College is a period of transition for high school graduates, giving them opportunities to manage their future and preparing them for professional success. However, as higher education enrollment numbers continue to climb, schools increasingly find that their students are ill-prepared for college-level work, particularly academic writing. In a 2017 study of 200 U.S. campuses, the Hechinger Report found that over half of incoming college students had to take remedial classes before they were equipped to handle university core and major coursework.

Regardless of their skill level, learners can better prepare for the rigor of postsecondary education by strengthening their writing skills. This guide offers in-depth information on the writing process, including prewriting steps centered on reading comprehension and analysis. Readers can gain insight on different writing styles and how to engage various academic genres. The guide also covers plagiarism, grammar, and research citations and provides a list of writing resources.

Common Academic Writing Styles

Whatever your major, it's a safe bet you won't graduate from college without writing a decent number 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.


The essay is arguably the most widely used writing model in college, so it is 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, appears in the first paragraph and acts as an introduction. The thesis typically states a hypothesis on any topic, whether it's about the behavior of certain variables in a physics lab or an author's intent in an allegorical poem. The body 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.

The Writing Process

The first step to learning how to write a college essay is ensuring you understand the nature of the assignment. This means analyzing the requirements to figure out the main goal and what type of essay best fits this objective. You should also use this time to brainstorm ideas, making lists or organizing your thoughts through diagrams and maps.
During this step, you organize ideas in an outline to provide the initial shape (introduction, body, and conclusion) for the essay. You should make sure the outline satisfies requirements as you consider audience and purpose. Depending on the assignment, you must also take time to research the topic for supporting sources.
Using the outline as a guide, you create a rough draft. This step can be messy as you attempt to flesh out ideas into coherent sentences organized into logical paragraphs. You can employ different strategies based on different types of writing styles, like starting with the body paragraphs before writing the introduction and conclusion. Regardless of your strategy, you should always take time to read your work and conduct further research to ensure the writing aligns with assignment goals.
Once you complete the first draft, you revise the work for topic cohesion and logical progression supported by transitions within and between paragraphs. After consulting with teachers and peers, you may find it necessary to reorder, delete, or combine certain paragraphs. You may also need to conduct more research to alter your work or add additional content.
This final step requires you to edit for correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation. You should take the time to proofread the work for accuracy and clarity, changing unclear or inaccurate words. During this step, you should also ensure that you properly cite borrowed work and ideas according to the designated citation style format.

Common Types of Essays


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 its 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.


In an expository essay, the writer sets forth an idea and then explores it through available evidence. These essays are based on facts and factual analysis and are generally not 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's 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.


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, persuasive (or argumentative) essays require considerably more research and usually result in longer papers. The thesis is introduced, followed by paragraphs containing evidence in the form of statistics, facts, or logical explanation. At the conclusion, the thesis is readdressed in light of the evidence the writer has presented, which ultimately should convince the reader of the author's point.


Popular with college professors, a comparative essay requires students to compare and contrast two or more 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, 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 clearly present a thesis. 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 strongly 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 causation with correlation; the writer's challenge is to clearly prove causation. 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 should clearly define issues at hand and present 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.

  • 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.
  • Conduct a Literature Review: This phase of your project helps you discover the information sources you cite in your final paper. Look for high-profile studies, news stories, statements by industry specialists, and books by leading researchers in the field. Use the Internet to get an idea of the scope of research available to you, but always be wary of data sources, especially sources you've stumbled upon online.
  • Organize Your Data: Whenever you list out ideas that support your thesis, you need to back them up with the proper 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. The process of understanding the basic structure of an essay, determining your 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.

We recommend that students follow this process to effectively complete exam essay questions.

Read Essay Prompts Slowly and Carefully
Before you begin developing your essay, you need to understand the task at hand by carefully reading the instructions. As you analyze the prompt, note keywords that guide the writing. These words are often directives like "analyze," "compare/contrast," "illustrate," "interpret," or "criticize." When in doubt, you can usually ask the instructor to clarify the essay prompt.
Budget Your Time for Each Essay Question
Most course exams include multiple essay questions, requiring you to manage your time wisely. If you need to answer five questions in an hour, strongly consider allocating 10 minutes for each question. This leaves 10 minutes at the end that allow you to go back and finalize responses. If necessary, you can prioritize the essay question worth the most points.
Sketch Outlines on Scratch Paper as You Organize Your Thoughts
By taking the time to outline ideas, you can ensure the essay meets the prompt's requirements. Outlining also provides a framework that strengthens an answer's clarity and compactness. You can also spend some time performing a memory dump, writing down important dates, facts, and theories relevant to an individual question or to the test in general.
Place a Thesis Statement at the Beginning of Each Exam Answer
Exam questions typically require an answer that's concise but substantive. While you can provide a brief introduction, it is more important that you lead the essay with a thesis statement. By placing the thesis at the beginning, you anchor your thoughts and guarantee that the answer you create gets to the point quickly and effectively.
Use Supporting Material That You Covered in Class
Generally part of midterms and finals, essay exams evaluate your understanding of course materials. College instructors typically provide study guides and host review sessions that help you prepare for these tests. As you study, ensure that you can explain major theories and memorize key dates and figures. While formal citation is rarely required, you should nonetheless acknowledge when an idea comes from someone else.
Always Proofread
As with any other piece of college-level writing, you should proofread exam essays for technical and content errors. When working in haste, we tend to misspell or omit words, misstate dates and figures, and neglect to finish thoughts thereby creating incomplete sentences. You can also take this time to add conclusions that summarize the essay as a whole.

