Style Guides, Tips & Expert Advice on Essays, Papers & College Applications

Whether responding to a short prompt, creative writing or crafting a long-form essay, writing is an indispensable skill for students who want to excel in their postsecondary education. When graduation rolls around, these same skills will be needed once more, whether in writing a cover letter for a potential job or composing essays for graduate-level admissions and scholarship requirements.

College Paper Writing Styles

Common UsagesTopics Addressed
Associated Press StyleJournalism, news writing, magazines, websitesProvides the most in-depth stylistic rules, including abbreviations, punctuation and how to properly write common things like dates and numbers
American Psychological Association StyleSocial science publications, including areas of politics, psychology, or sociology; scientific research papersIn-text citations and referencing are commonly discussed in APA, as is the importance of properly formatting sentences
Chicago StyleManuscripts, written publications – including fiction and nonfictionMostly refers to bibliographies and citations rather than stylistic rules of writing
Modern Language Association StyleAcademic papers, literature, topics related to the humanities; often introduced in high schoolA big emphasis is placed on proper citation and referencing as authorship is an important topic in the humanities

Writing Style Resources


Provided by the American Psychological Association, this resource is available as an online resource, e-book, or printed book and operates as a complete guide for writing and publishing materials that adhere to APA style.

The Associated Press Stylebook

Published annually with updates, this digital and printed resource is the AP style bible and provides information on any topic covered under AP style rules.

The Chicago Manual of Style

Now in its 16th edition, this online and printed guide provides information on stylistic rules alongside information on correct citations. The website also features a handy Q&A section for tricky style queries.

The MLA Style Center

The Modern Language Association provides this comprehensive online resource with answers to common questions and tips for properly using MLA style. Users can also purchase the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook.

The Purdue OWL

Provided by Purdue University, this expansive website houses a host of writing resources alongside a wide range of research, writing, and citation tools for each of the main style guides. Best of all, everything on this website is free.

Citations in College Writing

Trying to remember all the rules of each style can be next to impossible for most students. The tips below help students identify a few of the most important rules while also giving them a list of common errors to avoid.

Crucial Citation Tips

Quoting, Paraphrasing & Summarizing

Initially confusing to students are the differences in quoting, paraphrasing, or summarizing a writer's work within their own pieces. Although it may seem like a grey area at first, strict rules govern how and when an original source must be cited, no matter the style guide being used.

An Important Note on Plagiarism

According to studies by Education Week and the Psychological Record, 54 percent of students have admitted to plagiarizing sources from the Internet, while 36 percent admit to plagiarizing written material. Plagiarism is a serious issue not only because it undermines the educational system, but also because it ultimately cheats students out of a rigorous learning experience. Although some students purposefully provide inaccurate citations and bibliographies, the majority are not even aware of their indiscretions. Still, it becomes their responsibility when a paper is submitted with their name listed as the author. Put simply, a student is plagiarizing when they:

Given the seriousness of this topic, Affordable Colleges Online provides an entire guide on Plagiarism Prevention and Awareness to help educate students on how to avoid this pitfall.

Plagiarism Prevention and Awareness

Plagiarism Resources

Document and Citation Resources for Writers

Stanford University's Hume Center for Writing and Speaking provides advice and research for new and seasoned writers alike looking to ensure their citations are correct.

Harvard University's Tips to Avoid Plagiarism

Offered as a comprehensive resource on plagiarism and proper citations, this is a handy guide that any student would do well to save as a bookmark.

This all-in-one site provides information on both plagiarism and how to avoid it. In addition to providing a citation guide, the website also features an “Ask the Experts” section for questions that may not have a clear answer.

