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How to Write a Term Paper – The Extreme Collegiate Guide

Illustration for article titled How to Write a Term Paper – The Extreme Collegiate Guide

Students come to college with lots of writing experience under their belts. They have produced essays, term papers, book reports and more; they have written pretty good college admissions essays. Now here they are in college where they will take English comp and do a great deal of writing. As for term papers? Yes, they will have those too, and those papers will come in almost every single course. However, what students will find is that term papers take on an entirely new meaning in college.


If you are suffering “sticker shock” regarding college term papers, take heart. You are not alone, and many others share your pain. You have discovered that you really don’t know how to write a term paper at the college level. And that is the purpose of this extreme college guide. Review it carefully and keep it handy, as this will be your step-by-step process for producing one that will meet your professors’ expectations.

Defining the Term Paper

When term papers first became a popular assignment, they had a different meaning than they do today. Initially, they were assigned at the end of a course term. Students were expected to write a comprehensive piece on the major concepts contained in the entire course. Research other than the textbook and classroom notes was not required. Gradually, this assignment evolved. Students were then required to select a single concept or topic related to the course content and to prepare a comprehensive paper on that topic. If a student were in a political science course, for example, s/he might choose fascism or parliamentary democracy as a topic. For this new type of term paper, outside research would be required. The name “term paper” was kept, because the paper was due at the end of the course term. This new definition of term paper is very close to the assignment that is given in high schools today.


Defining the College Term Paper

Fast forward to college in the 21st century. Here you are face with writing college term papers. Yes, they are due at the end of the semester, but whoa! The requirements are looking a bit different:

  1. You must select a topic just as you did in high school
  2. You must conduct research just as you did in high school

But what’s this? In high school you just found some outside resources and organized all of the factual information and wrote the thing up. Now, you must have:

  1. A thesis – a point of view and something to prove which must be the purpose of your research. In a political science course, for example, you might now have to compare the politics of the upcoming election of 2016 with that of another era, perhaps 1932. Or you might compare the social issues of the today with those during the Depression. Your thesis would be a statement that the two situations were very similar.
  2. The Body of Your Paper – the entire body of your paper will need to support your thesis statement
  3. Research: No more going to encyclopedias and other secondary sources. Now you must find primary sources for your information that back up your claims.

Indeed, writing a term paper at the college level will be challenging and a much more rigorous task. That high school term paper is looking pretty easy right now, even though you complained about it then. This guide should take some of the pain out of the process, however. Along the way, you’ll get some tips to make those steps easier too.

#1 Choose Your Topic

Illustration for article titled How to Write a Term Paper – The Extreme Collegiate Guide

There are a couple of overriding considerations as you about topic selection. First, the topic must obviously relate to your coursework and it must be something about which you will be able to have an opinion or point-of-view. Second, the topic must be something in which you have interest. There is nothing worse than choosing a topic that you dis-like or that you don’t care about.

Sources for Topic Selection

Brainstorm topics that interest you. Think about what parts of the course grabbed your interest and write them down.

  • Go through your textbook and find those chapters that covered the areas that interest you. Now go through those chapters and find the large sub-headings. You may get some great ideas from this one simple task.
  • Go through your class lecture notes. You may even find topics that you forgot about that really interested you at the time.
  • Go online and do a simple google search for term paper topics in the course title. Make sure that you specify in that search that you want college level topics. You’ll get hundreds of them. One great source of topics is the New York Times, believe it or not. It has long lists of term paper topics in almost every academic field.

One other important factor in selecting a topic is your professor’s length requirement. A term paper that is to be 8 – 10 pages will have a less complex topic than that for a paper that must be 15 or more pages. You can do two things here:

  1. Look up example term papers on the topic and see if the length of those matches your requirement.
  2. Catch your professor at the end of class or visit him/her during office hours and ask if your selection will be appropriate for the length requirement. This is always a great idea, because you give your professor the impression that you are taking this assignment seriously, and you may come out of that meeting with some great suggestions about how to proceed or where to find resources.

#2 Save Yourself Some Time and Agony with a Little Advance “Discovery”

You will not find this step in any other term paper guide you may find and use, because somehow professors are really “in to” students re-inventing the wheel so to speak. But this may be the most important time-saving tip you get in this guide. The only caveat is that you must be ethical as you do this.


Go online and access term papers that have been written on your topic and thesis. Do the following:

  • Carefully review how the paper is organized into sub-topics. This is one of the most difficult steps that students have when writing term papers and having sub-topics to work with in advance will really help during the research and note-taking phase.
  • Review the bibliography. If the paper was written at the college level and if it was written fairly recently, you should make note of the resources used, because they may be ones you can use too.

