3 Types of Sources Used in College Essays and How to Find Them

When it comes to writing an academic essay, sources are going to be key. Now that you’ve learned what goes into writing a good essay, it’s time to put together your evidence and make strong statements that will get you that A+ paper. In this chapter, we’ll help you figure out exactly how to use primary and secondary sources, where to find them, and how to make sure your evidence is credible.

We’re going to begin by breaking down the different types of sources you’re likely going to be using and where you can find them.

Primary Sources

A primary source is a document or text written during the time an event took place, usually by someone who witnessed or participated in the event.

These sources are more commonly used in subjects such as history, the humanities, social sciences, and the arts, but could also be valuable in a variety of other topics. Common types of primary sources may include:

  • Letters
  • Journal entries
  • Autobiographies
  • Manuscripts
  • Political documents, such as the United States Constitution
  • Speeches
  • Eyewitness accounts
  • Archived newspaper articles

Primary sources can be really tricky to find if you’re not sure where to look. If you’re willing to venture outside and go see them in person, museums, government buildings, and libraries are full of excellent primary sources.

However, not everyone has time to go and dig through piles of archives or papers dating back decades or even centuries. That’s where the Internet comes in.

Since many primary sources are considered part of the creative commons or open source networks, you can usually locate them on the Internet with a quick Google search or through your library database. Websites such as The Internet History Sourcebooks Project, Project Gutenberg, and government archives have pretty big collections to choose from, organized by time period or subject.

Secondary Sources

The most common type of source you’re probably going to use are secondary sources.

These types of sources are usually written by historians, experts, researchers, or industry professionals that provides an analysis or an interpretation of data or events. They are normally written for other experts in the field to present research or a new perspective on a topic, and rely on research or evidence from other sources.

Almost all secondary sources include a bibliography at the end. Some secondary sources are based on primary sources. For example, many scientific research papers are based on findings from primary source material. A few common types of secondary sources could be:

  • Academic journal articles
  • Books
  • Thesis papers or dissertations
  • Reviews or critiques
  • Biographies
  • Magazine or trade publication articles

For the majority of your papers, your secondary sources are going to be either books or academic journals. Some specialized papers might require that you look in more niche publications or research areas, but it’s a safe bet that using secondary scholarly sources are going to be your bread and butter.

Peer-Reviewed Sources

You’re going to see the words “peer-reviewed” come up a lot in your essay instructions, assignment details, and many other places. Professors often require you to use only peer-reviewed sources in your papers because they are more credible and reliable as evidence. In some cases, these are also referred to as “refereed” sources.

Peer-reviewed sources are sources, usually published in books or academic journals, that have been reviewed and fact-checked by a team of people before publication. Most of the time, the people who
are doing the fact-checking are other experts within that field.

Additionally, the fact-checkers or reviewers don’t usually have any connection to the authors, so they provide a more objective perspective. This adds to the credibility of the article.

To identify if an article you want to use is peer-reviewed, check the publication. If it doesn’t tell you in the description, most of the time a publication will state this information on its website.

It’s safe to say that most academic journals are peer-reviewed, but this isn’t always the case. Opinion papers, editorials, letters to the editor, magazine articles, and reviews are not usually peer-reviewed and sometimes aren’t allowed as a source in your paper. Most university online library databases include a search filter option where you can request peer-reviewed results only, so make sure you check for this while searching for sources.

How to Find Good Source Material

It’s easy to end up in a bottomless pit of source material, digging through list after list of database search results. This can get very frustrating very quickly. When you find yourself approaching this point of desperation, here are some things you can do to get back on track.

Use the Internet (carefully). You can use websites like Wikipedia to get some decent background information about your subject, but you absolutely cannot use them as sources for your paper. These sources can be edited by anyone, and are not fact-checked, so you can’t trust that the information is going to be accurate or credible. However, there are tons of great online databases and search engines
that can help you find credible, academic sources to use. Your school library website is a great place to start.

Refine your search. Narrow down your keywords to specific topics. When looking through academic journals for sources, it’s hard to find general information because most journals are written about a very specific branch of a topic. For example, you won’t be able to find a generic academic journal with an overview of the Civil Rights Movement, but you can find sources about specific elements such as the use of protest songs during the movement, how the Civil Rights Act was developed, and so on.

For generic information about an event or topic, books are your best bet. Since books are much longer than journal articles, and take a lot more time to write and publish, they have tons of room for a broad
range of information. Many books are written by people who have dedicated their lives to studying those subjects, so they have a lot to say about them. However, be careful when using certain types of books, as books aren’t always peer-reviewed, and many of them tend to lean heavily toward that person’s opinion or perspective. As a result, they can be biased.

When in doubt, talk to a librarian. Their job is to know where to find information, and they are happy to help you. It doesn’t hurt to strike up a conversation at your school’s library, and chances are someone else has done the same research as you in a previous class.