9 Tips for Writing Your College Essays Like a Boss

Updated By Staff Writer on April 27, 2020

*Groan* It’s that time again: time to write yet another paper for your college class. Or, maybe you’re just getting started in higher ed and your first essay is coming due. You may be wondering, “Why me? What did I do to deserve such punishment? Where do I even begin?” Trust me, we’ve all been there. But, don’t worry. Here are nine simple tips to help you get better grades on your college essays and papers.

1. Before you begin, do some research

It might sound obvious, but you can’t really start writing until you know what you’re writing about. Whether your instructor assigns a specific topic or you choose your own, you need to study up. You should have a thorough understanding of the subject, as well as what the experts are saying about it. The more specific you can get in your initial research, the better.

For example, if your paper is on organizational design, don’t just do an online search for “organizational design”. Look up all other kinds of related terms. Search for terms like “organizational design for small business” or “restructuring management in the fast-casual dining industry”. And, don’t just limit your research to the online variety. Go to your school’s library, or the public library, and see what you can find in traditional print, audio, or video resources. One last note about research: Stick to trustworthy sources. Don’t believe everything you read, especially on the Internet! Generally speaking, blogs or websites like Wikipedia or BuzzFeed can’t be trusted, unless they cite a reliable source or include links to credible sources. How can you tell whether a website is a legitimate source of info? There are many ways, but here are a handful of things to look for:

  • Author and date are listed
  • Author is a subject matter expert
  • All sources are fully cited
  • The website also offers printed publications
  • Professional site design (not always the case)
  • Professional writing style (uses correct grammar, spelling, etc.)
  • Recommended by a professional organization or industry expert

2. Choose a unique angle of approach

In addition to the above-mentioned benefits, your initial research will also give you an idea of what’s already been said on the subject. This is invaluable knowledge to have, especially if your teacher assigned the topic of your paper. Think of it this way: If your instructor assigned your topic, there’s a good chance she’s read dozens of papers that say essentially the same thing. Nothing helps boost your grade like a thoughtful, original argument she’s never read before. Looking for fresh ways to approach what seems like a tired topic? Try some of the following exercises:

  • Look at the topic from a different perspective
  • Picture yourself in someone else’s shoes
  • Ask, “What if?”
  • Ask, “What’s missing?”
  • Ask, “What is no one else saying?”
  • Start with an assumption and take it further (i.e., “If A is true, then it follows that B …”)
  • Try arguing the side you disagree with
  • Disagree with the experts (but be ready to back up your claims!)

3. Decide on your main point

Everything we’ve discussed so far is to help you decide on the main point of your paper, otherwise known as your thesis (not to be confused with a master’s thesis, a 50-plus-page paper that you work on throughout your master’s program). Your thesis statement is, in a nutshell, the single most important statement you’ll make in your essay. It’s your primary claim. Your focal point. The one thing readers should take away from your paper if they remember only one thing. Your introduction should lead up to and end with your thesis statement. Everything you include afterward should help prove your thesis, and your conclusion should help drive it home. As you’re writing, constantly ask yourself: “Does this help support my thesis? Does it help convince the reader that my thesis is correct?” Only include things that help prove your thesis. It’s that simple. Also, avoid generalization in your thesis statement. Your thesis statement should be as microscopically focused on as specific a point as possible. Compare the following examples:

  •  Meh: “Wombats really like strawberry-banana smoothies.”
  •  Getting better: “Wombats strongly prefer strawberry-banana smoothies over nectarine juice.”
  •  That’s the stuff: “The evidence clearly indicates that male, western-Australian wombats strongly prefer strawberry-banana smoothies over nectarine juice during the mating season.”

4. Outline your paper

Now you’re ready to begin outlining your essay. You may be wondering whether you really need an outline. Think of it this way: A construction worker doesn’t simply build a building. He uses a blueprint to guide him throughout the process. Throughout construction, the blueprint may require minor changes, but, for the most part, the plan will remain the same from start to finish. Your outline is the blueprint of your essay. It helps you determine what to include in your paper. It helps you focus your writing on proving your thesis. It helps prevent you from running out of ideas. And, the longer your paper, the more you need an outline! So, how do you outline your paper? There’s no one right answer. Generally speaking, it helps to plan out your introduction, your thesis, your major points that support your thesis, and your conclusion. The more specific you can get with each detail in your outline, the more it will help when you start writing.

