Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Whether that is true or not is a question for the ages, but many agree that writing can be intimidating, especially to undergraduate college students not used to writing academic papers. In an educational paradox, grammar, usage and writing skills are often not covered after middle school, and yet undergraduate programs have high expectations for the papers their students submit.

Common Academic Writing Styles

Whatever your major, it’s a safe bet you won’t graduate from college without writing a decent amount of academic papers. If you feel unprepared, don’t panic; there are many resources available to you. This writing guide breaks down the types of writing you’ll be expected to do, and also offers tips for successfully drafting anything in your undergrad.

Letter of Intent

A personal statement, sometimes called a letter of intent, is a personalized document commonly used in applications for undergraduate and graduate schools, as well as job applications. A personal statement illustrates your accomplishments and more importantly, your goals. When writing a personal statement for school admission, you should clearly state how you plan to use your knowledge and skills to further your career interests. The following guidelines will help you out:

  1. Your personal statement should be tailored to reflect the expectations of your reader. Schools and businesses that require a letter of intent may provide fairly precise specifications, so make a point of really familiarizing yourself with the instructions. An admissions board at a graduate school, for example, is more likely to respond well to a detailed explanation of how the program will further your research interests. A potential employer, on the other hand, needs to know how you plan to use a specific skill set to meet long-term goals set by both the employer and yourself.
  2. Once you’ve established your reader’s expectations, it’s a good idea to make a list of the skills and experience you have that will benefit a school or employer. List any awards or credentials you’ve earned along the way, as well as participation in relevant activities or professional organizations. Lastly, communicate what you hope to gain by employment with the organization or admission into the program. Speak to a long-term goal, such as eventual doctoral study or research into an industry issue.
  3. Introducing yourself. Explain why you stand out from other candidates using the achievements you’ve listed. While a boastful tone isn’t palatable, listing specific accomplishments in a way that shows you are competent and unique is.
  4. Next, tell your reader why you are attracted to that particular school or company. Detail what about it excites you, and illustrate how your talents and interests mesh with its goals or vision. Take a confident and interested tone, but avoid superficial interest.
  5. Finally, wrap up your letter with a request for an interview; don’t overlook this call to action, as it reiterates your interest in a way that inspires action on the company or schools behalf. Make all of your contact information easily accessible to your reader.

Essays

The essay is arguably the most widely used writing model in college. So it’s important to master the essential elements early in your academic career.

There are several types of essays, all of which have the same basic structure. A thesis statement, which is an idea that can be defended, is made in the first paragraph. The thesis typically states a hypothesis on any topic, whether it’s about the behaviors of certain variables in a physics lab or a 15th century author’s intent in an allegorical poem. The bulk of your essay should dissect and explore your thesis and answer any questions the reader may have about the topic. A well-written essay will have anticipated the reader’s arguments and debunked them clearly as the thesis is further explored in the paper. Finally, a conclusion paragraph restates the thesis and the defending arguments in a brief and succinct manner.

Common types of essays include the following:

  • Narrative: Simply put, the narrative essay tells a story, usually in the first person. Sometimes called a descriptive essay, this form requires the writer to use vivid language to clearly illustrate events in a linear fashion. This narrative could be about a personal experience, or it could be an analysis of a book or other literary work.

    Regardless of the topic, narrative essays must still contain a thesis; this can be from your perspective or that of another author. The body of this essay should expand on this thesis; these essays turn on the creative use of language, so extremely descriptive writing is called for here. Your reader should feel drawn into the story you’re telling.

  • Expository: The expository essay is one in which the student sets forth an idea and then explores it with available evidence. These essays are based on facts and factual analysis, and are not generally written in the first person. Clarity is the key to constructing a good expository essay; not only should your thesis be crystal clear, but transitions between evidence and arguments in the body of your paper must also be recognizable.

    Because it is important that the reader understand the sequence of discussion, the format of this essay is particularly important. As always, the thesis statement should be in the introductory paragraph. The amount of exposition a professor requires can vary, but a standard formula is one paragraph for introduction, three paragraphs for thesis defense and analysis of evidence, and one paragraph that rounds out, or concludes, the essay.

  • Persuasive: A persuasive essay is written with the express intent to convince the reader to form an opinion about something. A well-written persuasive essay anticipates the reader’s resistance and counters it with facts, evidence and reasoning, fairly representing all sides of the argument.

    While this may seem to echo the purpose of the expository essay, the persuasive (or argumentative) essay requires considerably more research and usually produces a longer paper. The thesis is introduced, followed by paragraphs containing evidence in the form of statistics, facts or logical explanation. At the conclusion, the thesis is re-addressed in light of the evidence the writer has presented, which ultimately should serve to convince the reader of the author’s point.

  • Comparative: This essay is also popular with college professors, in which students are asked to compare and contrast two similar things. It’s important to determine what basis of comparison you should use, because this will inform the flow of your paper. You may be asked to compare two very similar things, or to dissect key differences between things that appear similar, or both.

