Writing the Perfect Paper: 8 Tips From the Experts

Beginning college in the fall? Want some tips on how to achieve high grades in your term papers?
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Beginning college in the fall? Want some tips on how to achieve high grades in your term papers?

Since 2008, the Undergraduate Awards has received nearly 10,000 academic papers across 20 categories from some of the top undergraduate students in the world. We've worked with more than 500 professors, lecturers, PhD candidates and industry specialists who, each year, are tasked with picking the top 10 percent of submissions (our Highly Commended entrants) and then whittling it right down to just one winner per category. They know an excellent essay when they read one.

So I went ahead and took a look through past winning papers and consulted with our judges to put together the following list of tips for composing academic papers.

Thankfully our judges don't have to compare English literature essays with, say, biochemistry projects, but make no mistake about it, there are certain traits that make an undergraduate paper stand out no matter what topic it's composed for.

Don't Bore Your Prof

OK, granted, the Undergraduate Awards is biased here because we specifically look for innovation within our winning papers. But, really, what professor is going to give a high grade to a paper that repeats arguments, points or research he or she has read a thousand times? Go out on a limb! Find your own voice within your work and look for an alternative point-of-view.

Make a Legitimate Argument...

Well, OK, there's finding an alternative argument and then there's just ranting. Remember, this is an academic paper, not your own personal mouthpiece. You should present a balanced, logical and well-developed argument that reaches a considered conclusion.

... And Back It Up

How do you present that argument? Provide evidence! These days there's no excuse for not having oodles of primary and secondary sources (thank you, Internet), but choose them wisely. Your primary sources (original articles or books) should be appropriate to the title and argument of the essay. With your secondary sources, don't be afraid to go off-road -- look in journals, magazines and sites like academia.edu for new analyses. And, please, make sure all your sources are legit.

Do It With Style

Whether your essay's on Virgil or vortex dipoles, write it with a bit of flare. And, science boffins, don't think this one's for the humanities students only -- it's even more important for science students to present their research in an engaging way. I always remember one of the judges for our Life Sciences category in 2010 commented that the winner's essay "read like a piece of excellent journalism which would not be out of place in, say, the New Yorker." Style makes all the difference between equally well-researched papers.

Know Your Harvard From Your MLS

When it comes to referencing, the Undergraduate Awards doesn't have a preference, but your college does. Use the referencing system your professor would expect and make sure you use it correctly and uniformly throughout. There is nothing more annoying than losing marks because you didn't cite a source correctly.

Can I Haz Good Grade?

Wait, scratch that, there is something more annoying: poor spelling and grammar. If you need to brush up on your writing skills (and a lot of us do), Lynne Truss has done the impossible with Eats Shoots & Leaves -- produced an entertaining book about grammar. Yes, really. And, unsurprisingly, there is also a host of handy instant grammar checkers online too.

Don't Be a Boring Copycat

Do I even have to say it? Plagiarism is really tempting -- that whole reword-the-sentence-so-it-totally-looks-like-I-haven't-copied-this-right-off-Wikipedia thing? We're onto you. Look, all universities use plagiarism-checking sites like Turnitin.com. But also, give your professor some credit; they can recognize unoriginality when they read it. (Also, step away from Wikipedia. Step away very, very quickly.)

Enjoy It

This tip comes from the winners rather than the judges. Nearly all our past winners have said that they enjoyed writing their winning papers. Makes sense really; they liked the topic so they wanted to find out more about it. They dug a little deeper and had some fun. Your passion will come through and the reader will pick up on it. What professor wouldn't be pleased to grade a paper like that?