The transition from high school to college can be a challenging one, especially when it comes to writing academic papers and other written assignments. New college students will find that they are expected to write more, and that their work must meet higher standards, set by instructors who expect students to show up with the written communication skills necessary to succeed in class. While instructors are there to assist you throughout the school quarter or term, they expect you to take the initiative required to complete your own work and correctly cite your sources.
For many students, the college experience often begins with a slew of writing requirements, from admissions and scholarship applications to personal statements, letters of intent, and essays. You will need to have good written communication skills to succeed in your college courses, many of which include a variety of challenging assignments such as research papers, written tests, and exams. The need to communicate well in written form continues in your courses with a wide range of assignments such as research papers, as well as written tests, and exams.
Regardless of the type of writing you are asked to do, proper grammar and punctuation is expected. Use our quick-reference guide to avoid some of the most common mistakes student writers make.
Do you have trouble remembering when to use they’re, their, and there? You are not alone! This is just one of the grammar issues we address in our Writing Center guide. Using these words correctly takes practice, so review the examples below and keep the list handy when you work on your next class assignment.
You may see alot used instead of a lot to indicate a large amount or to a great extent, but this is incorrect. Many spelling and grammar check programs will catch this mistake, but it’s good to know the proper way to use this term.
Will there be a lot of assignments in this course?
I think the instructor knows I study a lot.
Effect and Affect
Effect and affect can both be used as either nouns or verbs, but it’s most common to find effect used as a noun and affect as a verb. The right answer depends on how the words are used in a sentence. Here are a few examples:
What effect will the weather have on your travel plans?
Heavy rain will affect the flight schedule, resulting in delays.
The research team is trying to find out if the new medicine has an effect on the disease.
How will the new medicine affect the patient?
Farther and Further
Both of these words are used to indicate some sort of distance. Use farther to indicate a physical distance and further to convey figurative distance or time. Here are a few examples:
How much farther is the airport from here?
After a semester of advanced courses, she felt she couldn’t go any further in her program.
She reviewed the recorded lectures in order to further understand the new theories.
Fewer and Less
Both of these words are used to indicate an amount of something. If you are referring to more than one person or thing, use fewer. If you are referring to something that is singular, isn’t usually counted, related to time, or numbers, use less.
Students who also work full-time usually take fewer courses each semester.
A longer commute means less time to read in the evenings.
He graduated in less than three years.
It’s and Its
This one is especially tricky, and an exception to the general rule of using an apostrophe to show possession. In this case, it’s is only used as a contraction of it and is or has. Use its to show possession. Let’s take a look at these words in sentences.
It’s beginning to look like it will snow.
It’s been snowing for a while now.
The school board hasn’t reached its decision about school closings.
Lie and Lay
These words are both forms of irregular verbs that have some similarities in spelling, but are different in meaning. Lie is a verb used to describe the action someone is taking, usually “to recline.” Lay conveys action taken on someone or something else, usually “to put something down.” It can help to think through or write out the tenses of each verb before deciding which one to use:
Lie, Lay, Lain (to recline oneself)
Lay, Laid, Laid (to put something down)
Here are a few examples of the different tenses of these verbs in use:
Why don’t you lie down and get some rest before we go?
The night before the exam I lay in bed awake worrying about my grade.
I was going to go to the library this morning, but had lain around until almost noon.
Before I start a new assignment I lay out all of my course materials.
In the syllabus he laid down the law about group work and meeting deadlines.
I was on the way to the airport when I realized I had laid my ticket down in the kitchen.
Loose and Lose
Loose is commonly used as an adjective to describe something that is the opposite of “tight, strict, or constrained.” Lose is a verb used to indicate loss or misplacement of someone or something.
She will lose her status as an honor student if she fails this course.
Keep your shoelaces loose while going through airport security.
Don’t lose your focus on this assignment just because the guidelines for completion are loose.
Me or I
These words are both pronouns, used to replace your name in a sentence. Referring to yourself with your own name is awkward, but knowing when to use me or I can be confusing. If you are the subject of the sentence, taking action, use I. If you are the object of a sentence, something is happening to you, use me.
