A (Loose) Guide to Writing Your First College Papers

Mariah Carey telling you just how amazing you are.

I’ve had a lot of words redefined for me at Yale – a “gut” is an easy class, for example. The most surprising one, however, was “short”. When my first professor announced that we’d have a “short” paper due in a week’s time, I assumed that this meant 2 pages at most, 3 pages if he was feeling edgy. You can imagine my surprise when he passed out a requirements sheet stating that papers would be 5 to 6 pages. It seemed that we had different ideas of what “short” means.

I don’t know about you, but I scarcely wrote anything in high school that was longer than your standard five-paragraph essay: introduction, body paragraph x3, conclusion. Assuming my professor didn’t want five page-long paragraphs (a safe bet), I knew I needed to seek out advice — I was a bit out of my depth. So, what follows are three general pieces of wisdom that I’ve gleaned over the last three years from professors, peers, and my own experience guiding first-years through this process each year.

1. Pick a topic that actually interests you.

Some papers will be more conducive to this than others – final papers are often quite open-ended, while other papers may have narrower prompts. However, to the degree possible, I try to explore a topic that I’m genuinely interested in. I grew up watching Star Wars, so I wrote one of my biology papers on cloning. It turns out that actual cloning isn’t nearly as interesting as it seems in Star Wars (devastating), but I still got to spend time exploring a topic that I wanted to learn more about.

Choosing your paper topics like this serves a double purpose. First (and arguably more important), this is going to make the entire process much more exciting for you. You get to spend time reading, writing, and thinking about something that actually interests you – personally, I find this extremely fulfilling. You come away from the entire process knowing a ton about whatever topic you choose, so make sure this is expertise that you want to develop. Otherwise, you’ll just spend a bunch of time and energy collecting really specific knowledge that you probably won’t ever use again

Second, you’ll write a better paper. Your best work is work that you care about, and I promise it’s easier to care about work that actually interests you. Some of the best papers that I’ve written are on abolitionist movements and the morality of reparations, because these are issues that matter a lot to me. If you care about the topic, you’ll be more motivated to put your best foot forward, and this will show in the quality of your work.

2. Get help early.

In my experience, the most critical stage of writing is the “ideas” phase. Maybe your argument is in its very early stages; maybe it doesn’t even exist yet. At this point, I would recommend speaking with your professor or someone else who is familiar with the topic. They can help you brainstorm lines of argumentation, potential sources, and possible weaknesses in your paper. This can be super helpful as you head into the planning and writing stage – with a strong framework, writing a paper becomes a much less daunting task. You can also avoid the common trap of writing an entire paper, only to realize that your argument doesn’t make much sense (or, worse, that it doesn’t really exist). It’s a fate that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy.

3. Have somebody read a draft.

This strategy serves two purposes for me: first, it forces me to have a draft by a certain point. If I have a paper due on Friday, I’ll try to make an appointment with a writing tutor on Wednesday to go over a draft. There are a few types of tutors at Yale. First, each residential college has a dedicated Writing Tutor who has worked with Yale students for many years on their papers (many are professional writers themselves). There are also Drop-In Writing Partners, who are undergraduate or graduate students who can work on papers with you during their drop-in hours. Either way, committing yourself to having a draft (even a very rough one) can help guard against procrastination. Think of it is an intermediate deadline to keep yourself on track.

Second, it gives me a set of fresh eyes – someone who isn’t familiar with you or your writing can give you a more objective perspective. After all, you could have written a paper that makes perfect sense to you, but little sense to anybody else. Getting a (trusted and qualified) stranger’s perspective can help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of both your ideas and their communication.

Finally, maybe official channels aren’t quite your speed (or maybe your paper is due in three hours and you just finished it). If you feel comfortable, have a trusted friend give your paper a once-over before you turn it in – at the very least, they can catch small errors that you might have overlooked. My partner did this for me just last week, and she found at least one typo (in the interest of maintaining my credibility, that’s all you need to know).

One Last Note

Keep in mind that what works for some people doesn’t work for everyone (I don’t always use all of these tips), so feel free to pick and choose! Or ignore it all, I promise my feelings won’t be hurt.