How to Write a College Research Paper (With Examples)

How to Write a College Research Paper

Want to know how to write A+ essays from an A+ student? This guide will show you how to write a college research paper perfectly!

Some of the most common assignments you will receive in college are essays. They can be intimidating and time consuming, but they don’t have to be.

I’m going to share with you how I approach essays, from the initial preparation, to how I create an outline which basically writes the essay for me. 

Let’s get started!

Essay Prep

Before you write your college research paper, it’s essential that you review the guidelines of your essay.

Create a document with the following basic guidelines of the paper:

  • The prompt
  • The number of sources needed
  • Where your sources have to come from
  • Font size
  • Word count

This gives you an easy place to refer back to without reading the whole page of guidelines everytime. 

I recommend using the same document to write your outline so you have everything in one place at all times.

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Research Question Example

Writing out your research question (if necessary) or topic up front is really helpful as well. Do a bit of googling on several topics that match your prompt.

For example, if the prompt is to pick a historical event between 1950-1970 which impacted the United States in a negative way and explain the history of the event, how it impacted the US when it occurred, and the effects of the event, you’ll want to begin by looking up historical events between 1950 and 1970 which were impactful for the United States. 

From there, choose events which have a lot of research essays, news articles, and papers written about them.

This just makes it a lot easier to find research to back up your essay claims compared to picking a niche topic with only 2 papers written about them.

This will also allow you to create a more original essay because there’s more research to choose from than merely 2 academic essays. 

How to Research for a College Paper

The main part of any research paper is obviously… the research.

Often professors will give you guidelines as to where your research must come from. Remember to pay attention to these guidelines and use the databases your professor suggests.

Use databases provided by your university library’s website that match the genre you’re writing about. If it’s a history paper, be sure to use a historical database. Same for political science, english, or any other subject. 

Research Example

With the example we’ve been working with, let’s say we chose the Cuban Missile Crisis as our event. I would then type the Cuban Missile Crisis into my database and see what academic papers come up.

There will be LOTS of options with a topic like the Cuban missile crisis which is good.

It can also be a bit daunting, so it may help to add something a little more specific to your search.

For example, searching “Cuban Missile Crisis long term effects on the United States” may give you a better pool of options for the “effects” portion of your essay. Doing the same for each section will help you find the right research papers for your essay.

You will need to read through several research papers. I say need because this is what will help you write MUCH better papers. By reading through a good few papers, you not only gain a much better understanding of what your topic is about, but it helps you figure out which papers are the best for your topic.

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Take Notes

Start taking notes of the papers. This is super important when you need lots of sources.

When more than 5 sources are needed, reading so many papers without taking notes means you will forget everything you’ve read. You can then refer back to these notes and quotes when writing out your essay, and you’ll easily know which source to use for your point and which source to cite.

Keep in mind, your notes don’t have to be crazy. Getting the general idea with a few key points to recite back to is all you need to sort out the best ideas.

How to Create an Effective Outline

Once you know the instructions, the topic, and which research you’ll be pulling from, the next step is an outline. Each outline differs based on what your professor asks of you, but I will give you several examples of different outlines. 

Always begin an outline by writing out the basic structure of your paper. Most papers will start with an introduction, followed by several sections/paragraphs depending on the length of your paper, and ending with a conclusion.

For longer essays, the best approach is to create sections. Sections will be titled based on the content, and split up into paragraphs within the section.

Sample College Research Paper Outline

If we continue with the aforementioned example prompt, this is how the sections would be split up:

  1. Introduction
  2. Background/history
  3. The Cuban Missile Crisis (a description of the event and how it impacted the United States)
  4. Effects of the Cuban Missile Crisis
  5. Conclusion

Your introduction and conclusion should be short. Most professors don’t want a lot of information in those two sections, and prefer instead that you put the bulk of your essay into the main sections.

Your introduction should include the following:

  • Your research question/topic
  • The context of the event (what’s going on in the United States around the time of the event)
  • A brief overview of what your paper talks about.

This includes your thesis!

Your conclusion is merely a summary of what you spoke about in your paper. Do not include new information in your conclusion! Doing so takes away from what the paper was really about and confuses the reader.

In your outline, bullet point these things so you know exactly what to write out in your essay.