    Comparative essays generally require considerable research and planning. After you investigate and list the similarities and differences of your subjects, you must present a thesis clearly to readers. You may organize your information point by point, or you may thoroughly analyze one subject before moving to the next. The structure you choose is often dictated by the quantity of your research, as well as qualities of the subjects themselves. The challenge of comparative writing is to reach a definitive conclusion and then to clearly defend your reasoning.

  • Cause and Effect: These essays explore the relation of an event or condition to another event or condition. While it may seem simple on the surface, it’s easy to confuse causality with correlation; the writer’s challenge is to clearly prove causality. Generally, professors require an analysis of a known cause and effect, but a writer who has discovered a new root cause to a known effect may also use this format to present new data.

    The essay’s introduction clearly defines issues at hand and presents a thesis that states a known cause. Supporting paragraphs should be specific; first the cause is analyzed, followed by an analysis of its effect. Finally, the cause-and-effect relationship is discussed. The concluding paragraph should answer the question, “Why?”

Research Papers

A research paper involves conducting extensive research on a specific topic and supplying that research, along with your analysis, to your readers. While this type of writing may initially seem intimidating, it’s more approachable when broken down into manageable chunks of work. The following guidelines will assist you in writing a research paper:

  1. Understand your topic. Generally, undergraduate students are assigned research topics and provided specific prompts. If you’re asked to choose a topic, make sure it’s narrow enough to allow you clear focus, but broad enough that you’ll have access to adequate research. You may need to work with your professor for clarification. When you have this information, ask yourself why it’s a topic of interest and what you stand to learn from your research. This information will ultimately lead to your thesis statement, though it is likely to morph somewhat as you conduct your research.
  2. Conduct a literature review. This phase of your project helps you discover the information sources you will cite in your final paper. Look for high-profile studies, news stories, statements by industry specialists and books by leading researchers in the field. Do rely on the Internet to provide an idea of the scope of research available to you, but always be wary of data sources, especially sources you’ve stumbled upon online.
  3. Organize your data. Whenever you list out ideas that support your thesis, you need to back them up with correct citations. If an opposing argument is relevant, give it equal time, cite it and then debunk it with your data. If you conducted an original research project or case study, summarize your findings in relation to the rest of the paper’s goals. Finally, conclude your article by restating your thesis and giving an overview of the supporting data.

Exam Questions

Essay questions are a popular choice among professors for exams. Understanding the basic structure of an essay, determining the audience, deriving a thesis and illustrating your argument all the way through to a valid conclusion – and doing so under pressure – is something of an art form. However, exam essays are merely a shortened version of standard essay format, minus statistics and other research. A successfully executed exam essay is focused, organized, supported by reason and well-written.

Some tips for effective exam essay writing include:

  • Read essay prompts slowly and carefully
  • Budget your time for each essay question
  • Sketch outlines on scratch paper as you organize your thoughts
  • Place a thesis statement at the beginning of each exam answer
  • Use supporting material that you covered in class
  • Always proofread

Grammar

In today’s educational system, there are teachers who hold students to a higher standard in terms of proper grammar, syntax and spelling; however, there are high school teachers who don’t enforce these standards at all. This can make life especially difficult for undergraduate students tasked with their first writing assignments. Because the stakes are higher at the collegiate level, it may behoove you to refresh your memory of basic grammatical rules.

While it’s impossible to list virtually every common usage error, some are more common than others, including:

  • They’re, their, there: They’re going to the store; It is their problem; Don’t stand there.
  • Two, too, to: Two children played; I want to go, too; She drove to the mall.
  • Your, you’re: I like your purse; You’re very funny.
  • Weather, whether: The weather is so unpredictable; I’m not sure whether I want pancakes or waffles.
  • A lot: I see a lot of snow (never alot)
  • Loose, lose: My belt is loose; Don’t lose your backpack!
  • Who, whom: Who said that?; To whom should I address this?
  • Phase, faze: Oh, he’s just going through a phase; Christine was not fazed in the least.
  • Since, because: I’ve been a redhead since I got divorced; The pool is closed because it’s thundering.
  • Moot, mute: It’s a moot point now; I was mute with surprise.
  • Principal, principle: She was named a principal partner in the firm; He refused to do it on principle.

Other typical errors college professors may find egregious include:

