57 Tips for Writing Your Term Paper

So you're in college - maybe for the first time, or maybe returning after an absence. You want to do well in your courses, right? What serious student doesn't? Still, so many students feel lost when it comes to effective study techniques, especially the dreaded term paper. You know the kind: the ones assigned on the first day and due close to the last; the ones you feel intimidated by and want to ignore as much as possible.

Keep in mind you're in college to learn and not show off what you already know. Having a few tips handy to help improve your chances at a high-scoring term paper will no doubt help - along with a few general study and college life tips.

Know Thy Prof

Professors and teaching assistants are there to help you. Understanding their role will help you use their help appropriately.

  1. Professors are human. They can be kind and supportive or bitter and vindictive, so grin and bear it or switch classes. Get to know what your professor wants. Studies show that getting to know your instructor improves your chances of success in college.
  2. Understand them. It's key to your success, as it can lead to mentoring, which is valuable if you plan to do graduate work. Sitting near the front of class improves your chances of catching little hints and participating in lectures.
  3. Don't lie to your professor. Ever. They will smell your lie before you open your mouth. They've heard it all before. If you need an extension for your term paper, approach them like a human being, with professional respect.
  4. No sob stories. If you intend to ask for a deadline extension because life got in the way, be prepared to at least show the professor how much work you have already done. Showing willingness to learn may be sufficient to win that extension.
  5. Don't wait until the last the minute. Don't be the student who went to the teaching assistant five minutes before a paper was due to profess they didn't understand the assignment. No one is going to give you an extension at that point.
  6. Think like a professor. Most professors say it takes about two minutes of preparation for each minute of lecture. Participate in the learning process by previewing topics before a lecture. If you want to go a step beyond, understand what a lecturer has to consider when preparing exams, assignments, and term papers.
  7. Understand them, part 2. It's frustrating but true, some professors don't care enough to have you do more than repeat after them. Give them what they want, but learn on your own if necessary.
  8. Your professor has a job and a life. Do approach them for help, but do it during their designated office hours. Lecturers have a memory for students who don't display respect, and it can affect your mark in the long run.
  9. Don't know thy professor. Don't get romantically involved. Not heeding this results in expulsion in most colleges. There's obviously little worse for your grades. Ditto for your course advisor. Wait until the semester is over, or after you graduate.

Outlining & Research

There's only so much a professor can help you if you don't have good research skills.

  1. Don't wait to the last minute. So obvious but so ignored. If a professor gave you the entire semester to work on the paper, there's a reason. Scope out the workload even if you don't want/have time to start researching immediately.
  2. Create a regimen. Manage your study time effectively and study at the same time each day. Balance term papers with regular assignments. Being disciplined is crucial to managing study programs with heavy term paper workloads.
  3. Use a roadmap. Always define your objectives with a term paper, if only just for yourself. It'll be easier to change direction, should that be necessary.
  4. Outline before writing. If you set out the structure of your paper before you start researching, you will discover where your intrinsic knowledge of the topic is weakest (and thus where to concentrate your research).
  5. Write legible notes. There's nothing worse than going back to your own notes and being unable to read them. Lifehack points to 5 ways to make lecture notes more readable. Lifehacker suggests taking study-worthy notes.
  6. Use a computer. This may seem obvious, but there's probably still a natural inclination to do notetaking by hand. Write your draft on a computer, to make changes easily.
  7. Get the right software. There are several freeware programs which specialize in outlining. Two of these, ActionOutline Lite and TreePad Lite are available for Windows. TreePad Lite is also available for linux, and for Mac and Java as JReePad. Here are 10 tools for online research.
  8. Use the Google, be the Google. Google has a cheatsheet and scholar-specific search functionality - an excellent start. Here is a discourse on search engines intended for librarians but relevant to students doing research.
  9. Get the big picture. Use encyclopedias, textbooks and websites to research the event or subject background first. Later, drill down into specifics covering your outline's points and sub-points.
  10. Bookmark. Whether you study at a brick and mortar college or are taking advantage of online studies, you use the Internet for research. A good web browser is key, as is utilizing it properly. Bookmark web pages you find useful, including using bookmark folders to structure your research. This will make writing your bibliography a lot easier.
  11. Learn to revise. Preview, read, and review before you write. Then edit and rewrite. Learn about the SQ3R reading and study skill system.
  12. Cite for sore eyes. Citations, where you attribute the sources referred to in your paper, vary in style by field of study. Rutger's University Libraries has a page noting several citation styles, and links to online guides. Ask your professors and TAs which method they require.

