Writing Your First College Paper, Part III

This is the third in a series of posts about writing your first college paper. Look back at the last two posts for some tips on getting into the right mindset and making a plan for your writing.

Do not be afraid to ask for help.

As a college student, you likely have a number of resources at your disposal. Do not be afraid to use them. Resources like these are the reason you pay tuition. If one of the resources you try is not helpful, try another one. In fact, by trying different resources you will find which ones work best for you and that will be a great advantage not just for this paper but for later ones as well.

While getting feedback from a relative or roommate is okay, keep in mind a couple of things. First, you paper is not their responsibility. Second, they may have different expectations than your instructor for competent, college-level writing. Finally, they have not been in class with you learning the material that you are applying in this paper. It may work better to have a relative or roommate read a more polished version after you get some feedback from your instructor or a tutor.

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Consider attending your instructor’s office hours.

Most, if not all, college instructors hold office hours. These are times set aside in their schedule specifically to meet with students. Where and when your instructor holds office hours is often on the front page of the syllabus. (Please, please, check the syllabus before emailing your instructor. You will learn to be more resourceful as a student and your instructor will greatly appreciate that you took the time to use the document he or she spent hours preparing for just this kind of occasion.) Most instructors expect that students will drop in during designated office hour times. However, if it is the day before your paper is due (the day everyone realizes they need help with the assignment) it might be worth checking ahead of time or making an appointment (if your instructor allows that) to avoid long wait times.

If your paper is for a composition or writing-focused course, your instructor may hold conferences. Take advantage of this opportunity to see how your instructor evaluates your work before you turn it in for a grade. Your instructor may ask you to prepare some pre-writing (such as an outline) or a portion of a draft to discuss at your conference. If there is no requirement about what to bring to the conference, at least come prepared with two to three specific questions about the assignment or your writing. This shows your instructor that you are taking the assignment seriously (metaphorical bonus points!) and will help make your conference more productive. A conference is precious one-on-one time with the person judging your work so think about what kind of help you need before you are seated in your instructor’s office, staring awkwardly at him or her and wondering what to say.

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Take advantage of any writing centers and/or tutors your school may provide.

Many colleges and universities staff writing centers with tutors who provide free feedback and assistance with many kinds of writing assignments. Here again, a quick look through your class syllabus or search of your school’s website will tell you if, where, and when you have access to this kind of help.

Both of the options above (office hours and writing center tutoring) can be utilized at any stage of the writing process. If you are having trouble getting started or even understanding what the assignment asks you to do, do not hesitate to get help earlier rather than later.

Focus on doing good work, not just earning the grade you want.

Think back to my first piece of advice: maintain perspective. Worry more about doing quality work than about the number or letter grade you want to achieve. You cannot control the number/letter your instructor assigns your paper. However, you can control the effort you put into writing the paper. Looking back through class materials, the assignment sheet, and a grading rubric (if one is provided) as you finalize your paper can help you create high quality work.

As part of maintaining perspective, you could also look back at your syllabus to remind yourself of how much this paper contributes to your overall grade in the course. Similarly, check the syllabus to see if your instructor has a revision policy that allows you to correct graded work for an improved grade. Knowing that there is a chance to improve some grades down the road may remove a bit of the pressure as you are drafting.

Happy writing!