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 in this endeavor:

  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 getting very familiar 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.
  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. Introduce yourself. Explain why you stand out from other candidates using the achievements you've listed. While avoiding a boastful tone, list specific accomplishments in a way that shows you are competent and unique.
  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. Use 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. Make all of your contact information easily accessible to your reader.


In today's educational system, there are high school teachers who hold students to high standards in terms of proper grammar, syntax, and spelling; however, some teachers 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 every common usage error, some are more common than others, including those shown below.

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.

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 the following.

Apostrophes indicate contractions or possession, as in, "That's Katie's geography book." Apostrophes should never be used to indicate a plural.
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 without a conjunction result in a comma splice, as in: "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, as in: "I really dislike eating meat, and I don't feel deprived at all."
Often confused with commas, a semicolon is used to separate related thoughts that are each an independent clause; no conjunctions are used. For example, "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 usually a noun. Any exceptions are unusual. For example, "I think some people underestimate her effect on students," or "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, as in: "I don't like clothes that itch." "Which," on the other hand, introduces a relative clause that allows qualifiers, as in: "I don't like cashmere sweaters, which are itchy." A good rule of thumb: if a comma is required, "which" is probably the better choice.
That and Who/Whom
"Who" and "whom" are used in reference to people. "That" is used in reference to inanimate objects, animals, or entities. For example, "You're exactly whom 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. Generally, they go outside punctuation. For example, "Jenny answered, 'I'd much rather write fiction.'"
Then and Than
"Then" is used in reference to time. "Than" is used when making comparisons. "Then we decided to leave 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. For example, "It's the cutest thing when the puppy chases its tail."
Fewer and Less
"Fewer" refers to something that is quantifiable and can be counted. "Less" refers to intangible ideas or nonquantifiable things. For example, "She did fewer reps than yesterday, and this recipe needs less salt."
Spell-Check Errors
Watch out for sentences like, "It really depends in the weather that day." Spellcheck is not the end-all solution for proofreading.
Tense Errors
Avoid constructions like, "I ran into him and he goes, 'Hey!'" In this sentence, "ran" is past tense and "goes" is present tense.
Unnecessary Capitalization
Watch out for things like, "I have a Bevy of Attorneys at my disposal." While this may seem obvious, many writers break this rule.

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:


In academic writing, citations tell readers that certain information comes from another source. Citations enable readers to find the source for their own purposes. For writers, citation safeguards against plagiarism and reflects the amount of research the writer conducted, thereby strengthening their position as an authority on the subject. Students must cite whenever they paraphrase, use quotes, use another person's idea directly, use another person's idea to conceive their own idea, or make reference to another person's work.

Proper citation of sources is important in college; without it, plagiarism would be rampant. Proper citations allow for an easily understood format and help professors or other readers 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), and the Chicago Manual of Style.

According to MLA style, citations should be used parenthetically within text. Each reference is noted in the text and specifically detailed on a works-cited page added to the manuscript. You may signify a reference with a number, a phrase, or perhaps both when you are drawing attention to a specific page in a work that you're citing. For example:

Citation Style Example Common Usage
APA Contributors' names (Last edited date). Title of resource. Retrieved from source. Education, Psychology, and Sciences
Chicago Grazer, Brian, and Charles Fishman. A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. Business, History, and Fine Arts


Students plagiarize when they present another person's ideas or work as their own by integrating that material into their work without proper acknowledgement. Plagiarism occurs intentionally, unintentionally, and through reckless actions. Plagiarism guidelines cover published and unpublished materials in print, electronic, and manuscript forms. Furthermore, plagiarism can happen with or without the other writer's consent. This means that even if a student copies a friend's work with their full knowledge, the act still constitutes plagiarism and incurs consequences for both parties.

As one of the major academic offenses, plagiarism typically results in dismissal and/or a failing grade from the course in which the offense occurs. The university may levy a fine, withdraw financial aid, and, if the offense is severe enough, cancel the student's attendance altogether. Students who hold campus positions or engage with a fraternity/sorority should expect disciplinary measures from these organizations as well. Because copyright laws are absolute, students who publish plagiarized material can face legal actions from the writer whose ideas they stole.


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.

Students can also check out their university's writing center, where they can get help from tutors or online and on-campus writing resources. You may also find these additional resources helpful.


Purdue University's Online Writing Lab has long been considered a go-to resource for all things writing. Descriptions and tips for 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 available, 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 and White" (referring to the author's names), this definitive style guide has been made available online by Free advice on composition, usage, and principles of grammar is easily obtained via a search menu.

Guide to Grammar and Writing

This comprehensive A-to-Z index answers hundreds of grammar questions and features interactive quizzes that test your grammar knowledge.