I am not going to fail this course.
Is there some reason she didn’t want to work on the project with me?
If the action is taking place with other people, think about how you would describe the scene if only you were involved.
He went with Jane and me to the bookstore. (You would say, “he went with me” not “he went with I.”)
Jane and I drank too much coffee while studying for the exam. (You would say “I drank too much coffee” not “me drank too much coffee.”)
They’re, Their, and There
They’re is a contraction of “they” and “are.” Their is possessive and plural, indicating that something belongs to a group. There is a location. Can you see the differences in the following sentences?
They’re going for a drive.
Their car is in the shop, so they will need a ride to the airport.
The keys are over there on the table.
Two, Too, and To
Two is a way to write out the number “2.” Too can be used to say “also” or convey that an excessive amount of something. To is a preposition when used with a noun, and an infinitive when used before a verb. Take a look at these examples:
He built that project with his own two hands.
She always complains about having too much homework.
It will be time to take the test when we get to school.
You’re and Your
You’re is a contraction of you and are. Your is possessive and singular, used to indicate that something belongs to “you.”
You’re going to get an A in the course!
Your parents are going to be so proud of you!
Then and Than
Then is related to time, often used to describe when something happens. Than indicates some sort of comparison.
Make sure there is a vacancy at the hotel, and then you can book the flight.
The high humidity is terrible, but I’d rather visit during summer than winter.
Weather and Whether
These two words often sound exactly the same, but that’s where the relationship ends. Weather is a noun referring atmospheric conditions (i.e., temperature, rain, snow). Whether is a conjunction that is sometimes used instead of if or to introduce a question. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
The airline canceled all flights into New York because of the weather.
The weather forecast for tomorrow says we’ll have sun and high temperatures.
She said she is going on the trip whether it’s cloudy or not.
Did you find out whether this is the right airport?
Which and That
Deciding whether you should use which or that depends on the information in the clause it will introduce. If the details in the clause could be left out of the sentence and not change the meaning of the sentence, use which. If the details are essential to the message being conveyed in the sentence, use that. Here are a few examples:
Courses that include scheduled meetings with the instructor are more engaging.
The instructor asked complex questions, which the students found challenging.
So many houses that were flooded in the storm had to be torn down.
The weather forecast called for record low temperatures, which was not welcome news.
Note that the phrases introduced by which are offset by a comma.
Who and Whom
Who is used when you are referring to a person or object that is having something done to it. Whom is used to indicate the person or object that is doing something. If you would say he or she in a sentence, you would use who. And if you would say him or her, you might also use whom. Try substituting these words in the examples below, rearranging the sentences a bit, to see how it works. (Note: The same rules apply for whoever and whomever.)
The instructor invited a guest speaker whom she met at a conference last year. (The instructor met him.)
Who is the new librarian at the reference desk? (She is.)
Whom can we ask about the course schedule? (Ask him.)
Does anyone know who will be teaching this course next semester? (She will.)
Punctuation, like grammar, is prone to misuse. This section of the guide presents some of the most common issues you’ll encounter as you prepare your course assignments.
Commas (,) and Semicolons (;)
Sentences and independent clauses, which convey a complete thought, can be linked together using either a comma or semicolon. If you use a conjunction, such as and, but, or or, a comma helps to differentiate between the separate thoughts. Use a semicolon to connect independent thoughts without conjunctions.
She is determined to graduate, and her family has promised to support her.
She is determined to graduate; her family has promised to support her.
The weather was terrible, but the airline managed to keep flights on schedule.
The weather was terrible; the airline managed to keep flights on schedule.
A semicolon is also uses to present a series if one or more items in the series include(s) a comma.
Academic advisors help students with course selection; submission of transfer credit, prior learning assessment, and competency-based tests; and identification of support services.
A colon lets your reader know that a series or list of items follows an independent clause.
Research papers are comprised of five sections: introduction, literature review, methodology, and conclusion.
