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What Your Instructors Wish You Knew About Papers

Have you ever wondered what your professors are really looking for in a paper? It always seems like they want much more than they put on the rubric – or that their directions are so detailed that it feels almost impossible to get it right! While every instructor is different, there are a few things that most of them wish their students knew.

1. Follow directions

Yes, something that comes with a roadmap! Your assignment might have detailed requirements or just a general outline; either way, make sure to fulfill those requirements! It’s the best way to avoid missing points for easily avoidable things. Your directions won’t be more than 1-2 pages, so it should only take a few minutes to read them all.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions

It’s okay to have questions about the assignment, and instructors are usually happy to clarify. Asking for help doesn’t mean you’re a bad student—knowing when to ask for help is the mark of a confident, successful student, and professors are likely to remember that.

Your instructors aren’t your only source of help when it comes to writing papers. The librarians at your library are a great source to help narrow down your research so that you don’t flounder in a sea of too much potential information. Many have department-specific librarians, so check there for sure. And if the essay itself is giving you trouble, try your campus writing center or writing tutors. While they might not be able to tell you the unspoken quirks of a particular professor’s preferred style, they can help you with structure, strong thesis statements, and more.

3. Prep before you write

You might not think so, but professors can tell when a paper was thrown together without much preparation. It shows up in the depth of research and the focus of the paper in particular. The most important thing to do before you start a paper is to craft a particular question or theory around which to focus your efforts – a pre-thesis, if you will. You can refine it into your actual thesis as you outline.

Creating an outline is also important. It is a blueprint of your essay and will help you stay organized.

4. Vary your sources

It’s tempting, when you find a source that fits your topic perfectly, to just use it throughout the research paper and stop there. Or perhaps you found a particular academic journal that talks about the topic a lot. Even aside from the fact that many assignments will require certain numbers or types of sources, instructors will often prefer to see a variety of research. It demonstrates that you’ve done your due diligence, but also that you’ve considered multiple perspectives on your argument, which always strengthens it.

Pro tip: As you collect your sources, start citing them! Even if you don’t end up using them all, it’ll help ensure that you don’t accidentally forget a source and commit unintentional plagiarism. If you have to do an annotated bibliography in MLA or another style, also add your notes (or annotations) when you cite and while the source information is still fresh in your head.

5. Avoid tangents

It happens to the best of us: you’re writing away, building your arguments… and suddenly you’ve found yourself on a completely unrelated tangent (Example: You started off examining factors that led to the Civil War, then strayed into talking about war movies). Or, perhaps, you need to pad out your paper a bit and are tempted to shoehorn in something tangentially-related. This is a sign of a disorganized essay and can weaken an otherwise strong paper. Stay focused on your topic and make sure that every sentence and fact directly support your thesis.

6. Be honest

True, you’ll probably have to write college papers about research paper topics you don’t like or care much about. Even so, try to be as honest as you can—writing a paper with an argument you thoroughly don’t believe in will often result in weaker arguments and flowery, inauthentic prose. Instead of trying to restate a common or easy idea (that your professors have probably read many times before), see if you can find your own take on it.

7. Cite your sources

It’s such a simple thing, but it’s the fastest way to frustrate a professor: forgetting to cite your sources. Not only is it required to avoid plagiarism and for formatting, but it also shows that you paid attention to detail and lets instructors see how you came to your conclusions. MLA format is a common citation style, as is APA and Chicago Manual of Style. Consult your teacher if you’re unsure of which to use.

8. Proofread!

There are few things as frustrating as a wonderfully-argued paper that contains tons of grammar and spelling errors. Run a paper check—either on your own or using tools like the EasyBib Plus grammar checker—before submitting!

With these tips, you should be well on your way to mastering the art of the college essay – and impressing your instructors along the way!


Good writing starts with knowing the basics. That’s why we created these grammar guides! Learn to identify irregular verbs, build up your mental list of adverbs, see examples of interjections, and more!