statements.
Starting point: the introduction
Introductions should get the attention of your reader, introduce your main idea, and capture your argument. This sample introduction illustrates how this part of the paper sets up the remainder of the material.
A few elements you may want to include in an effective introduction could include:
- a hook to get readers’ attention
- background (if necessary) of the topic
- your main idea or thesis
- a preview of the body of your essay (often contained in or found near a thesis statement)
Most introductions present a paper’s main point, but the rest of the details may vary. The introductory paragraph of a sociology exam may not include a “hook” but get right to the main claim of your essay. A longer essay may contain a significant introduction. You will want to evaluate your situation and choose what works best.
Not sure where to begin? If you’re stuck, try these strategies:
- Start writing the body of your paper. If the first paragraph isn’t coming to mind easily, look at your outline and start writing a paragraph that you feel more confident about.
- Think about your audience. For example, pet owners may be more invested if you explain why your proposed dog park helps their pets stay healthy and happy.
- Use trial and error. Your first introduction may not be your best, and that’s fine. Try listing several ideas at once and see which one seems best.
- Talk it out. Have friends and family read your work. Email your instructor. Read your work out loud.
- Take a break. Go back to the stress-relief strategies in Module Six and try one out.
If you’re stuck on your introduction, remember to reach out to your instructor, to your classmates, and to your tutors. They can provide feedback on what you have written and may help you improve your text.
Ending on a good note
Endings can also be tricky when writing a research paper. Many students struggle with figuring out how to wrap things up, especially since you may feel pressure to end with a memorable line or important takeaway. And it is true that this will be one of the most important parts of your paper.
Every paper needs a convincing and memorable ending. Like a great punchline caps off a good joke, your conclusion will be the last thing that your readers read and remember about your paper. You want it to reinforce your point and drive home why your argument matters. But how do you do that?
You may take several approaches to writing a conclusion. There is no single “right” way to end a paper. A lot will depend on the tone and style of your paper — just as there are different ways in which you would end a verbal conversation, depending on the situation. The point is the same for conversations and for papers: help your reader (or listener) to remember your main point and (hopefully) be persuaded by it.
When you draft your conclusion, try to ask yourself these questions about your paper: What are my answers and which one seems the most important? Depending on your answers and which one seems most important, your conclusion may change.
- What should your reader remember? Summarize the most important information.
- What should your reader do in response to your paper? Call for that action.
- Why should they care about your main point? Appeal to your readers’ self-interest.
Depending on the goal of your paper, your conclusion may change its focus. If you’re writing a paper about recycling, you may want your reader to do something, such as call their city council members, write a letter to a center, or start recycling.
One final tip: Sometimes, less is more! If you get stuck with your conclusion, remember it doesn’t have to be long to be effective. You may be able to write a shorter conclusion and get the same effect.
For more on conclusions, check out this video.
Rubrics and grading
To be truly successful in writing a college paper — and earn a good grade — requires more than just good writing and research skills. You also must be sure to meet all of the requirements specified by your instructor. These are often detailed in what is known as a rubric.
A rubric is a ranking system used by instructors to grade an assignment based on specific criteria. A rubric can also tell you what your instructor expects from a quality assignment and can guide you as you write a paper. Other times, the instructor will simply explain the guidelines or grading criteria via written instructions.
As you prepare for a paper or any assignment, read and reread the assignment description or rubric provided by your instructor. Check to make sure you have understood each piece and addressed it. All of these tools can help you understand your instructor’s expectations for the assignment
Here are a few other ways that rubrics or assignment instructions can help you:
- Follow directions. Your instructor includes only important information in a rubric, and a rubric can remind you of important pieces of an assignment that you may have missed.
- Focus on significant areas of an assignment.
- Revise effectively. A rubric can remind you of an area for revision.
iStudy at Penn State provides guidance on how to write papers and other assignments
The library website includes citation guides and links to the Modern Language Association, APA Style, Chicago Manual of Style, and other common style guides.
- MLA http://guides.libraries.psu.edu/mlacitation