Looks Are Everything

What you put into a paper will show in its appearance and organization. Make your term paper something a teaching assistant or professor will want to read.

  1. Put in the effort. Make it look as if you cared about it enough to organize your paper. Write a good introduction and make it clear what you are writing about.
  2. Put in the effort, part 2. Edit and rewrite. Polish your work by degrees to make the final product shine.
  3. Hand in a clean paper. Don't eat nachos and cheese over your term paper or soil it in some other way. In fact, make two copies in case this happens, so that you don't have to go scrambling to print out another.
  4. Produce good diagrams. Having quality diagrams or charts can improve your mark, especially if they are original and represent your knowledge of a topic. You don't need to spend money on software when web-based diagramming tools like Gliffy are free.
  5. Don't use online term paper mills. Papers purchased from websites tend to circulate, increasing the chances that your professor already knows about a specific paper. Some of them are also hopelessly outdated. If you want a leg up, only use purchased papers as reference material.

The Most Common Mistakes

Few college students start out highly disciplined. The good news is you can learn. Avoid these mistakes:

  1. Not picking a good study spot. Every part of a library or campus is not made equally. If you want quiet, try out different areas and pick a good study spot.
  2. Not knowing the material. It sounds obvious, but how many students do you know who don't go to class and don't bother with homework. Why not just throw your tuition money in the garbage or set it on fire?
  3. Not reviewing lecture notes. Review lecture notes the same day, for maximum retention. Even better, review immediately after a class, if possible.
  4. Not knowing what you already know. Sometimes you know more than you think. But if you haven't explored what you know by writing up your term paper's objectives and producing an outline, you may not realize what you know, feel overwhelmed, and leave things to the last minute. (Try a mind map. See the General Tips section.)
  5. Poor grammar. Bad grammar, spelling, and typos are all guarantees of lost marks on a term paper. Use the spell/grammar checker feature of your word processor.
  6. Leaving things to the last minute. Anyone who has done well in college will tell you that being aggressive with your studies will pay off, whereas leaving research until the last minute is a sure road to a failing grade. Make copies on a hard drive and/or removable media. Things happen, but it won't affect you if you take an extra five minutes to make a shelter from the storm.
  7. Not meeting the assigned word count. Give exactly the right amount without fluff or padding. It's a skill you develop, and you have to start somewhere.
  8. Not meeting the deadline. An "A" assignment can become a "D" or "F" paper when handed in late. Penalties add up fast, and can be severe.
  9. Not multitasking. The University of Minnesota Duluth says it short and sweet in their time management principles: combine activities. If you're waiting for something, study in the meantime.
  10. Using someone's work and not citing it. Your professors have access to Google, too. Plagiarism usually results in a failing grade and academic probation at best, expulsion at worst.
  11. Not getting enough rest. Learning and recall is directly tied to getting enough rest as well as eating properly and excercising. If you're sluggish, you're unlikely to retain anything, no matter how many lectures you attend.

Utilizing Resources

When classes get overwhelming, it's easy to forget that everything you need to succeed in college is already available.

