December 10, 2023

Writing Your First College Paper: Steps for Success

Author: Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
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Start a degree program at American Public University.

By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University

Going to college as an adult can be daunting, especially if you’re balancing schoolwork, a job and family responsibilities. But age has nothing to do with success.

Imagine that you’ve enrolled in an online course. When your class began, you looked over the syllabus, scanned the lecture notes and read the first chapter on the online textbook.

Now your first college paper assignment is coming due and you have to write a one-page essay. You’re a little anxious because the last paper you wrote was in high school years ago.

Writing your first college paper, however, doesn’t have to be intimidating. Here are some tips to improve your overall academic success.

Read the Instructions Carefully and Ponder Your Topic

Read the instructions carefully and think about a topic to write about. It could be something in the news or a local issue of particular importance to you. For example, you could write about how tariffs affect your cousin’s auto business. Another topic might be should your town council approve funds to modernize the library? Whatever issue you choose, the idea is to focus your attention and thinking on that topic.

For your first college paper, it’s advisable to choose a topic that is familiar to you. If it is a controversial topic, you will need to take a stand, pro or con, at the conclusion. But to write a balanced paper, you will need to understand both sides of the issue and discuss them fairly in your assignment.

You might even think of this paper as a supply chain. As you do research on your chosen topic, you are gathering raw materials. As you write, you are refining these raw materials into a finished product, which is your first paper.

Email Your Professor for Guidance

Your class instructor will talk to the class in weekly discussion forums. At first, the online conversations might be exchanging personal stories and just getting to know you.

If you need guidance getting your paper started, email the professor with your questions about your topic or just to let him or her know how nervous you are about writing this paper. Your instructor will guide you along the writing process.

Read the Instructions Carefully and Do Your Research

Even if you are familiar with your chosen topic, look it up on the Internet. Looking up one topic often leads to finding other sites that might also be helpful. You might even find material that is relevant but previously unknown to you.

Write one original sentence on what you found. Do not copy exactly what you have read. Think of it as a headline or a summary. Then jot down precisely where you found the information. That will help you later when it’s time to prepare your citations.

That sentence and information are your blueprint for writing your college paper. Keep in mind that you are not going to write the last word on that topic. You are going to write a succinct version of what you are researching right now.

Write an Outline of Your Topics

One of the best ways not to go astray is to draw up an outline of the points you wish to make in your paper. Your outline should be flexible enough to accommodate new material as you discover it. That is how simple it is to open a door into an expansive view of your topic and make things happen.

When you are ready to begin writing your college paper, read those instructions again. See if you are following the professor’s instructions.

  • Are you using the predetermined format?
  • Do you have to also write an abstract for the paper?
  • Are you including relevant quotes from your research?
  • Does the first draft meet the length requirements of the paper?

Sometimes, new writers especially get stymied when they try to write that introductory paragraph. Don’t worry. Work around the writing block by plunging right into the meat of the paper.

Concentrate on writing the main body of the paper. Somewhere in that section, an idea for the introduction will likely pop up. A conclusion may also occur to you.

For inspiration, reread the opening and the closing paragraphs of your research documents. You will find passages that help lay out what else you need to include. Relevant passages could be copied and pasted into your paper to back up your logic, provided that you cite them properly.

Guide your readers along by linking your paragraphs when appropriate with introductory phrases such as “In addition,” “On the other hand,” or “In contrast to.” Sudden changes in direction are jarring to your reader like suddenly stopping your car on the highway.

Create Section Headings

As you write, you may want to create section headings like a newspaper story headlines to keep your readers (i.e. the professor) on track with your college paper. Headings such as Current Status, Problems and Conclusion keep your paragraphs organized.

Include All Relevant Information in Your Citations

Be sure to include all relevant information about the source of quoted or paraphrased passages. The usual format is last name, followed by the first name of the author(s), the full title of the work, then the year it was published, the publisher and the city of publication.

There are specific citation requirements that you must follow, depending on which style you are required to use – American Psychological Association, Chicago Manual of Style, Modern Language Association, or other citation styles. Check your grading rubric for the style that your professor requires you to use.

It’s a good idea to keep a running list of all such citations either on 3×5 index cards or on a separate page on your computer. Either format will help you keep your references in alphabetical order as you add them to the source list at the end of your paper.

Take a Break, then Revise Your College Paper

When you think you are finished with your draft, put it aside and move on to something else. On the day before it is due, open your paper, run the spell checker and make any necessary corrections.

But be careful because spell checkers are not infallible. They make mistakes, too.

A final way to check your paper is to read it aloud. You will hear the words or phrases that are incorrect, misspelled or out of place. There often will be words or whole sentences that need fixing.

After you fix all errors and have done a final check of your paper, you can then email it to your professor in the “Assignments” section of your classroom. This will alert your instructor that your paper is ready for reviewing and grading.

Writing a paper doesn’t have to be a scary experience. As you progress through the weeks of class, you will find that writing papers becomes easier with time.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was the program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics.

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