5. Pay attention to formatting

While you’re writing, you should pay close attention to formatting. College instructors will often mark up your paper if you don’t follow the required format. There are all kinds of resources available to help you learn how to format your essay. Independence University, for example, offers a wide array of videos and webinars to help you learn how to write your paper in American Psychological Association (APA) format. You can also save yourself valuable time by creating a template for your papers ahead of time. A template is a document already formatted according to your course requirements. You simply add the text when you’re ready to write, and—voila!—your formatting is taken care of.

6. Keep your language simple and to the point

There’s a common misconception that college professors like to see papers with long, complicated sentences and frilly verbiage. This, however, couldn’t be further from the truth. Believe it or not, most teachers aren’t impressed by your soaring vocabulary. They’d rather read an essay that’s simple and direct in its meaning. That gets to the point fast and doesn’t go off topic. That doesn’t add a bunch of meaningless “filler” words just to meet the requirements for minimum length.

Clarity and concision are key. Yes, it’s college, but that doesn’t mean you have to use words like vituperative, exacerbate, or antidisestablishmentarianism instead of abusive, amplify, or … whatever antidisestablishmentarianism means! If you have two words that mean essentially the same thing, always choose the one that’s easier to understand. And, if a sentence or paragraph seems long ask yourself, “Is there any way I can say the same thing in fewer words?” More often than not, you can. For example, delete the word that as much as possible throughout your paper. Nine times out of ten, you’ll find you really don’t need it.

7. Remember: The proof is in the proofing

Nothing’s more embarrassing than turning in your essay only to discover lots of glaring errors on it later. By taking just a few easy steps, you can easily catch the vast majority of your mistakes:

  1. Proofread your paper (meaning, review it thoroughly for grammar, punctuation, mechanics, etc.)
  2. Read through your essay backward to double-check spelling
  3. Read through your paper out loud (this will help you revise awkward or overly complex sentences)
  4. Have a friend or family member read your essay (often, your peer reviewer will find mistakes that you miss)
  5. Read through your paper one more time, just to be safe

A note about spellcheck: Spellcheck is a great tool, but it doesn’t catch everything. For example, it doesn’t catch homophones (words that sound like other words but that are spelled differently and have different meanings), such as rose and rows, bare and bear, or compliment and complement. Don’t just assume spellcheck will take care of everything!

8. Back it up

You’re on fire! You’re busting out your paper like there’s no tomorrow. You have an original, intriguing thesis, several strong supporting points, and a compelling conclusion. And, you’re only one hour away from the deadline. Things are going awesome! Then, the worst happens: Your computer crashes. Your dog eats your flash drive. Aliens invade Earth and ransack your bedroom, stealing your laptop and everything on it. (Stranger things have happened, right?)

Whatever the case, your essay is gone. All your hard work vanished. Your research irretrievable. … Not good. Want to avoid disaster? Back up your work—frequently, and in multiple places. Save it on your hard drive. Save it on a flash drive. Save it on the cloud. Whatever works for you. Just save it. Genius, like lighting, rarely strikes twice.

9. Don’t plagiarize … no, seriously, don’t

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, plagiarism means stealing someone else’s ideas, words, or creative work and presenting them as though they are yours. If there’s one sure-fire way to get marked down on your essay, it’s plagiarism. To avoid plagiarizing on your paper, you absolutely must cite your sources every time you quote or even paraphrase them. Believe it or not, plagiarism is a big deal. Like literally. In the real world, you can actually get sued for plagiarizing someone else’s work. And, as if you need yet another reason to not plagiarize on your papers, most college instructors nowadays use powerful software designed to search your paper for phrases that you may have stolen from the Internet and other resources. If caught, your instructor may choose to give you an F on your paper. If you’re a repeat offender, she may even decide to fail you for the whole course. Suffice it to say, it’s better to never go down that road. Just don’t do it.

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Now that you’re pumped up and ready to take on your college essays, consider earning your degree online through Independence University (IU). IU offers a wide variety of fast, flexible, fully online degree programs designed for employment in career fields such as healthcarebusinesstechnology, and graphic design. Unlike some online schools, IU provides students with a broad array of resources and student services to help them succeed in school and in their careers, such as a student writing and math lab, tutoring, academic advising, textbooks, and a laptop and tablet that you can use in school and keep when you graduate.* Go here to learn more about our degree programs and admissions, as well as financial aid.