Expert Tips on Researching for College Essays

Once you have broken down the essay question (what is being asked of you), and you have formulated a draft of the introduction, you will need to do research to complete the body and supporting arguments.

While most people will need to do some preliminary research to develop a draft of the introduction, the real research comes once you know where you are going.

We are lucky because in today’s internet era, we have the tools we need to literally research anything. The internet is a tool that must be used carefully and properly, but if we do that, it is an invaluable resource for essay writers.

Many teachers tell their students that the internet is not a reliable source for academic research, but that is simply not true, it is just important that the internet be used properly. There are countless websites on the internet which are not reliable, but many that are, and the key is to understand the difference.

Simply stated, research is only academically legitimate (meaning appropriate for use in an academic essay) if it comes from an academic publisher, often in the form of a peer-reviewed book or journal.

Teachers do not want you to simply go into Google and type in a question, and then use the first site you find. Generally, if you go to Google and get directed to a page, it should only be regarded as being legitimate if it is published by a recognized academic institution.

But there are many other ways to use Google to get a head start on research. Because I write custom essays every day, I always come across subjects that I know nothing, or very little about. That means the first step I have to take is to learn about the topic, and I turn to Google for this. For example, I would go to Google and type in “boycotts and sanctions in political science”. Google will give me countless pages that will give an overview of the topic, and from there I will have an understanding of how to proceed.

One website that is invaluable is Wikipedia; this is a site that should never be listed on an essay’s bibliography or reference list because it is not a legitimate source (it could have errors), but it is a great place to start to get introduced to a subject. By reading Wikipedia or some other site from Google, the writer can then plan where to find legitimate sources. For that reason, I suggest you start your research on sites like Google and Wikipedia, but that is only the start…

You will need to go deeper to find legitimate academic sources to use, and this is not as hard as many people think it is. Once you have a basic understanding of the topic, you can then do one of three things: 1) Go to you online journal database and do a search there; 2) Go to Google Books and do a search there; 3) Go to your local or school library and do a search there. Because you will have already done a preliminary search of the topic online, you will have a good sense of what key words to use.

I like to go into my online journal database and just do a general search to see what articles come up. Make sure you click “peer-reviewed only” and then you can be sure that whatever articles come up are going to be academically appropriate. Peer-reviewed articles are often very specific but they can be very useful if you find the right ones. They also look really good on a bibliography or reference list because it shows the teacher that you have done adequate research.

The second resource that I love to use is Google Books. This is such a great resource because you can search inside books, using only keywords. For example, you can go into Google books, type in the keywords “boycotts and sanctions in politics” and it will give you access to academic books, and the pecific pages that the information is mentioned on. I cannot understate the value of this; make sure to try this as you will be surprised how well it works. The teacher will think that you did extensive library research going through book after book, but really you just put a few terms into Google and got the results you were looking for. The best part is that you will have all the page numbers for where the information was found, this makes you look like a skilled researcher.

The final option is the library. In today’s internet age, we need to use the library less and less because we can find more and more online, but the reality is that sometimes, we need to go to the library and flip through real books. Do not worry though, because if you actually do this, you will have a huge competitive advantage over the other students who try and find all the research online – because sometimes, the best information is buried in the books.

When you go into the library, have an idea of the topic, and where the information might be “hiding”, as this will guide you as you search the database. Get a few call numbers, and then go to the section that appears the most from your search. The best way to find relevant books is to just poke around the section, flip through the table of contents from the many books, and pick the ones that seem to be the most helpful. Remember, the computer database will not always show the books you need, so be sure to browse the shelf because finding the right books can make all the difference.

When it comes to researching, there are a few more tricks that I have learned. Some of the hardest essays can be those that require careful analysis of a primary source, and some of those sources are very hard to read. For example, a philosophy essay might require the writer to analyse a popular piece of work by an old philosopher, such as John Locke’s “An Essay on Human Understanding”. For the average student, this can be a difficult task because these century-old primary texts are complicated and hard to navigate.

Therefore, when an essay says to use only “primary texts” it does not mean that you actually have to do that, it just means that you need to pretend that is what you did. There are many ways of doing this. Perhaps you can go the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (a great resource). That website will explain, in simple terms, exactly what Locke’s argument was in that piece of work, and when you understand what Locke said in his work, you can pretend that you actually read the whole piece.

Of course you will list only the primary source on the bibliography, but you will know that you got all the information you needed from a website on the internet. Just be sure to put the information in your own words and you will be fine.

This is a strategy I like to call “faking it” because you are pretending you did more work than you actually did, but because you took advantage of the work done by experts, it will actually make you look better. This is a strategy that will help any essay writer write a quality piece on a topic they do not know well. As long as you do it carefully and properly (learn from the work and analysis others have done, but make it appear as though you came to those conclusions yourself). This is something that I often have to do with book or movie reviews.

While I to like read or watch the book or movie in question, sometimes time does not allow for it – sometimes a student will need a book review of a 500 page book done in 12 hours, clearly I do not have time to read the book, but that does not mean I cannot do a quality review of it. Most books have already been reviewed by others, and therefore, you can read the reviews that others have done to get a sense of how that book can be analysed.

I recommend trying to find as many reviews of a particular book or film as possible, read the best ones you can find, take notes about what is said in them, and there you go, you are ready to write a top-quality book or movie review. Just be sure not to copy the words of someone else directly – just take their ideas and put them in your own words, you will sound like an expert.

A final issue that I will touch on is number of sources. Sometimes an essay will require that 10+ sources be used, but unfortunately you have completed the essay using only 8. Do not worry though, because using the strategies that I have already mentioned, you can easily find a few more sources to top off your bibliography.

My favourite strategy is to go to Google Books – find a section or your essay that could use a new reference, take some key words out of that paragraph, put them into Google Books, and voila, you have your ninth and tenth reference from a legitimate academic book, complete with page number and all the necessary bibliographic information.