Your research paper should include an introduction, literature review, description methodology, results, and a conclusion. (Note that no colon was used here because the clause at the beginning of the sentence is not an independent, complete thought.)
Colons are also often used to introduce a quotation.
The instructor often used a quotation from The Great Gatsby as an example of alliteration: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Hyphens can be used in multiple ways to improve readability and help avoid confusion. One of the most common mistakes is not knowing when to connect two words with a hyphen, such as “well-known.” If the words serve as a single adjective appearing before a noun, use a hyphen. If the words describe the noun, but appear after it in the sentence, don’t use a hyphen.
The instructor invited a well-known scientist to perform the experiment with the students in next week’s lab.
The scientist scheduled to meet with the students next week is well known.
Hyphens are also used to avoid awkward combinations and with prefixes and suffixes.
He had to re-sign his application. (Not “resign”)
You should receive an email about mid-semester course evaluations.
Will the mayor-elect be able to influence next year’s vote on transportation improvements?
Apostrophes are primarily used to indicate possession, but it can be confusing to know where to place this type of punctuation. These examples illustrate when and where you should use an apostrophe:
Ownership by a single noun: The learner’s textbooks were digital in her online class.
Ownership by a single noun that ends with an –s: Everyone liked James’s chapter review.
Ownership by a plural noun: The women’s study program includes four new classes.
Ownership by a plural noun that ends with an –s: The students’ mid-term exams will be administered online this year.
Ownership by more than one noun: Next semester I’ll take John and Jane’s advice to register early.
Other Common Issues
This section of the guide focuses on two additional areas in which students often make mistakes and lose points on their assignments.
i.e. and e.g.
Both i.e. and e.g. are abbreviations for Latin terms that can assist you in adding extra information to your work. You often seem them used inside parentheses and should be followed by a comma. Let’s take a closer look at the meaning of each term and review a few examples.
Use i.e. to rephrase something. Think of this as another way to say “in other words” and add clarification.
Two new students (i.e., James and Jean) already have experience in the field.
Based on the recent pictures he posted (i.e., sailing off the coast of Catalina last summer) his family obviously prefers active vacations.
Use e.g. as a way to say “for example.”
The instructor provides a lot of helpful review materials in the course (e.g., flashcards, chapter summaries, practice quizzes).
The assignment required us to research weather phenomena (e.g., tornados, hurricanes, blizzards).
An adjective that ends with –ing or –ed can be confusing if it’s not clear which noun in the sentence it describes. If the adjective could refer to multiple nouns it’s just dangling there in the sentence. Take a look at a few sentences with dangling participles, also called dangling modifiers:
After being reprimanded about cheating, the instructor advised his students to study harder. (The students were reprimanded, not the instructor.)
Rushing to meet the deadline, Jane’s paper won’t be ready. (Jane was rushing, not her paper.)
Alternative wording can improve these examples to let the reader know what is really happening.
After reprimanding his students about cheating, the instructor advised them to study harder.
Jane was rushing to meet the deadline for her paper, but won’t have her paper ready.
These websites inspired and informed the examples above, and provide more detailed explanations to help you with some of the most common challenges of proper grammar and punctuation.
- Daily Writing Tips
- Grammar Monster
- Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips
- The Oatmeal’s Grammar Comics
- Purdue Online Writing Lab
Keep in mind that grammar and punctuation guidelines differ depending on the style guide used (e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago). Check with your program to make sure you are using the style that is expected in your courses.
Different Writing Styles
Not all writing is the same. While the rules of grammar and punctuation apply, you’ll find the need to take different approaches to create different types of materials throughout your college experience. Let’s take a closer look at some of the types of writing you are most likely to encounter.
Personal Statements and Letters of Intent
Personal statements, essays, and letters of intent are often requested when the recipient needs to know more about your perspective on a specific topic and/or your reflection on past achievements and future goals. You’ll find this type of writing is often part of college admissions materials, scholarship applications, and cover letters used in the context of an internship or job search.
