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December 12, 2015 - Posted to Writing
Complete College Guide: How to Write a Term Paper

Complete College Guide: How to Write a Term Paper

Students who enter college believe that they know how to write a term paper. After all, they have written several in high school and it couldn’t really be much different. Actually, it can be very different, because you will find that how high schools teachers define term paper writing may not be the way your college professors define it. With that in mind, here is a complete guide for how to write at the college level and get term paper ideas.

Getting a Term Paper Definition

History of the Concept

Years ago, the term paper was a piece of writing that was completed at the end of a course. Its purpose was for the student to write a summary of all of the key concepts s/he had learned during the time spent in a course. Over time, this assignment changed. Rather than a summary of an entire course, students were required to pick a specific aspect of the course content and to delve into it at a deeper level – to become an “expert,” so to speak on one particular concept. Thus, in a modern U.S. history course, the student might select the Great Depression as a topic, conduct research on that topic, and prepare an in-depth report on that phenomenon, referring to sources of information both within and at the end of the text. This is what a high school term paper is today.

What is a Term Paper at the University Level?

Two key factors of the high school term paper are retained at the college level – selecting a topic within the parameters of course content and conducting in-depth research. From there, however, the definition changes. At the high school level, a term paper is basically a factual document and becomes much like a large report on a topic. It is purely objective in nature. At the university level, there is the additional requirement of a thesis – a purpose and a point of view that permeates all that is researched and written. Thus, a topic on the Great Depression in a college modern U.S. history course might be comparing the causes of the Great Depression with the causes of the financial meltdown of 2008. A thesis might be that many of the same conditions that led to the Great Depression were present in the decade leading up to the 2008 crisis. And a conclusion might involve the student’s proposals for preventing such a crisis in the future.

The term paper at the college level, then, involves not just gathering facts, but, instead, gathering facts and data that support a particular thesis, providing analysis and, in many instances, scholarly personal responses and opinions.

As you can probably see, the phrase “term paper” has become synonymous with the phrase “research paper.” Sometimes, they are called term papers because they are due at the end of a semester, as opposed to a research paper which may be due at any point during that semester. What a paper is called is a moot point.

Step 1: Choosing a Topic

There a many sources for topic selection, and here are the steps you may want to take:

  • Identify the specific topic areas of the course that particularly interested you. Researching and writing in an area for which you have no interest will be now fun, of course, and you will have a tendency to procrastinate. The resulting piece of writing will not be your best, and, remember these papers can comprise 1/4 to 1/3 of your final grade.
  • Look through your text book table of contents and see what specific topic areas that are within your wider areas of interests. Often, these will provide you some great ideas.
  • Look through your lecture notes. Again, there may be some specific areas that spark your interest – topics you have forgotten about.
  • Look online for topic suggestions. There are a large number of sites that have topic suggestions. Even the New York Times has gotten into the act, providing popular term paper topics in all content fields and for all purposes.

The other consideration in topic selection is the length requirement for the paper. A topic for an 8-page paper will be narrower than on for a 15-page paper. The best thing to do is to pull up some sample research papers on the selected topic and see if they are close in the length requirement of your professor. The other option is to make an appointment and run your topic by your professor. Sometimes that meeting will end with suggestions for resource materials and even a possible thesis.

Step 2: Save Some Time and Organization Difficulty

While this step is not usually included in a term paper writing guide, it is a very smart one and is certainly totally appropriate if you do it ethically.

Get online and read term papers on the same topic. Here is what you want to look for:

  • As already mentioned, you will get a good gauge if your topic will meet the length requirements
  • Study how the paper was organized. This will give you good suggestions for your own organization structure and sub-topic areas. This can save you hours of time after you finish your research, because you will not have to struggle to go through all of your notes trying to identify the sub-topics into which you will divide your research.
  • Check out the bibliography, especially if the paper is quite recent. If the resources are scholarly and suitable for the university level, you may be able to use those same resources.

Please remember: Your purpose is not to plagiarize or just “spin” someone else’s work. You are just attempting to find a good model so that you can create your own well-researched and well-organized paper.

Step 3: Conduct Your Research

A Word on Resources

The most important term here is “scholarly.” It refers to very specific types of resources that you probably did not use in high school. You are looking for resource materials that have be produced by other scholars, not just authors. No encyclopedias; no books that have been authored by people not recognized as experts in the topic field; no journals that are of questionable biases and that may not report data correctly. Using papers that have been presented at conferences, dissertations on the topic, and books and journal articles by recognized experts are the sources your professor expects to see.

Taking Notes

Here is where already having your sub-topics identified helps the most. As you take notes, do it the old-fashioned way – with note cards. At the top of each card write the source information and the page number. Then note the sub-topic area into which the information or data falls. Have separate stacks for each sub-topic area, and you are good to go when you get to the outline phase.

Step 4: Crafting that Outline

If you have your sub-topics and you have the sequence in which you will be covering them, then your outline should be relatively simple. Here is what you do:

  • Go through your note cards in the sub-topic area. Put those that have the same factual information together and decide which author you will cite. Then throw the other card away.
  • You will end up with sub, sub-topics and each of those will be listed in your outline under the larger sub-topic heading
  • Each sub-topic will be given a Roman numeral, and the sub, sub-topics will each have a capital alphabet letter under that Roman numeral. This is a formal outline and, if you are required to submit an outline with your paper, this is the format you should use.

If you are unfamiliar with formal outline development, the get some term paper outline help online. There are several sites, such as Purdue Owl, that will walk you through the process.

Step 5: Writing the Rough Draft

Your outline is the “map” you will follow as you write your paper. You will probably want to use headings for each sub-topic area, if only so that the reader can maintain focus.

Do not concern yourself with introduction and conclusion at this point. Just get the body written.

Be certain that you make note of the sources of all information as you write this draft.

Write the introduction after the body if finished. As you write the body, you will be reflecting more on your thesis and may in fact be able to further clarify it for yourself. You introduction is just that. Introduce your topic and make your thesis statement. It is a good idea, just as you do for essays, to begin your paper with something compelling – this may be some surprising factual information or an anecdote that points to your thesis.

Write your conclusion. Some conclusions will just be a re-statement of the thesis and the points you made that support that thesis. Some conclusions may involve a call to action or your solution to a problem. Others may make suggestions for further investigation or research.

Step 6: Revising the Rough Draft

If you have any concerns about your composition skills, get help with this step. You might want to try term paper writing service sources – reputable ones that will provide a full editing for you. This is a good route because editing is relatively cheap, and your friends with great writing skills are too busy with their own papers to help you.

Step 7: Formatting

You are really in luck that you are living in such a wonderful digital age. There are a number of tools and apps that will create your in-test and end-of-text citations for you. Just enter the information and the required style, and voila, you have your perfectly cited reference.

The other aspects of formatting are relatively simple, but be certain that your title pages, margins, headings, etc. conform to the style your professor requires.

Term/research paper writing may not be your most favorite college activity. However, consider the other options. You turn in a poorly written paper and take a poor grade that impacts both your course grade and your overall GPA. It’s worth taking the time to do it right.

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