6 College Writing Tips to Help You Knock Your Essays Out of the Park

By Published on November 26, 2018

High school doesn’t always prepare students adequately for a college education, and when it comes time to write that first college paper it really shows. From not knowing how to manage their time, to not knowing how to do proper research, to not knowing how to start, students often find themselves unprepared, often due in part to how they’re taught to write a paper.

As you begin college you’ll quickly find that professors want different things from high school teachers (and from each other). Often, the way one professor has you do an essay will differ drastically from how the next will. For that reason alone, you won’t be able to use the same essay formula you used previously.

The good news is, there are some tricks and tips that will help you out no matter how irritatingly specific your class is about writing projects. Below are six college essay writing tips.

1. Ask the Experts for Sources

One of the things they don’t teach you in high school is how, whenever you write a scholarly paper, you’re joining a larger conversation. Others have almost certainly written about the given subject matter before, and more still will likely do so in the future. That’s true whether you’re analyzing the cultural impact of To Kill a Mockingbird or arguing in favor of stem cell research.


While that does mean that your position has been argued before, it also means that there will be authoritative sources you can draw on to inspire, guide, and reinforce your argument. The problem is, as a newcomer to the topic, you likely won’t know who the major players are. So ask your professor, your librarian, or someone who’s an active member of that particular field. They can likely guide you to the names you need to know.

2. Copy Down Your Quotes

Once you’ve found some quality sources, you’ll need to study them to find the information you need to back up your arguments. Our advice? When you find a quote that sticks out to you, copy it down, along with the information needed to cite it. Some online sources have a Cite This Source link that will give you a citation according to several different style guides. Having the citation and the quote ready will save you from having to go digging for it later, shaving a bunch of time off of your efforts. It will also help you avoid plagiarism (see tip 5).

3. Write an Outline

This one may seem a little obvious, especially if you’ve had teachers that require it, but you will be greatly benefited from planning out your essay in advance. A good outline will help you organize your thoughts, structure your paper to flow well, and speed up your writing process. Get as many details as you can, breaking it down even paragraph by paragraph if you can. If you do it right, it will make the rest of your work a breeze.

4. On Your First Draft, Don’t Pump the Brakes

Nobody gets it right on the first draft. Your first pass is not going to be perfect, so don’t expect it to be. What’s more important is that you get words down on the page so you have something to play with and tweak until you are able to approximate the level of perfection you were aiming for.

So when you’re writing your first draft, don’t stop to edit. Clear up any glaring typos if you must, but then carry on. Don’t let your need to nitpick your own work force you to bring your work to a halt.

5. You Could Be Plagiarizing Without Realizing It

While students in high school can get by with a slap on the wrist and maybe a bad grade on their paper for plagiarizing, it’s much more serious in college. Depending on the circumstance, you can be kicked out of your program, or straight up expelled, even if the plagiarism is not intentional. For example, failing to cite your sources (even by accident) counts as plagiarism.

You want to cite your sources correctly, as well—using the right format, so double-check your style guide before you send it in. And if you have any doubts about what counts as plagiarism, clarify with your professor or TA.

6. That Grammarian You Know? Have Them Proofread

One of the top college essay writing tips is that you should have someone else read your paper. It puts a fresh set of eyes on the essay and helps catch mistakes that you may have overlooked. The key here is to pick the right person to look over your work. Not everyone has a working knowledge of grammar rules and writing conventions. So when you’re looking for someone to proofread, either pick your college’s writing center or pick someone who has a history of being a little particular about nitpicky language stuff.

Just don’t hand it off to the person who says things like “totes adorbs” out loud.

Writing college papers can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. If you give yourself plenty of time, prepare properly, and edit carefully, you’re likely to end up with a clear, sensible paper.