  • Apostrophes: Apostrophes indicate contractions or possession, as in: That’s Catie’s geography book. Apostrophes should never be used to indicate a plural.
  • Commas: Frequently overused, commas are used to separate items in a list, after an introductory phrase or to separate distinct thoughts that are related. The use of a conjunction is a good indicator of proper comma placement. For example: I’ll take the red, blue and yellow ones, but I don’t care for the green. Comma splices happen when usage rules for semicolons and commas are confused. Related independent clauses with no conjunction result in a comma splice: I really dislike eating meat, I don’t feel deprived at all. Instead, separate each thought with either punctuation or a conjunction following the comma: I really dislike eating meat, and I don’t feel deprived at all.
  • Semicolons: Often confused with commas, a semicolon is used to separate related thoughts that are each independent clauses; no conjunctions are used. Pascal plays beautifully; he has studied with a private piano coach for many years.
  • Affect and Effect: Affect is usually a verb, and effect is a usually a noun. The exceptions are unusual. I think some people underestimate her effect on students. I don’t think the principal is aware of the dress code’s effect.
  • That and Which: That is a restrictive pronoun, meaning it has no qualifiers and is tied to its noun: I don’t like clothes that itch. Which, on the other hand, introduces a relative clause that allows qualifiers. I don’t like cashmere sweaters, which are itchy. A good rule of thumb: if a comma is required, which is probably your best choice.
  • That and Who: Who is used in reference to people. That is used in reference to inanimate objects, animals or entities. Use: You’re exactly who I was looking for!, and The puppies that got out have been returned to the shelter.
  • Quotation marks: Quotation marks indicate a quote. They do not indicate emphasis of any kind. They must also exist outside of any punctuation. Use: Jenny answered, “I’d much rather write fiction.” Not: Jenny “disliked” history and said, “I’d much rather write fiction”.
  • Then and Than: Then is used in reference to time. Than is used when making comparisons. Then we left the arena, rather than wait for the end of the game.
  • It’s and Its: It’s is a contraction of It is, which is the only time it’s necessary to use an apostrophe for this word. Its is a possessive pronoun. It’s the cutest thing when the puppy chases its tail.
  • Fewer and Less: Fewer refers to something that is tangible and can be counted. Less refers to intangible ideas. She did fewer reps than yesterday, and This recipe needs less salt.
  • Spellcheck errors: It really depends in the weather that day. Spellcheck is not the end-all solution for proofreading.
  • Tense errors: I ran into him and he goes, “Hey!” Ran in this sentence is past tense, and goes is present tense.
  • Unnecessary capitalization: I have a Bevy of Attorneys at my disposal. While this may seem obvious, many writers break this rule.
  • Pronoun/antecedent agreement: Each reporter must file their own copy is incorrect because ‘their’ incorrectly modifies ‘reporter.’ Each reporter must file his or her own copy is correct.

For every broken rule in the English language, there is likely an online resource that breaks down the details. You may find these additional resources helpful.

Citations

Proper citation of sources is importance in college; without it, plagiarism would be rampant. Proper citations allow for an easily-understood format, so that professors or other readers can look up your original data. There are three recognized schools of thought on proper citation: The Modern Language Association Style Guide (MLA), the American Psychology Association Style Guide (APA), or the Chicago Manual of Style.

According to the MLA Style Guide, citations should be used parenthetically within text. Each reference is signified in the text and specifically detailed on a Works Cited page added to the manuscript. You may signify a reference with a number or phrase, or perhaps both when you are drawing attention to a specific page in a work that you’re citing. For example:


An unlucky and under-reported effect of Hurricane Katrina was the large number of pets that their owners were forced to abandon (Eggers, 93).

In this case, the Works Cited page must contain a full reference to the text by Eggers. Following the MLA style to reference books, the reference on the Works Cited page should read exactly as follows:

Eggers, Dave. Zeitoun. New York: Random House, 2009. Print.

Other media citations are proscribed by the MLA as so:

Journal: Fearon, James D., and David D. Laitin. “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War.” American Political Science Review 97.01 (2003): 75. Print.

Video: Inglorious Basterds. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Universal Pictures, 2009. Film.

Website: The Purdue OWL Family of Sites. The Writing Lab and OWL at Purdue and Purdue U, 2008. Web. 23 Apr. 2008.

As a rule, citation styles are meticulous; every capitalization, punctuation and space matter. The AP Style Manual and the Chicago Manual are also used in many academic environments, though less frequently. Each of them has their own set of distinct citation rules. Generally, students in the humanities are asked to use MLA; science majors, APA; and history and social studies majors use the Chicago Manual. If you are unsure which to use, check with your professor for your university’s standard.

Conclusion

Writing academic papers may seem overwhelming at first. However, approaching the workload rationally, understanding what’s being requested of you and practicing good time management can go a long way toward decreasing the associated stress. Taking advantage of the writing resources here can result in a relatively painless turnover of academic papers. You may also find these additional resources helpful:

  • OWL: Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab has long been considered a go-to resource for all things writing. Descriptions and tips on specific essay requirements, writing tips for general and academic audiences, and grammar and punctuation advice are only a few of OWL’s offerings.
  • Writer’s Workshop: The University of Illinois’ Writing Workshop can improve any student’s writing ability. Definitive explanations about grammar, usage, parts of speech and proper citation are included, as is a tips and tricks page.
  • Quick and Dirty Tips: Maintained by a blogger styling herself as Grammar Girl, this entertaining website is chock full of short, informational descriptions of how to handle common grammar questions.
  • The Elements of Style: Known generally to writers as Strunk & White (referring to the author’s names), this definitive style guide has been made available online by Bartleby.com. Free advice on composition, usage and principles of grammar is easily obtained via a search menu.
  • Guide to Grammar and Writing: The comprehensive A to Z index answers hundreds of grammar questions; interactive quizzes also test your grammar knowledge.