How To Write A College Paper (10 Best Tips)

student girl holding a stack of books and papers

Writing a well-rounded college paper doesn’t have to be difficult. But it can be scary at first.

Looking at the blank page is enough already. But what to do if you need to write at least 30 (my Master’s Degree paper was actually 90 pages long)?

Simple: you break it down into smaller chunks and get them done one by one over the course of a few weeks.

After reading this article, you’ll have all the knowledge you need to get this thing done with a perfect score. Below, you’ll find some of the best ideas that’ll help you approach your task in a structured way and accomplish your task like a pro. Take 15 minutes and read the whole thing. It will be worth it.

“You’d be amazed how much research you can get done when you have no life whatsoever.” ― Ernest Cline


Here’s the college paper writing process in a nutshell:

Of course, this is not a set formula and everything depends on the type of assignment you receive.

students pointing at a laptop

There are two main types of academic research papers:


There are also other types of papers you may need to write (but this won’t be covered here):


The two main types of academic research

There are two main ways in which you’ll gather data for your paper. It all depends on your assignment, but here’s a quick summary.


Armchair research

This is the one you’ll most likely be conducting when writing your paper. It involves analyzing the current research material available in your library and on the internet. Your job is to gather as much information as possible, collate it, and then and draw new and valuable conclusions.


Field research, observational research, and creating your own sets of data

Here things get a bit more complicated. You actually need to go into the field and get your hands dirty. If you’re testing a scientific hypothesis, you’ll need to prove it or disprove it by collecting a statistically relevant amount of data. To gather this data, you may need to interview, send out surveys, observe behavior, or measure phenomena in real-time.


General tips for writing your college paper

aerial view of student graduates wearing hats

Here’s how to write a college paper:

Step 1 – Choose your topic (come up with at least two)

The topic you choose will determine the rest of your project. So choose wisely.

Of course, it all depends on the faculty you’re in, and your scholarly interests. The idea is to come up with at least two potential topics because it will give you some room to maneuver in case one of them doesn’t work out or is shot down by your instructor.

Whichever topic you select, make sure:

Here are some great examples of topics:

And here you can find 50 more ideas for research paper topics.


Step 2 – Get your topic approved by your professor

After you come up with a fascinating topic, it’s time to run it by your instructor and make sure you both agree on what exactly you’re going to cover and in how much detail.

Your teacher has many years of experience and knows which topics are most widely covered, so trust their opinion.

You need at least two potential topics, because your current favorite may already be covered by other students in previous years.

Be receptive to feedback, and treat your professor as a partner, not an adversary. If you need more information on working under supervision, please read this article.


Step 3 – Come up with a great thesis statement

In academic terms, the word “thesis” has many meanings. It can be a paper written by a high-school student, or more commonly a dissertation is written by a graduate candidate.

Write the thesis (paper) at the end of your studies (grad or undergrad, or even a Ph.D.). The length can vary according to the level of education, starting with 10 or 15 pages and going up to hundreds of pages.

Formal definition: A treatise advancing a new point of view resulting from research; usually a requirement for an advanced academic degree.

But a thesis can also mean something different in the academic context: an unproved statement put forward as a premise in an argument.

A thesis is a statement of a hypothesis that will come forward from your overall topic.


Let’s see how can you create your thesis based on a few topics:

Topic: Family bonds between chimpanzees

Thesis for that topic: In packs of chimps, the bastard members of the group receive the least amount of attention which often causes them to be socially maladjusted.

Topic: The American Civil War

Thesis for that topic: While both sides fought the Civil War over slavery, the North fought for moral reasons while the South fought to preserve its own institutions.

As you can see, the thesis has to be:

This is just an introduction to the concept of a thesis. If you need an in-depth guide, I recommend reading this helpful guide from the University of North Carolina.

person putting a pen on a book

Step 4 – Go to the library (and online) and gather as many sources about your topic as possible

Getting a huge amount of information about your topic is absolutely necessary at the beginning. In fact, during your study, become an expert in your field.

You’re trying to push the boundaries of knowledge, so first, you need to know what’s already available on the market:

Make sure your sources are credible and written by well-established authors. Avoid anything that you’d be doubtful to include in the references at the end of your dissertation.

To create a huge resource and reference list, schedule a few solid sessions at your faculty’s library (3 to 5 hours tops – after that you’ll be too exhausted) over a one-week period.


