The University Essay: Some Basic Tips

Many students get incredibly anxious when writing or handing in their first university level paper,  but it’s completely normal. As a fourth year student, I can honestly say that those nerves a repeated each time you hand in your first paper with a new professor. Why? Well because each department is different, each course is different and each professor is different, and that means that expectations can vary widely. Think of your first paper like a test paper- you could do terribly or you could do amazingly. Either way, it’s very easy to pull back from and it’s an opportunity to learn what you need to do for more important assignments.

Before you start…

Some high-school lessons to ditch

“Hamburger style”

Introduction, three points, conclusion.

If all papers were written like this, we’d never read. The “hamburger” writing style has its place in high school and for beginners, but don’t be afraid to stray from that model. You can have as many points as you want or need, and above all don’t keep restating the same information: state why the new information is relevant.

Pretentious words: Cut the waffle

I am very guilty of this to this day. Somewhere in our lives were taught that certain words and phrases make you should more intelligent, but honestly, getting to the point is much more important. This is not to say you shouldn’t use transitions, because they are very important, but rather don’t beat around the bush.

The myth of “unbiased”

This is a bit of a complicated concept for some. Throughout high school, you may have been taught to avoid bias. Guess what? You can’t. Every piece of writing has a bias. You have a bias. I have bias.

My advice? Don’t try to get rid of it. Instead, be self-aware. Ask yourself, “Why do I have this bias?”. Then, be explicit about it in your writing.

For example, don’t claim that the statement “The Salem Witch Trials were a result of the combination of capitalist and misogynist puritanical ideals”is the “unbiased truth”. Just because you’ve researched it doesn’t make it unbiased. All it means is that according to a particular way of thinking or theorizing, this is the truth. As such, it is biased, and that’s okay!

Personal Pronouns

You may have been taught to never use the personal pronouns “I” or “we” when writing a paper. Now, some professors will agree with this. But in my experience, most don’t mind so long as they are used correctly, and many actively encourage it.

Personally, I find the statement “I think that _____” should not be used, but “I argue that _____. This is because _______” should be used. Everything you argue or write is drawn on the research, knowledge or experience of another person, so you need to credit them to support your argument.  The same goes for “in my research I discovered _____”. This statement leads on to discuss your sources and the reasoning behind your argument and, in my experience, is more acceptable.

Citations and Style

First things first, you need to know which citation style you need to use (APA, Chicago, MLA etc). Your professor may have very clear requirements on what guide they prefer or they may not care as long as you cite your sources correctly according to a style of your choice. Certain departments will generally use certain styles: like MLA for English and Chicago for History. Overtime, you will learn which styles you prefer and find easiest to read. For example, I came into Glendon with knowledge of Chicago and MLA, and now I prefer to use APA in almost all writing. For basic rules and sample papers, I’d recommend a look at Purdue OWL, but the handbook for each style is always the most correct. The York University library page is also a great resource, and can help you avoid plagiarism.

Final formatting tip: unless specified, do not hand in your paper in any kind of folder. Staple the pages neatly together in the top left-hand corner. 

Tips for Writing a University Paper

The next step is finding out what kind of assignment this is. In this post, I’ll just be going over two forms of papers which I have found the most common in a liberal arts degree.

Keep in mind this is an overview of my personal process. This varies from student to student and you will find a method that works for you! What’s more, no two papers are ever the same, so be sure to pay attention to the requirements for your own assignments.

Report/review of a particular topic: non-argumentative

For this paper, your professor may ask you to present a certain topic, without explicitly arguing a certain point. Key questions to ask are: does this paper require a thesis? am I arguing or simply presenting the material?

This is difficult because yes, you are presenting a certain position/argument even when it is not explicit. In my past experiences, professors have said not to give an argument, introduction, or conclusion. Simply list and elaborate on the key elements.

An example of this type of paper may be : explain the key factors contributing to x. 