Before getting started, carefully review the instructions provided by the person or group requesting a personal essay. Each application will be different (e.g., length limits, formatting, focus), so you need to take extra steps to develop a unique submission for each one.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Writer’s Handbook provides a list of common writing assignments. This resource includes an online tool with prompts to help you draft your first application essay.
Notice the use of the first person and reflection in this example of a scholarship application essay from the University of Michigan-Flint:
I am applying for the University of Michigan-Flint Scholarships. Presently I am a junior in the nursing program. I believe that my chosen profession will enable me to fulfill my desire to help others, to expand my knowledge base, and to travel. Throughout my life I have participated in extracurricular activities, including valuable volunteer experiences. I have striven for academic excellence, always wishing to make the best of my education. In addition, I have managed to work to provide some of my basic educational expenses.
View the full example on the University’s website.
The Purdue Online Writing Lab describes the purpose of academic essay writing as a way “to encourage students to develop ideas and concepts in their writing with the direction of little more than their own thoughts.” There are four primary categories of essay writing you may encounter as a student, with some variation, of course, depending on your courses and assignments. Descriptions and examples of narrative, descriptive, expository, and persuasive essays are provided below.
Narrative essays usually involve some sort of storytelling, whether it’s your story or someone else’s. It can be helpful to organize narrative essays with characters and a plot that has an introduction and conclusion.
This type of essay may include use of the first person as in this example provided by Western Technical College, which begins with the following:
As we stood at the bottom of a hill looking up at the dark and gloomy hole in the rock, we were astonished. I felt my jaw tighten and my stomach turn as I stared up at the cliff.
Descriptive essays draw the reader in with details often related to the five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Word choice and selection of topic are important to this type or essay.
This excerpt from a descriptive essay from Roane State Community College includes details that evoke our perception of texture:
In several places on the fence the barbed wire has been cut or bent out of shape. … Sharp, erect pins still show their warning of power; many times they have acted as a catalyst between the cows and their angered emotions.
Expository essays allow you to present an explanation of a specific topic. You may find that these essay assignments include instructions such as compare and contrast or describe the cause and effect. Organize your expository writing with a clear thesis statement or purpose and back up your explanation with supporting references if applicable.
AcademicHelp.net offers examples of expository essays including the once excerpted below, titled The Problem of School Bullying.
One of the most important periods in an individual’s life is, without doubt, their school years. … According to data collected by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, about 30% of all children studying in middle and high school were at least once in a semester bullied, or acted as bullies themselves …
Persuasive, or argumentative, essays require students to research a topic, form an opinion, and clearly present an argument. Think of this kind of writing as presenting a debate with evidence that supports your position or point of view on the issue.
This excerpt from an argumentative essay from Roane State Community College includes citations for supporting evidence related to the author’s stance on a controversial program to protect wolf populations in the wild:
Given the elusive nature of wolves and the strong ties which bind them to their own pack, all these measures seem invasive and extreme. … In a recent Congressional hearing, Renee Askins, Executive Director of the Wolf Fund, testified in favor of the plan. … Ms Askins claimed that the significance of returning the wolf to Yellowstone resides in its power as a “deeply and profoundly symbolic act” (Askins 17).
Research papers can be found at all levels of study, and across subjects and majors. Most of these assignments require more time and focus than the types of writing described previously in this guide, and result in a more substantial final product.
Empire State College (ESC) describes a research paper as “an expanded essay that presents your own interpretation or evaluation or argument. … When you write a research paper you build upon what you know about the subject and make a deliberate attempt to find out what experts know.”
The ESC Writing Center presents guidelines for getting started with your research paper, which include:
- Finding focus
- Developing a research question
- Writing a research thesis statement
- Finding and evaluating sources
- Taking notes
- Working with quotations, summaries, paraphrasing
- Writing a draft
- Documenting sources
Before getting started, carefully review the instructions provided by your instructor. Each research paper you write in college will vary in terms of topic and required components, so make sure you are ready to meet the expectations of each assignment. The Illinois Institute of Technology provides an example of the types of research templates and examples you might expect from your institution.