Step 5 – Consult your sources and clip out the information that will be useful for your paper

I once went through a copywriting course by the legendary Gary Bencivenga. He used to write sales letters that would be ten pages long (sometimes more). And people actually read them, and in the end, pulled out their credit cards to make a purchase. This produced millions of dollars in sales for his clients.

What was his secret?

Gathering as much information upfront before committing to writing.

He would often spend two months just gathering data, learning about the buyers, and looking for that one big idea that would make all the difference.

We’re talking academics, not sales, here – but the analogy holds. First, get the data, then distill it to the very essence. Not only because you want to write a great paper, but also because you’ll need to provide citations, to prove that you’re not just making things up.


About citations:

There’s no set amount of citations you’ll need to include in your paper. It all depends on the field you’re writing about, and the requirements of your particular educational establishment. It’s always best to ask your professor for advice in this regard.

That said, there are some fields where you can find an insane amount of reference per single page of text (source):

In other fields of study, you don’t have to be so scrupulous and you should be fine with 50-100 references for the whole paper.

Here’s a useful guide to citing other sources in your paper and using different citation formats.


Step 6 – Create an outline for your paper and construct a table of contents

Now it’s time to structure your dissertation and ensure that all the information flows in a logical sequence. The structure will depend on the type of paper you’re writing about, but it will always have the introduction, the body, and the conclusion.

If you’re writing a research paper, however, you’ll need to reserve one chapter to talk about the results of your studies and how you conducted them.


Here’s an example of an outline (if you’re doing armchair research):


Table of contents




That’s just the basic structure. Your instructor will provide you with more insights about that. Also, if you’re conducting field research for your paper, the outline is going to change (here’s an example).


Step 7 – Get your plan approved by your professor

As a college student, you’ll usually have regular meetings with your professor to talk about the progress of your paper. These meetings are held on a weekly basis. Your professors are also available through email and they’ll be happy to help you.

Most students writing grad papers will lazily hope that their outline is going to be approved and they’ll start hoping the result is going to be approved.

Don’t make that mistake and actively engage with your professor. Even if you don’t like them, swallow your pride and decide that you have something to learn from them.

man in a library studying with mac and headphones

Step 8 – Actually start writing – fill out your outline with valuable content

As strange as it seems, by completing all the steps above, you’re already 80% there. Once you have the thesis, the resources, the outline, and the research, all you need to do is write the thing down.

Look at your outline and plan the ideas and references you want to include in each section. This pre-writing phase will save you lots of time at the end of the process.

A few style tips for writing your paper:

For more information on style, please check my article with 15 writing tips from famous authors.

Step 9 – Keep a steady pace till you have your first draft (200-400 words a day is enough)

It all depends on a person, but the best way to get the paper done is bit by bit. Let’s say your paper needs to be at least 3000 words long. If you simply write 300 words per day, you’ll have it done in 10 days. That’s much easier than completing the whole assignment by pulling an all-nighter.

Slow and steady wins the race. It’s all a matter of habit.

To make yourself productive, you can use the Pomodoro technique or a wide range of other writing strategies. Also, recognize the time of the day when your most productive and reserve it for your writing sessions. For most people, it’s the early morning.


Step 10 – Proofread the whole thing and polish it till it shines

Your work is almost ready. Now comes the easy part – just read the whole thing and look for any inconsistencies in terms of logic, style, grammar, and facts. Make sure you’re on point and that you don’t stray from your main topic.

These days you can use many online writing tools that will help you spot any language mistakes (my favorites are Grammarly and the Hemingway Editor).

Of course, once your paper is done, get a lot of feedback from your instructor. It’s great to keep your paper in a Google doc so that you can comment on it and fix it in real-time.


Now it’s your turn to get your academic juices flowing

I’m sure that by now, you have a much clearer understanding of how to deal with your once scary academic assignment. Knowledge is power as far as it gives you the confidence to take matters into your own hands and produce something of value for other people.

Your paper won’t be perfect at first, but as you practice, you’ll finally master this art which will serve you way beyond the confines of your campus. Good luck!

Rafal Reyzer

Hey there, welcome to my blog! I'm a full-time blogger, educator, digital marketer, freelance writer, editor and content manager with 10+ years of experience. I started to provide you with great tools and strategies you can use to achieve freedom from 9 to 5 through online creativity. My site is a one-stop-shop for freelance writers, bloggers, publishers, content enthusiasts who want to be independent, earn more money and create beautiful things. Feel free to learn more about me here.