  1. Review your notes
    1. Most often professors who give this kind of paper are looking to see if you are able to determine what information they have given you is the most important and relevant. Look through your notes and make a list of all possible points related to this topic.
  2. Organize your ideas, and make linkages
    1. Look at your list- do certain elements fit together or build off each other? What can be combined? You’re looking to get the most information in the most succinct way possible.
    2. How can these points flow? Although this isn’t necessarily an argumentative paper, it still needs to have some sort of flow or progression to it, so start to order your points, whether by dates, relevance, or some other factor you see fit.
  3. Look for gaps & ambiguity- research!
    1. Look again at your reformulated and organized list- what’s missing? Is there something you missed in your notes, or information that could be useful to your reader?
    2. Use google scholar, your library database or physical books to help fill in the gaps. As you go, keep track of the source and page numbers by writing them down (using the correct aforementioned style guide) or using a referencing tool.
  4. Cite and link sources
    1. For each key point on that list you made earlier, make a list of the sources and page numbers that pertain to each point right beside it so you can access each source easily as you write.
    2. At this point, if you’re like me, you probably have a massive list, chart, or mind map of points next to a string of sources and numbers- you’re ready to write!
  5. First draft
    1. Make sure you’re in a quiet place, get out your laptop, and start typing. Make pages goals for each day so you reach your target, and always give yourself extra days to allow for inevitable procrastination.
    2. When writing, cite your sources as you go. It is much easier than going back and adding them later! (a sure path to accidental plagiarism)
  6. Editing
    1. Done your first draft? Great! Now leave it. Go out with your friends, go for a walk, just let it set. Editing a draft immediately after writing it is useless.
    2. Got a friend in the same class? Exchange papers and give feedback!
  7. Final Copy
    1. Double check that your citations are correct and your paper is formatted according to the particular style (title page, bibliography, etc).
    2. Print your paper EARLY. If something goes wrong, you need time to find another printer, or if the document isn’t printing correctly, you need to troubleshoot and retry.
  8. Feedback
    1. When you get feedback from your professor READ IT. They’ve given it for a reason and what’s the point of university if you don’t plan to learn and improve?

Good luck!

Research paper

I would say this is the most common form of paper I have been assigned. Research a topic and write a paper on it. This will have what most high school students are more familiar with: introduction, thesis statement, body, conclusion.

  1. Topic: how to come up with one, or make an existing topic your own
    1. If your are given free reign on a topic, start reading. Your course notes and textbook are a great place to start (read the syllabus!) and then if something interests you, delve deeper via scholarly books and articles.
    2. If you are given a topic, or a list of topics, read it and then think: what about this topic makes me feel strongly? Strangely enough, hatred or extreme disinterest in a topic can help breed better papers due to your strong feelings. Once again, head to the syllabus, course notes and textbook for more information and then delve into the academic books and journals.
    3. Need help? Ask your professor or librarian! Remember to keep track of your sources along the way for easier citations later on.
  2. Take notes!
    1. For each source you read, take notes. I like to create a word document with each source and bullet points of the important notes for each source underneath. For each note, I make sure to include the page number and any quotations I think could be useful.
  3. Choose an angle
    1. After extensive reading and note taking, you should have found that you agree with certain authors or certain approaches to the topic more than others. Use this as a guideline for the direction you wish to take your paper.
    2. For example, say your topic is about peacekeeping. After doing some broad research you may have found that you are interested in the roles of peacekeepers in Haiti. From further reading, you may find that you agree with authors who take a more feminist approach, post-colonial approach or liberal approach. This is the beginning of your argument.
  4. Narrow your topic
    1.  Quite simply, papers with a narrower topic are usually easier to write and more focused. Take your topic and streamline it into a specific issue or event.
  5. Begin Writing
    1. Your introduction should be to-the-point and clear, your body paragraphs should reinforce your arguments, and your conclusion should summarize your argument, potentially present any areas for further research and end in a memorable way without presenting new information.
    2. When writing, cite your sources as you go. It is much easier than going back and adding them later! (a sure path to accidental plagiarism)
  6. Editing
    1. Done your first draft? Great! Now leave it. Go out with your friends, go for a walk, just let it set. Editing a draft immediately after writing it is useless.
    2. Got a friend in the same class? Exchange papers and give feedback!
  7. Final Copy
    1. Double check that your citations are correct and your paper is formatted according to the particular style (title page, bibliography, etc).
    2. Print your paper EARLY. If something goes wrong, you need time to find another printer, or if the document isn’t printing correctly, you need to troubleshoot and retry.
  8. Feedback
    1. When you get feedback from your professor READ IT. They’ve given it for a reason and what’s the point of university if you don’t plan to learn and improve?

Good luck!

Some tips on how to start

  1. Start early to help procrastination (and yes, I know how strange that sounds)
    1. Choose a topic and do preliminary research the moment the paper is assigned. That way, if you’re a procrastinator, you won’t be starting with nothing the night before.
  2. Talk to your professor
    1. Professors are there for a reason. If you are confused or stuck in any way, make use of their office hours. Glendon is a small campus – don’t loose yourself on purpose!
  3. Go to the library (in case you’ve forgotten or never been, it’s that big building filled with books)
    1. Not only is Glendon’s Frost Library a beautiful place to study and research, it is filled with excellent resources in both French and English (and even a growing number of resources in Spanish). Ask a librarian for help if you need it and discovered the magic of books.
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