Help for Writing in College

Campus Writing Centers

Whether students are looking to improve their journalistic, creative or academic writing styles, taking time to visit the campus writing center is one of the best decisions they can make. Research and writing can be a lonely endeavor sometimes, and it's helpful to get outside perspective from others who haven't spent hours laboring over the document in question. Not only that, writing coaches are on hand to offer guidance, give tips on sentence structure, or provide resources to help learners improve their writing abilities. Best of all, almost every college writing center provides support free of charge. Some of the services a student may expect to find include:

Writing Help Online

Online writing centers typically fall into two categories: those hosted by universities and those provided by companies offering services for a fee.

Tutors/Coaches vs. Essay Writers

Unfortunately, less reputable companies have taken the online writing center model into unethical waters by providing essay writing services. As discussed in the section on plagiarism, any time a student places their name on a paper and turns it in to their professor, they are affirming that they produced the words and ideas held within. Using an essay writer is in direct violation of university codes of ethics and should be avoided by any student who values an honest academic career.

Writing Center Resources

International Writing Center's Association

Founded in affiliation with the National Council of Teachers of English, the IWCA is an excellent resource for students trying to find reputable options and for teachers looking to set up a writing center on their campus.

Purdue University's Online Writing Lab (OWL)

The excellent resources and guides provided by Purdue are accessible to any student, regardless of the school they attend. While additional services are available to those enrolled, Purdue's offerings truly set the bar for best practices in college writing.

The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill

The University of North Carolina offers dozens of online handouts for students seeking information about incorporating evidence, revising drafts, writing thesis statements, using succinct language and conducting a comprehensive edit.

The University of Iowa's Writing Center

World-renowned for the Iowa Writers' Workshop, it's no surprise that this university offers an outstanding writing center. Resources cover topics ranging from the basics of academic writing to proper punctuation and grammar.

The Journey to Writing Great Papers

Let's say a student has what they consider to be the best idea ever for a research paper that's just been assigned by one of their professors. It's a topic they are both knowledgeable and passionate about, and they feel as if they could write about it for days. No matter how great an idea may seem at the outset, students who fail to properly plan for and follow the time-honored steps for crafting a long-form document often find themselves in an amorphous space where their ideas are muddled by lack of structure. Before any writing takes place, students need to create a plan for success. Steps on this path may include:

  1. Selecting a subject areaWhether it's American involvement in World War II or significant advancements within the field of epidemiology, figuring out a general subject area needs to be the first thing a student does.
  2. Picking a topicBut you just did that, right? Not exactly. Unless students are writing a PhD dissertation, they'll need to focus a bit more or they won't be able to truly dig into the subject matter. Rather than trying to tackle massive topics like the ones given above, students need to hone in on particular moments. Looking at how Roosevelt responded to news of the attack on Pearl Harbor or a single breakthrough in epidemiology will make the task at hand much more manageable.
  3. Crafting a thesisAfter selecting a topic, students need an argument to guide the paper. Maybe that means stating that the president would have been better equipped had modern-day technologies been available or that a particular finding in epidemiology was more important than others. Finding the hook and creating focus keeps students from finding themselves without direction later in the process.
  4. Starting a bibliographyAs students conduct research, they need to keep track of all the sources they've viewed to avoid accidental plagiarism later. It doesn't have to be formatted at this point, but keeping a running list will help avoid headaches down the road.
  5. Taking some notesUnless a student has a photographic memory, the time is right to start jotting down ideas and particularly relevant passages. They'll thank themselves for spending a bit of extra time on this step when it comes to remembering which author said that brilliant thing that they definitely want to include.
  6. Making an outlineHaving chosen a thesis and reviewed a few sources, the time is right to start outlining. Like the initial bibliography, this document will evolve during the research process, but it's an effective way to start organizing ideas and finding connections – while also helping students avoid wasting time on materials that aren't relevant.
  7. Writing a rough draftAsk any writer worth their salt about the value of first drafts and they'll have a thing or two to say on the subject. As advocated by successful writer Anne Lamott and others like her, the value of moving ideas from our brains to the paper without worrying about grammar, punctuation or syntax cannot be underestimated. Students who try to write refined copy from the outset often limit their ability to draw meaningful connections because they're too concerned about making them sound polished. Let the ideas flow for now and worry about the way they sound during the editing process.
  8. EditingAfter putting so much thought and effort into a paper, the worst thing a student could do at this stage is fail to edit. If possible, try to take some time away and come back with a fresh pair of eyes. In addition to monitoring grammar and punctuation, think about the overall content as well. Does each paragraph contribute to the thesis statement? Have appropriate sources been used to back up those claims? Are there proper transitions between each idea presented? Most writers read through their work numerous times, completing different types of edits during each review.
  9. Writing the final paper and bibliographyHaving made the edits, it's time for one more review to ensure every comma is in the correct place and every citation has been properly noted. Having started with a bibliography and added to it as more sources were found, students can use this rough list to form their final bibliography according to the style rules in place.

