Originally Posted: Mar 16, 2018
Last Updated: Apr 2, 2019
No doubt your teachers have taught you how to write a proper academic paper that will successfully get you into college. You know MLA style like the back of your hand, you’ve got five-paragraph essays down, and you certainly show an esoteric vocabulary.
Oh, no…everything’s going to change in college! That’s okay—your friendly neighborhood Writing major is here to help you make the switch effortlessly so you can write a strong college-level paper, even on your first day. Here are a few things you should know.
Paragraphs don’t matter
Get out of the five-paragraph essay format asap. The constant repetition of “here are the things I will write about…” *writes about the things* “these were the things I wrote about…” makes it sound like you’re desperately trying to hit a word count—and maybe you are, but your professors don’t want to see that. They want to see that you put effort and original thought into your ideas. Not to mention they just read the paper—you don’t need to recap what you just talked about unless it’s a 20-page dissertation, and those tend to be more geared toward graduate school than undergrad.
You’ll also be covering more complex theses in college, or at least you should be. Your thesis statement, if it’s done right, should be a suitable enough opening without going into how you plan to prove it.
And if you’re having issues crafting the perfect thesis statement, head to your school’s writing center and they’ll be able to help you fine tune it. Or find the closest English major—they’re good at making those up.
Related: The Writing Center 101
Stop that “one” thing
Your teachers are absolutely right: you should avoid personal pronouns in academic writing. It’s a professional paper, and mixing in personal pronouns, especially first or second person (I, we, you), immediately denotes an opinion, which has no place in your work. Additionally, using “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun isn’t widely accepted. However, don’t do the “one” thing. Nobody says things like, “When one is discomforted, one seeks an alleviation.” It’s awkward and disjointing to the reader. What you want to do instead is use a word like “person” or “individual” so it flows more like this: “When a person is discomforted, that person will seek alleviation.” It flows better, and when your professor reads your paper, they won’t think you plagiarized Sherlock Holmes. He actually did talk like that.
Don’t abuse the dictionary
I cognize, I cognize. You crave to substantiate what a sesquipedalian you are. This is academia, and you would execrate to appear anserine. Ergo, you manipulate the synonyms alternative in Word and scrutinize the thesaurus, pending you construct a treatise that personifies one composed by an erudite attorney. However, many professionals surmise this practice marshals a heavy increase in malapropisms, which results in a dissatisfactory assessment. In conclusion, antidisestablishmentarianism.
The SATs have established a desire for you to expand your vocabulary, but there’s a time and place to use those fancy words. A 30-page dissertation for your linguistics final? Yeah, probably. A three-page paper on your opinion of “The Allegory of the Cave”? Maybe not. A two-page essay on Peter Pan for your English 100 course? No.
Your teacher probably told you not to use contractions in your papers because it looks unprofessional: use “it is” instead of “it’s,” or “were not” instead of “weren’t.” Sound familiar?
That’s not really an issue in college. If you choose not to use contractions, it should be for a good reason, like you’re trying to meet that irksome word count or you genuinely don’t use contractions. (Who are you?!) Also, remember this: if you automatically type contractions because you’re so used to using them and you don’t fix one in the entire paper, that’s going to look way more awkward than the other way around.
Leave space—but not too many
Please, for the love of all things good, only use one space after a sentence. Anyone still putting two spaces, or teaching you to put two spaces, likely learned how to type using a typewriter. (Has anyone here ever even seen a typewriter?) It was widely accepted back in the day, but now it looks a little outdated or like you’re trying to take up dead space to meet a page requirement. If your teacher recommends two spaces, politely let them know that the most common stylebooks—Modern Language Association, Associated Press, Chicago, even the US Government—recommend only one space.
Side note: If you’re in a Psychology class, disregard this tip, because the American Psychological Association stylebook does recommend two spaces.
You should also make sure to check your syllabus for each class, because professors will often have guidelines for headings and which style they want for citations there. And if they don’t have it in the syllabus, be sure to ask before you receive your first writing assignment!