Researching a College Essay
While some essay assignments may just ask you for your citation-free responses to course material or events, most will require some amount of research and source support. A paper that obviously relies on one source of questionable credibility its author found through a quick Google search is not going to earn you a grade you’d like to see. Once you know what you plan to write about, the next logical step is to begin researching the topic and making notes of potential sources of information for your paper.
Where to Look
Many college students dislike research, some even more than they dislike writing. here’s always either too much or too little material on your topic, and sometimes even figuring out where to begin is hard. Professors may have different requirements for print or electronic sources, but regardless of what the mix is, your college library is a great place to start. Most college essays are going to require citations from scholarly sources (just finding a newspaper article or two won’t cut it). Those can usually be found through your college library, online catalogs (which are usually accessible through your library’s website), or through academic searches, like Google Scholar (as opposed to regular Google, which is as likely to lead you to Bob’s Conspiracy Theory Emporium as to a reliable source on your topic).
While your professor probably told you to stay away from Wikipedia and other open-source and not-exactly-scholarly websites when writing your paper, they can actually be a great place to begin research. Encyclopedia entries and other very basic, introductory sources will provide a rough overview of your topic, and many online encyclopedias (including the dreaded Wikipedia) will also include a list of sources they used in compiling the article. Those are typically reliable, often academic, and overall great to use in a paper. Plus, depending on the required citation style for your essay, Wikipedia could have even written part of your works cited page for you.
If you plan to do original research, be aware that your university may have strict requirements for how it must be performed. If you’re involving other subjects, especially people, you may need to go through the college’s Institutional Review Board for permission to continue. Budget time for this and ask your instructor what is required. Some schools grant waivers or have special, expedited application processes for some undergraduate research and interviews.
If you’ve tried the library catalog and the Internet and are still coming up short, or if you just want assistance focusing your search and finding better search terms, you may want to visit with a reference librarian. These people do library research for a living, and it’s frankly amazing what kind of stuff they can find. Your campus library and the public library will likely have someone on staff, but the campus research librarians are likely to have more knowledge of the expectations of your college, and possibly even your professor and the course.
Your instructor is also an excellent person to ask if you’re running into problems. If they’re teaching a class on the subject, they likely know at least a little about it, and may be able to recommend you some books, articles, or at least places to do more research. College professors can be busy people, though, so schedule an appointment to talk about your research, and be sure to mention your topic and the fact that you’re struggling to find sources when you do so.