Resources for Writing an Essay

8 Tips for Crafting Your Best College Essay

College Board offers a range of helpful ideas for ensuring the next paper a student turns in meets all the criteria to be deemed excellent.

Research Paper Writing Tips

The OWL at Purdue offers a step-by-step handout to help students move from a great idea to a great grade.

The Importance of Rough Drafts

Penned by a writer who knows a thing or two about the value of rough drafts, this essay hosted by the English department at George Mason University underscores how important these first attempts can be in producing a polished final product.

College Application & Scholarship Essay Writing

Perhaps the most important piece of writing a student will complete before setting foot in a university classroom is the one that gets them there in the first place. Keeping in mind that college admissions staff read hundreds – if not thousands – of entrance essays every year, students looking to stand out from their competition need to keep a few basic rules in mind to achieve success:

  1. Read the prompt, then read it five more timesIf a student fails to understand the question at hand, the rest of their efforts are all for naught. Try to get inside the minds of these professionals and understand what they are really looking for when asking the question. Think about how the question allows them to understand if a student will be able to excel at the institution, and tailor answers with that question in mind.
  2. Create an outlineAs with any other essay, the one written as part of a college admissions packet needs to be thought-out and organized. Think about the points that must be made, develop a logical sequence, and gather any information needed to clearly express each point.
  3. DemonstrateStudents often fall into the trap of telling rather than showing. Rather than stating that you enjoy mathematics, think about ways of demonstrating your passion for the subject. Include information about accomplishments or involvement throughout high school, such as test scores, tutoring younger students, participating in a math competition or starting a math club. This extra step will help students stand out from applicants who don't grasp this important distinction.
  4. Stick to the factsIn the face of pressure to stand out, it can be tempting to embellish accomplishments or experiences. Don't do this. Aside from the fact that essay readers are well-versed in detecting falsehoods at first glance, students also must remember that any claims made will need to be verified later.
  5. Use your voiceWhile it's important to demonstrate a strong command of the English language, readers also want to get a sense of you and how you communicate. Resist the urge to dig out a thesaurus and use words that aren't part of your normal vocabulary, as this often comes across awkwardly. Write in clear, succinct sentences that address the topic at hand while showing your unique writing style.
  6. Ask for a few fresh pairs of eyesWhile it's a great thing to know your essay backwards and forwards, this can also be a downfall when it comes to editing. Rather than trying to go it alone, don't hesitate to ask a parent or teacher to look at your work. These readers want you to succeed, and they'll take their job of suggesting improvements seriously. Be sure to consider that they may have busy schedules and likely won't be able to provide sound advice if they don't receive it until the day before an application is due.

Resources for Admissions & Scholarship Essay Writing

Essays that Worked

Each year, Johns Hopkins University provides a selection of winning essays that impressed the admissions reading panel during the previous academic year.

The Common Application: Essay Prompts

As of the 2017-2018 academic year, nearly 700 colleges and universities accept the Common Application – including all eight Ivy Leagues and many other highly regarded institutions. Each year, the Common Application releases its list of essay prompts so students can begin thinking about how to craft thoughtful responses.