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Creating Proper Sections

The most important part of your outline is your sections. This is where you’ll bullet point exactly what you’ll be talking about, and which research/sources you will be pulling from.

Group your sources based on which section they go into. If it’s a good source on the context of your main topic, put it under your background section with your source notes included, and create points based on that research.

This is generally how you should outline your college research paper. By already having your sources, notes from those sources, and creating points based on it, You’ll already have the bulk of your paper mapped out.

Theories and Hypotheses

Some research papers require you to come up with a theory made up of hypotheses. Your hypothesis will be based on your research question if this is the case.

Here’s an example of a research question, and a practical theory created from it: 

Research Question – What are the causes of the use of terrorism by the Palestinians and how has its use affected Arab-Israeli relations?

Theory

Hypothesis of causes are: a sense of abandonment from the Arab world, humiliation at the hands of Israelis, and demands falling on deaf ears, all of this caused Palestininans to utilize more drastic measures in order to get their needs heard and acted on.

Hypothesis of how its use affected Arab-Israeli relations: Terrorism created more distrust and fearfulness between Israel and Palestine wherein Israelis didn’t and don’t feel comfortable trusting any group of Palestinians due to the extreme actions of several groups, and utilize harsher retaliation or countermeasures as a result of the Palestinian terrorism, pushing both sides farther from cooperation.

A hypothesis is essentially coming up with what you believe the research will prove, and then supporting or contrasting that hypothesis based on what the research proves.

How to Write a Thesis for a College Research Paper

Getting a clear idea of your sections and what they’re about is how you create the most effective thesis.

By doing so, your thesis will include the main points of your sections rather than just the names of your sections, which gives a better overview of what your paper is actually about.

You don’t have to create it at the end though. You might find often that you’ll write a thesis at the start and just correct it as your essay points change while writing. 

Here’s an example of an A+ thesis in an introduction of an essay: 

(In Claude Mckay’s 20th century poem If We Must Die he emphasizes the horrors that African Americans face, while encouraging his fellow black community to not stand idly by, but to fight for their honour, in order to counter the racism and defy notions of prejudice at a time so influenced by white supremacy, elitism, and incessant racism.)

In the example above, I’ve highlighted the main issue of the poem in blue and the main argument of the poem in red.

Keep in mind, the whole point of a thesis is to explain what your entire paper is going to be discussing/arguing for within 1 or 2 sentences.

As long as you get the issue across along with (more importantly) the main argument of discussion, then your thesis will be formatted perfectly.

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How to Structure a College Research Paper

Structuring your paper is fairly simple. Often just asking your professor or TA will give you the best idea of how to structure. But if they don’t give you structure, the best way to go about it is in the way I mentioned before.

Introduction, sections, conclusion. It’s simple and clear cut, and most professors will appreciate that.

Reading through the sources also helps with structure. Often the sequence of events will guide the structure of your paper, so really understanding your topic helps not only with the content of your paper, but with the structure as well. 

How to Cite Properly to Avoid Plagiarism

In my experience most professors won’t ask for a specific format in their essay guidelines. This means you’ll want to use whatever you’re most comfortable with.

MLA format is very common amongst most classes. If you didn’t have a clear format you learned in class, or don’t feel particularly comfortable with any one format, I suggest you use MLA.

A quick google search will give you the basic guidelines of MLA. Use this MLA format tool if you’re confused about how to cite sources properly.

Parenthetical Citations

An important part of citing is including parenthetical citations, AKA citing after a quote or paraphrased section.

It’s crucial that you cite ANY quote you use. This also goes for any section where you paraphrase from a source.

Both of these need parenthetical citations right after the direct quote or paraphrase. 

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Works Cited

The last portion of Citing you need to think about is your works cited or bibliography page. This has all your sources in one place, in the format you’re using.

In order to make this I always use EasyBib. EasyBib will cite your sources for you and create a bibliography with very little effort on your part, and it can be in any format you choose.

Your works cited page will go at the end of your essay, after your conclusion, on a separate page. Not including one means you are plagiarizing, so make sure you don’t forget it!

 

Hopefully these tips help you how to write a college research paper and better college essays overall.

Take it from an A+ student who can help you achieve the same goal in your college classes.

A huge thanks to Nivi at nivishahamphotography.com for helping out Modern Teen with this incredible post!

If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions leave them below. Thanks for reading!

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