Writing in response to test questions can be similar to the expository and persuasive essay writing styles addressed previously.
Essay tests are often designed to assess your understanding and knowledge of a concept or process, as well as your ability to synthesize what you’ve learned and present it in your own words. As Saint John’s University’s essay exam guidelines present, you may see words like analyze, criticize, describe, evaluate, and interpret in essay test questions.
The University of North Carolina’s Writing Center provides tips for planning your written exam responses for short and long answers. Prepare to write during timed testing situations with techniques such as developing a quick outline, and breaking down manageable pieces of multi-part questions.
Citing your references means giving credit to those who originated the ideas and resources you used in the process of writing your essay or paper. Whether you directly quote other authors or paraphrase their work, it’s essential to provide proper attribution to avoid plagiarizing (stealing), their work.
There are many guides available to document your references, all of which bring consistent formatting and clarity to your work, as well as providing credit to your sources through citations. Three of the most common documentation or style guides are highlighted below. Most programs provide guidance for written assignments that include a single preferred documentation style for a range of materials from books and journals to videos and blog posts. Check with your instructors to be sure you are using the style that is expected in your courses.
The Modern Language Association Handbook for Writers of Research Papers is often used in English, Liberal Arts, and foreign languages programs. Review the following examples of MLA citations:
Laura Hillenbrand. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.
Kareem Khalifa. “The Role of Explanation in Understanding.” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 64.1 (2013): 161-187. Print.
Duvauchelle, Denis. “The Most Valuable Lessons I Learned from Managing a Virtual Team.” The Next Web. December 4, 2013. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.
The poverty experienced during the time was evident through the statement: “If it was edible, Louie stole it” (Hillenbrand 6).
According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab, when using the MLA style, indicate endnotes with a subscript number in the body of the text. Place endnotes on a separate page titled “Notes” at the end of the paper, but before the Works Cited Page.
The MLA 7th edition does not include formatting information for footnotes. For more information refer to your MLA Handbook.
The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association is often used in education and social science programs and courses. Review the following examples of APA citations:
Hillenbrand, L. (2010). Unbroken: A World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption. New York: Random House.
Khalifa, K. (2013). The role of explanation in understanding. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 64(1), 161-187.
Duvauchelle, D. (2013, December 4). The most valuable lessons I learned from managing a virtual team. Retrieved from http://thenextweb.com/entrepreneur/2013/12/04/valuable-lessons-learned-managing-virtual-team/
The poverty experienced during the time was evident through the statement: “If it was edible, Louie stole it” (Hillenbrand, 2010, p. 6).
Footnotes and endnotes are not part of the general APA style of documenting sources. Check with your instructor and the APA manual for more details if your courses require APA and additional notes.
The Chicago Manual of Style is often used in literature, history, and arts programs. Review the following examples of Chicago-Style citations:
Hillenbrand, Laura. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. New York: Random House, 2010.
Khalifa, Kareem. “The Role of Explanation in Understanding,” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 64 (2013): 161-87.
Duvauchelle, Denis. “The Most Valuable Lessons I Learned from Managing a Virtual Team.” The Next Web. Last modified December 4, 2013. http://thenextweb.com/entrepreneur/2013/12/04/valuable-lessons-learned-managing-virtual-team/
The poverty experienced during the time was evident through the statement: “If it was edible, Louie stole it” (Hillenbrand 2010, 6).
The Chicago Manual of Style includes a notes and bibliography (NB) system. This system, similar to MLA, uses subscript numbers to indicate a citation in the text of a paper. If the explanation of the citation is presented at the bottom of the same page, it is a footnote. If the explanation of the citation is presented at the end of a chapter or at the end of the document, it is an endnote.
Manuscripts that include numbered endnotes and/or footnotes may also include a bibliography, which is an alphabetical list of all works cited works in the document.
Check your Chicago Manual of Style for more details about adding notes and a bibliography to your written assignments.