Tip Sheet: An Admissions Dean Offers Advice on Writing a College Essay

The New York Times provides this interview via The Choice, a portion of their website devoted to helping students get into college and pay for it.

Tools & Apps for College Writing Help

Bibliography Generators

For some students, writing the bibliography can feel as stressful as composing an essay. With so many rules about what should be in parentheses, when italics should be employed, and where that pesky period belongs, it can be enough to give even a seasoned writer a quickened pulse. This is especially true for writers who are called upon to use multiple style guides for classes. While some writers still rely on style handbooks, many students now use bibliography generators to avoid easily avoidable mistakes. A word to the wise: It's incredibly important to find a credible generator or students could run into trouble with outdated methods or incorrect styles.

Some of the most well-regarded bibliography generators available currently include:


This fully automated service allows writers to search for sources to be auto-filled in the citation or they can enter the information themselves. Styles covered by BibMe include APA, Chicago, MLA, and Turabian.

Citation Machine

Provided as a service by Chegg, this tool can provide bibliographies in APA, Chicago, MLA, and Turabian formats.


One of the oldest and best bibliography generators on the Internet, EasyBib has been used by millions of writers working in APA, Chicago, or MLA formats.

North Carolina State University Citation Builder.

Although predominately created for NCSU students, this citation building is available for anyone with an Internet connection to use.

Writing Apps

Writing apps can be a great addition to a student's essay toolkit when used appropriately and responsibly. While no application is as effective as the eye of a seasoned writer, they can help students explore topics, create outlines, organize sources, and catch basic grammar mistakes.

Admissions Essays

A great app for high school students seeking inspiration for their admission essay, this space houses hundreds of successful examples.

Based on the use of artificial intelligence, this app plays music meant to help writers be more focused and attentive to the task at hand.


For visual writers, this mind mapping tool helps them explore connections between their ideas to create more cohesive, streamlined essays.


The ultimate list app, EverNote allows users to write down ideas, organize thoughts, create outlines, and many other preparatory activities that go into writing a great essay.


For students who want to work on their essays from multiple computers, GoogleDocs is a cloud-based storage and word-processing app that every college student needs.


Students who need to stay organized to produce their best work often use Mendeley to organize their research documents and PDF files.

Pro Writing Aid

This editing tool helps writers avoid common issues, such as convoluted sentence structures, vague language, and overusing particular words.


A tool to help minimize distractions, Q10 provides a full-screen experience that allows users to set timers, create word count goals, and increase their productivity.

Written? Kitten

For the writer who needs a reward every once in a while, this app shows the user a picture of a kitten for every 100 words written.

Student Interview


CAMERON D. CLARKis currently in his second year at Harvard Law School. He is a prolific writer on topics surrounding sociology and the law, and was published on an undergraduate law review during his senior year at Rasmussen College. U.S. News & World Report featured his advice on how to make a strong argument in a law school application while Rasmussen College published his piece on how to determine whether a source is authoritative.


What are the most common issues/mistakes you see in college students' writing? 

Depending on one's field of study, the issues and challenges that students face will vary. In the social sciences, students often find difficulty in appreciating the intellectual endeavor in which they are involved. This leads some students to conduct bare-minimum research, treating a paper like a race to whatever arbitrary page or word requirement is made by their professor. The anxiety that is created by these requirements often lead students to write in a stream-of-consciousness style, their main point completed pages prior.

What are some quick tips that students can implement to make themselves better writers?

Students should be diligent in their research for assigned topics. Sources should range in scope, and not be limited solely to the results of a Wikipedia search and its related endnotes. Colleges offer significant research archives, which are often underutilized. A core tip: students, use your research to capture the cutting-edge research in your field/topic of interest. For example, limit research initially to results from the past one or two years, expanding your scope as necessary to capture more leads. This ensures that students have the latest knowledge and analysis that can be used to further their analysis.

