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English major-tested tips for writing papers and college success

Updated on October 4, 2009

College is all kinds of fun and I miss it big time. Many universities curriculum's have wide breadth requirements which force students to reach outside their comfort zones to build a strong foundation.  You don't grow when your comfortable in general, but these breadth requirements can be frustrating.  I hated my Great Western Philosophers course, and well, to say that I'm a Math-tard is putting it lightly.  I naturally skew more on the verbal side, so I found English courses and the humanities to be easy breezy.  I know that my favorite courses were other student's worst nightmares, and I offer my experiences to help take some of the suckiness out of breadth requirements, because the best experiences in college are more often than not outside of the classroom.

  • Become an active reader.  Annotate texts as you go, highlighting interesting passages, anything you think is cool, anything you don't get, etc.  You pay a lot for textbooks and texts, and you're going to get screwed in the buy back process, so I say go big while you have the books.  If writing in a textbook or novel stresses you out, list page numbers and paragraphs of things of interest on a separate page as you go.  This little step will save you hours of time later as you go to write papers.  Pinky swear.
  • Gather information.  Staring at a blank page is daunting if you aren't sure where you're going.  One of my professors, Dr. George Miller, gave our class some of the best advice for getting papers going and I'm going to pass it on.  He encouraged us to view the early writing stage as just "gathering information" this doesn't sound nearly as scary as writing a paper, and is a great way to discover what you think about the material, which direction the paper will go, and will help to get you organized.  This prevents you from that awful moment of being one page in, realizing what you've got makes no sense, and maybe if you're super-stressed, debating whether or not to chuck your keyboard out the window.  Getting information together before you start writing gets you organized and gets you out with your friends for $1 draft night. 
  • Procrastinating sets you up to fail and get premature wrinkles.  I'm not positive about the wrinkle bit, but leaving things to the absolute last minute will make you stressed out and sleep deprived.  I get that some people need the death-panic of a looming deadline to get anything going, but last minute papers, projects, presentations, etc. are often a tough sell to your professors.  Carve out some extra time if you can, and the end result will show.  It's tough to gain perspective and to re-read your stuff objectively when you've just written it.  A glance over the next day helps catch wonky homonyms, bizarre-o punctuation, and anything that sounded okay in a coffee-fueled creative frenzy might later reveal itself to be kind of terrible.  Think academic beer goggles.  Re-read your work out-loud, your roommate may think you're nuts, but it's a great way to make sure things flow nicely.  Stay on top of things early in the semester and you can afford to back off a little bit when stuff gets real and everything is due at the end.  Trying to salvage an entire semester during finals is intense, masochistical, and totally unnecessary.
  • Know what you want to say/convey in your papers.  Introduce where you're going, get there, and recap the journey.  Strong essays don't bounce around all over the place. Be as concise as possible.  Choose the best words to convey what you mean, but don't throw flowery, show-offy garbage in there that you're not positive about.  Five dollar words can make you look like a jackass if you're not sure of their proper usage.  
  • When in doubt, cite.  Your integrity, academic and otherwise, is something incredibly valuable.  Citing is easy and the right thing to do.  Professors have caught on to copying and pasting the first page of Wikipedia sites, and will crucify you.  Academic dishonesty is lazy and bad form.  You're better than that.
  • If writing isn't your thing, seek help from those who enjoy it.  An extra set of eyes never hurts, ever.  Most universities have a writing center which is a fantastic and under-utilized resource.  The way I see it, tuition is crazy-expensive and you may as well get your money's worth.  I'm still paying back student loans and I kind of wish I'd taken advantage of every service available now, but hey, hindsight is 20/20.  Asking for help when needed is survival in college, it's unreasonable to expect yourself to excel in every course.  I'm a giant math-tard and needed help. There is no shame in asking for assistance, and if you're putting in the effort your professors will notice.  If you're unsure about an assignment or something in class, talk to your professor or TA, shoot them an email or make an appointment during office hours.  My mom is a professor and jokes that office hours can be lonely and boring.  You may need your professors to be references for you later, building relationships makes this process far easier, and helps you out in the long-run. 
  • Keep up with the reading.  Class is more interesting when you know what's going on, and it makes studying for exams way easier.  You paid an arm and a leg for your textbooks, use 'em.  If you know what material you're not sure about, you'll know which questions to ask.  
  • Go to class.  Yeah, some classes are so boring they make you want to pluck out your eyeballs and chuck them at a wall, go anyway.  Students who attend class do better overall, period.  I might be beating a dead horse, but college is expensive.  You're wasting your money (or your parents') when you continually skip.  Everyone misses a class or two, but seriously go to class.  Even in large sections, professors know who attends class regularly.  If you're putting in the effort, and are still border-line at the end of the semester, most professors who aren't fascist robots will most likely take your hard work into consideration.  Professors do not want you to fail, but if you don't pull your weight they may have no choice.
  • You have a say (sorry freshman you're an exception and going to have to rock out some  the 8 a.m.s) when you schedule your classes.  Figure out what works for you and run with it.  If you have a break and find that it is murder heading back to campus, schedule your classes in a row.  If you're a night owl, don't take morning classes.  Common sense stuff really, but if you can avoid an awful semester do yourself a favor, and you'll be able to enjoy a lot more fun outside the classroom.
I had a kind of round-about route through college.  I started out at Clemson University in 2001, went there for about two years, and transferred to the University of Delaware.  I attended UD for a semester in the fall of 2003, wasn't feeling it, and took about a year and a half off and worked full-time.  I returned to UD in February of 2005, changed majors from psychology to English, and hit my stride.  There is no right way to get where you're going, but you owe it to yourself to get there while doing your best all along.  I learned through experience what works and what doesn't.  It took me a lot of frustration to get where I needed to be, and I'm so glad that I finally figured it out.  I hope that this information is useful and saves you any of the frustration associated with writing papers and getting through college, while freeing up extra time to have all the fun you possibly can.          

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