By Transcendentan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout my high school career, I wrote about 4 research papers. After my first month at Wellesley, I had matched that number. I soon realized that high school had not prepared me for the challenges of college-level academic writing. Sadly, my experience is not unique. Too often, students matriculate without knowing how to form a strong thesis, support their ideas with credible research, and cite everything using the proper documentation style. That’s why it’s important you go into the writing process knowing what to do and what not to do.

Here are some common mistakes that you should avoid when writing your first college-level research paper:

Using a Purpose Statement Instead of Thesis Statement

Your thesis statement announces the point you want to make in the paper. However, students often will include “thesis statements” like this: “In this paper, I will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the Common Core.” That’s not a thesis statement. That’s a purpose statement. A purpose statement discusses the subject of your paper; a thesis explains what you think about the subject. Tell your instructor what you think in a well-written thesis statement.

Leaving out in-text citations

Most students know they need to include an in-text citation after a direct quotation. Did you know that you also need an in-text citation if you’re summarizing or paraphrasing an article? Any time you’re presenting an idea that you didn’t come up with, you have to include an in-text citation. When in doubt, cite! I’ve never deducted points because a student included too many in-text citations.

Letting evidence speak for itself

Have you ever watched a courtroom drama? The lawyer will hold up a piece of evidence, and then she’ll explain its significance to the jury. That’s what you want to do when you’re writing a paper. Too many students assume their readers will “get” the point that they’re trying to make. You don’t want to do this. Explain how your evidence supports your ideas in a very direct and explicit way!

Treating the paper like a book report

One of my students referred to her persuasive research essay as a collection of facts. You want to avoid thinking about research papers in this way. Most research essays require you to take a stance on an issue and present evidence to support that stance. You don’t simply want to present other people’s ideas. You want to make sense of them and bring them together in a unique and compelling way!

Forgetting to proofread

This is a big one. As far as English instructors go, I’m pretty lenient when it comes to grammatical and spelling errors. However, I’m in the minority. Most instructors will expect a polished and error-free paper. Proofread your work several times before submitting your paper. Remember, spell check is great, but it doesn’t always catch word choice errors!

The Bottom Line

You want to make sure you give your first college research paper your all. Give yourself plenty of time to plan, draft, and proof your paper. Remember, writing is thinking made visible. Use your first research paper to show your instructor what and how you think.