How can learners best take advantage of campus-based and online writing centers?

Campus research and writing centers often work best when students come with a strong understanding of their topic and the information they will need to grapple with in order to create an excellent work product. For a research center, students should come to the center with specific questions and interests that they seek to learn more about. A research center will then help them to track down the best leads to find information. For a writing center, having this information together and digested will allow students to work collaboratively with writing center staff to develop outlines and writing techniques. 

Can the importance of the editing process really be overstated?

A lack of editing has been the downfall of many a writer—this includes well-recognized researchers and professors too! The editing process is much more than proofreading for spelling or grammatical errors: it offers the opportunity to review one's arguments, find holes, clarify points, and define the scope of future research. For this reason, (as well as the general challenge of editing a full manuscript) I recommend editing periodically throughout the writing of an essay. This might mean following along with an outline to define stopping points to re-read and digest writing that has already been done. Again, it also allows students to get a bird's eye view of their paper and where it is going. If a segment of the essay is shorter than the student expected, they can then take time to review more literature to bolster the section and give it greater depth.

Professor Interview


DR. DAVID BRAUERearned his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia. He currently is Associate Professor of English and Director of the University Writing Center at the University of North Georgia's Dahlonega campus.


What are the most common issues/mistakes you see in college students' writing? 

There are a number of common issues in student writing these days. In terms of grammatical correctness, students struggle more with commas and apostrophes than other major errors. They will produce comma splices, too, if they are not aware of conjunctive adverbs (however, therefore, etc.) Many students don't understand basic parts of speech – they can do okay for a while but may struggle with more complex sentence structure. The comma errors result from a lack of familiarity with written texts. In short, they need to read more in order to have a "feel" for grammar.

As far as content is concerned, students struggle to analyze texts carefully and effectively. They don't know how to respond to textual evidence in a way that explains the importance of textual evidence in demonstrating or developing a claim. They also struggle to develop their own ideas clearly and have trouble applying ideas in tangible situations. As they work through their college experience, these issues tend to improve, but many students are simply deficient in these areas.

What are some quick tips that students can implement to make themselves better writers? 

To become a better writer is not something done very quickly. There are some ways to improve a text, but often, students will not be able to move much beyond their baseline abilities, especially in a short-term, pressure situation of completing an assignment. They need to become aware of their basic strengths and weaknesses and try to address their weaknesses as best as possible. They can develop editing strategies (reading aloud, reading for specific errors), but their content will improve incrementally as they pay more attention to their content and style. They should also ask questions of their instructors to get ideas about how to organize or develop a specific writing assignment. Too many students don't take advantage of the fact that the instructor should be able to provide some guidance on a given assignment. Overall, there are few shortcuts, though. Improvement takes time and commitment.

How can learners best take advantage of campus-based and online writing centers?

To take advantage of writing centers and tutoring, students need to make this a habit. They need to get tutoring on a consistent basis to improve. If they can plan to take a draft to a Writing Center tutor for every assignment, their writing will likely improve. They should not see the Writing Center as a kind of "urgent care" service but instead as a service that will help them to become more self-aware as writers. When they get help from a tutor, students should try to consider what they want the tutor to discuss or focus on during the session and communicate that information to the tutor. Otherwise, the tutor may not provide the kind of help that the student needs.

Can the importance of the editing process really be overstated?

Editing should be saved for the final stages of a writing assignment. If a student tries to edit too early, they will waste time and get sidetracked by style and editing when they should be focused on content. That said, they need to save adequate time for editing and proofreading and consider that editing may involve several stages of interaction with a draft. For instance, if they are working on an assignment involving research, they should proofread for proper research mechanics so that they follow the rules of documentation style. Then, after they have made sure that they are quoting and citing their sources, they can then focus on grammar and punctuation. Editing is critical, and students often leave too little time for it. They should have friends whom they trust read for common errors or for issues with content, focus, and clarity.

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