  1. Utilize your resources: attend seminars and labs. A good Teacher's Assistant (TA) will be brimming over with tips on the proper mechanics of writing papers, insight on the professor's marking scheme, and other useful information. Typically, a TA has already gone through what you are currently experiencing.
  2. Utilize your resources, part two. After you've received your assignment, put the topic and the professor's expectations into your own words, then privately ask (preferably on the same day your paper is assigned) the professor and TA if your paraphrase is correct. "But I thought you meant" won't wash after the papers have been marked.
  3. Collaborate, don't copy. Your fellow students are resources to bounce ideas of off. But don't copy or give away all your ideas.
  4. Collaborate, don't duplicate. If you have a team term paper, keep in mind that any group of people larger than three typically needs a functional head. Start by cross-pollinating ideas, then assign a lead to manage tasks.
  5. Get to know your university's library. Not everything is online yet. You may find yourself using microfiche readers and digging through musty tomes in rooms you didn't know the library had. Chances are your college library will have comprehensive research tutorials, programs and aids to familiarize yourself with the resource. Ask if you're unsure, and learn some basic library research techniques.
  6. Digital journals. Many university/college libraries have their journal subscriptions online, making it easy for you to find the appropriate research material. If you are a distance student, you may need a special modem link or password to get access. Having access means saving time photocopying stacks of journals.
  7. Crisis Hotline. Call them, if you aren't feeling so good about things. They're trained to at least empathize with you, and to help you through those down times we all go through. Dr Bob's unabridged student counseling virtual pamphlet collection has links to resources that can help if you are feeling angry, depressed or confused and don't feel like talking to anyone yet.

General Tips

These are general tips to improve your mental well-being and memory retention and indirectly improving your chances at a better term paper grade.

  1. Listen to Baroque music. Baroque style music is said to relax your heartbeat and improve memory recall.
  2. Go to class. Professors often intentionally reveal information at the beginning and/or end of a lecture. This includes deadline changes, topic changes, bonus assignments and answers to questions.
  3. Go to class, part 2. Attendance might be rewarded with points. Often, labs are. While this doesn't increase your term paper grade, having a few points for padding improves your subconscious confidence level.
  4. Improve your memory. There are many effective memory techniques. Learn some.
  5. Try mind maps. Mind maps are an easy but immensely powerful way to plot what you know about your paper's topic as well as what you need to know. There is free and inexpensive mindmapping software but manually drawn mind maps stimulate blood flow in the hand, to the brain, and are more likely to spark inspiration and ideas.
  6. Make friends. Many times, the "smartest" students don't do as well as more social students. If you can't make a class, try to befriend a classmate. Offer to swap notes.
  7. Learn critical thinking. Critical thinking is a highly valuable analytical skill useful in all walks of life that generally goes untaught. There is more than one technique, but as a collective analytical tool, it can help you during the research collection stage of writing a term paper.
  8. Talk to the teaching assistant. If you're too shy or unwilling to swap notes with another student, approach the teaching assistant. They are usually graduate students themselves and know that other courses and labs can interfere with making it to a class. They might fill you in on the missed lecture's notes or introduce you to a classmate.
  9. Check the official course website. Many professors are publishing course notes online, somewhere on the college website. Occasionally, there are even audio recordings.
  10. Try speedreading. Spreeder is a neat, free web tool that lets you paste in text and set reading speed. Speed reading is said to improve comprehension and retention. One key trick is not to vocalize words in your head while you read. Another is to read material at high speed, then reread at increasingly slower speeds as necessary, thereby improving retention. Technical topics are harder to absorb in general, and may require multiple reads.
  11. Take a hiatus. Not sure a course is for you? Officially drop the course and try again some other time. The earlier you withdraw from a course the better. You may have time to change to an alternate course or get a refund, and your student average will not be affected.
  12. Take a hiatus, part 2. Maybe you're just not ready for college. Or if you have to balance school with a job, an online education program may be more suitable.


No guarantees are given for the quality of information given at or linked to from the pages below. These links are supplemental to those used above and apply to general study, not just term papers.

  1. Academic Tips - Tips for study, time management memory, etc.
  2. Access Excellence - How to get A's.
  3. Adprima - Study tips from students.
  4. CalPoly - Academic skills center.
  5. Chemistry Coach - A massive collection of links to articles about study techniques.
  6. DMOZ - How to study directory listing.
  7. Dushkin Online - study tips.
  8. Marquette University Educational Opportunity Program - Study tips and test-taking strategies.
  9. Quintessential Careers - Getting Better Grades. Jammed packed with tips from a college professor.
  10. SNU - Academic success strategies.
  11. SUNY Buffalo - How to study.
  12. Virginia Tech - Study Skills Self-help Information.
  13. Wikibooks - Study skills.

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