A big word of caution here: you are not reviewing a piece of writing because you intent to plagiarize it. Even if you try to “spin” it, chances our plagiarism detection software will catch it. Plus, spinning software isn’t that good, and you will end up with really awkward language usage and vocabulary. You need to write your own paper. Samples are just that – samples that you can use as you write your own.

#3 The Research

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College term papers require what is called “scholarly” research. This term refers to very specific types of resources that must be used. Resources that are acceptable are among the following:

  • Academic works (books, journal articles) written by recognized experts in the field. If you are not certain about the expertise of an author, Google him or her and find out. Is s/he on the faculty of a well-known university? Has s/he conducted research on the topic? Has this been his/her life’s work?
  • If you find journal articles, you must be certain that they are reputable. Again, Google the name if you are not certain. There are many journals with obvious biases and they may “fudge” data and statistics – you don’t want to use these.
  • Find dissertations on the topic; look for academic papers that have been presented at conferences

These are the types of resources expected of you now that you are in college.


If you have reviewed other papers on the topic and have already identified your sub-topic, your note-taking will be so much easier.


No one has yet come up with a system of note-taking that really beats the use of note cards. They are still the most preferred method of students. But now, as you take your notes, you will be organizing them as you take them not afterward. Big plus. So, on each note card, remember to put the source and the page number at the top. Make sure that you put direct quotes in quotation marks so that you won’t forget when you get to the writing stage. Then get your notes down and place the card in the stack for the appropriate sub-topic you have already identified. You are now really prepared to write that outline.

Tip: Put rubber bands around each stack of note cards or put them in envelopes with the sub-topic written on the outside. Nothing is more frustrating than getting them mixed up or losing some.


#4 Creating the Outline

Illustration for article titled How to Write a Term Paper – The Extreme Collegiate Guide

You have your sub-topics and each of those will be given a Roman numeral on your outline, if you intend to produce a formal one that must be submitted along with your paper. The decision now is the sequence in which you intend to cover each of these sub-topics. Generally, you should save your most important or best points for the first and/or last. These are the points the reader is most likely to remember the best, and it makes your argument stronger.

Now go through each of the sub-topic cards and break the information/data into smaller categories. These will be the capital alphabet letters under those Roman numerals


Now go through those sub-sub categories and break them down into details. These details will go under the alphabet letters and will be regular Arabic numbers. A basic formal outline shoule look like this:

I. Introduction (topic and thesis statement)

II. Sub-Topic One

A. Sub-Sub Topic

  1. Detail
  2. Detail

And so forth.

If you have never created a formal outline before, there are a number of online sources for help. Purdue Owl is probably the best known and most comprehensive source for any type of college writing – a great reference tool that you should probably bookmark.


#5 Your Rough Draft

Illustration for article titled How to Write a Term Paper – The Extreme Collegiate Guide

You need you outline in front of you as you write the paper. Here is the best process:

  • Write the body of your paper first, leaving introduction and conclusion for later
  • Each sub-topic (Roman numeral) should have a heading in bold so that your reader has an idea of what is to come.
  • Be sure that as you write, you make note of the source and page number of the information you are providing. It’s a disaster to have to go back and find those sources later on.
  • Write our introduction after you have finished the body. The reasons for this is that you will have a chance to reflect more on what you are writing and you will be able to refine your thesis and thesis statement. The introduction introduces your topic and makes your thesis statement. You will want to begin your introduction with something really engaging – a startling fact or an anecdote are always good.
  • Write that conclusion. You may only be wrapping up your main points and stating that you have proved your thesis; you may want your reader to get involved in something; you may recommend that further research should be done on the topic.

#6 Revising the First Draft

This is the necessary step of clean-up. Your sentence structures must be perfect – no run-ons or fragments; check subject-verb agreement. Make sure you have good transitions from one paragraph to the next. Spelling and punctuation come next. Do not rely on your word processing program to fix everything. And if you are not highly skilled in mechanics, get someone who is and either pay him/her or offer something in return. These things count!


#7 Formatting

You will have a formatting guide – at least most professors provide one. If not and you have your format style specification, you can go to Purdue Owl for such things as title page, margins, headers, and in-text citations.


For end-of-text citations (bibliography), let technology work for you. Use a good free tool for creating them. Most campuses have one you can use, but if not, go online and use one there. You just type in the type of resource (book, journal, Internet), provide all of the information on that resource, name the style you need, and within seconds, you will have your perfectly formatted citation. Consider yourself lucky. In years past, these had to be done by hand.

A Final Note

Technology has made term paper writing much easier than it used to be, of course. Remember, however, that a term paper is to be from your thought, and it must be original and well-written. Often, these can comprise as much as 1/3 of your grade, so be diligent and produce your very best work.

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