Tips for Students: Better Research Papers

Almost every college student is required to write research papers at some point in his or her academic career. These efforts often count for a significant part of your overall course grade, so every improvement to your work matters -- even the "little things."

These tips will help you create the best paper that you can write, which will improve your overall grade and perhaps even earn some respect from that tough teacher.

-Before you begin, read your instructor's handouts or recall the instructions that he or she gave about this paper. Sometimes an instructor gives directions that are a bit unusual: for example, he or she might state that you must include at least three non-Internet citations in your paper as well as at least three online references. If you know what's required before you start, you won't have to backtrack and change entire sections to meet the standards.

-Always ask your instructor for help when you aren't sure of what to do. You can send e-mails, leave messages through your online classroom, or call during your instructor's office hours. You can even post a questions in your online school's forum. Whatever you do, don't hesitate to ask for clarification or advice. Most instructors want you to know what you're doing -- they prefer this to receiving assignments that aren't done correctly (or, worse, aren't ever turned in at all).

-Some students think that recycling old papers is a great time-saver. Depending on your school's honor code, this might be considered cheating. In most cases, you can use an old paper -- one of your own, that is -- for reference purposes. You can even write a new paper on the same topic. However, you might not be able to turn in the same thing twice, even if you have a different instructor.

You should always ask your instructor for advice if you aren't sure of what you can or can't do with previous work. No amount of time saved by turning in an old, already-graded paper is worth the consequences.

-If you use the Internet for research, make sure that you stick primarily to "official" sites. This prevents most misinformation from finding its way into your work. One way to avoid wasting your time on amateur Web sites that aren't necessarily correct is to always use Web sites with .edu or .gov extensions. Using the internet search tools we have assembled will save you time and help you succeed in your online research.

-Begin researching and writing your paper as soon as possible. The more time you have to fine-tune and research your writing, the better your chances of doing the best possible job. You'll also have plenty of time left to find friends or faculty who can check your work for you -- a great way to catch mistakes.

-Don't "save over" your first draft. Instead, use your word processor's "Save as" command and rename the file. This way, you have your initial draft on hand in case your instructor wants to read that version.

This is also a great backup for those times when you delete a phrase that you don't like, but later decide that you want to use it. You haven't deleted your work forever, so you can copy-paste the sentences or paragraphs right back into the newer file.

-Always cite your sources. Most schools have very strict anti-plagiarism policies. If you accidentally forget to cite one reference, your paper might fail -- and there's nothing that you can do about it. Double- and triple-check your citations before you hand in your paper to be sure that everything is correct.

Tip: when you aren't sure if you need to cite a source, go ahead and insert a citation. Being overly cautious is better than failing.

-Use a standard format throughout your paper. Your instructor should give you his or her preferences: if not, ask. Different types of papers have their own styles, so it's worth the effort to make sure that you're doing this correctly.

Tip: a Web search will lead you to many sites that show you how to format papers in any style that you want.

-Have at least one other person read your paper before you turn it in. This second set of eyes can catch things that you naturally overlook, such as a missed citation or misspelled word. Give your second reader ample time to look over your work, though, so that there's no rush.

-Use your word processor's spelling and grammar checks, but don't rely entirely on them. The computer can be wrong, so double-check your work. This is easier and much less embarrassing than missing "to" where you should have written "two," or other, similar errors.

When your paper has been checked, revised and re-worked, you can print out the latest version and turn it in with confidence. You've put your best efforts into this work. You can be proud of that, even if you don't quite make an "A" on the assignment.

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