I remember writing my first essay in university. It was a critical analysis of promises made to underdeveloped countries by nongovernmental organizations. My professor was an internationally respected humanitarian who had done the bulk of her research in Tanzania.
The woman even had her own Wikipedia page.
I knew she'd be tough with her marking pen and that her eager-to-prove-themselves teaching assistants would be even tougher. I was terrified.
I can almost smell the musty days of research in my Hogwarts-esque school library. I spent those days hunched over an obnoxiously tall stack of books next to the cathedral windows, shooting glares every time somebody's Blackberry buzzed and trying to ignore the couple kissing in the reading nook behind me.
I stayed up all night with my first pack of energy drinks (I bought the ones that come in pink cans because they looked less likely to lead to a heart attack than the radioactive-green variety), reading and re-reading my paragraphs until my eyes were more red than blue.
My head swam with warnings from my high school teachers, who had prophesied doom from behind their cluttered desks: "You can't write like you're in high school once you reach university. All of you will fail your first paper. You just have to deal with it and move on."
I followed writing that essay with a nap that bordered on a full two-day sleep and a celebratory Chinese takeout feast washed down with Pepto-Bismol.
In the end? I got an A+.
Because writing essays in undergrad is based more on common sense and structure than you'd think. Too many of my peers (and, I suspect, high school teachers) made the mistake of thinking they could get away with sloppy construction or borrowed work if their ideas were flashy enough.
Especially in your first year of college or university, your professors aren't looking for groundbreaking discoveries—that's what a PhD is for. Freshman papers serve to show your professors that you can write, that you can follow instructions correctly, conduct intelligent research, draw your own conclusions (but not make the mistake of thinking your ideas are NEW), and use logic when constructing your essay.
Getting over that first essay hurdle is less of an obstacle than you might think. Here's how to do it.
Nothing will frustrate your grader faster than a vague thesis and rambling points. Make your arguments clear and your supportive evidence precise.
. . . But don't pretend to be an expert.
This is your first post-secondary paper. Everyone knows you didn't write the books on forensic geology in the 1800s or social dichotomies in British colonial India. Assert your points with confidence but back them up with authoritative sources.
Cite your sources.
And on that note, make sure you're citing your sources properly. Academic writing is all about factual support; even if you thought of an idea independently, if one of your reference materials says the same thing, source it. A boost to your ego isn't worth getting slapped with a plagiarism charge.
Familiarize yourself, too, with the different forms of plagiarism—they may surprise you. Did you know, for example, that referencing work you've done for another class is called self-plagiarism?
You've put the time into your research and have an impressive arsenal of support for your main thesis, but you need to make these connections explicit. Use transition sentences at the beginning and end of each paragraph to show how your thoughts progress, while constantly reminding the reader how these points relate to your thesis.
Take the extra time to make sure you've followed all the technical style guidelines requested by your professor or institution. You may have single-handedly solved the Israel–Palestine dispute, but if your references section isn't in the proper format, your final grade will suffer for it.
Use proper spelling and grammar.
Finally, for the love of all that is good and true, don't hand in something with typos. Proofread your work, run your word processor's spell-checker, and, most importantly, have someone else read your paper. The mistakes that have become invisible to you (as well as those you don't even realize are mistakes) will pop out to a new set of eyes.
While you're in the process of making your paper mechanically sound, resist the temptation to default to the all-too-common sneaky tactics that many students think their professors won't pick up on.
News to the not-so-wise: everyone and their brother's neighbor's babysitter's uncle have tried adding fluff to boost word count; adjusted margins, font size, and spacing after periods to make text expand over more pages; and concocted excuses to get a deadline extension. Your professors won't fall for it.
Successfully writing an essay isn't just for brainiacs; even a genius can get stuck with a lower grade because of mechanical errors.
Follow your style guidelines to a T, keep your writing free of fluff, include logical transitions between paragraphs that connect to your thesis, cite your information properly, and have your paper proofread.
It really is that simple.
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