Your first semester of college has been a barrage of heavy reading, high-pressure exams, and challenging class discussions. So far, you’ve been holding your own, but your confidence begins to crumble when you get your first major writing assignment. You’ve never had to work so hard to write a paper this long and complicated. Gone are your days of reading Spark Notes and throwing together a paper an hour before it’s due. 

If you’re staring at a blank Word document with no idea where to start, don’t despair. Fortunately, help is all around you. Here are four tips to help you ace your essays.

1. Follow the prompt.

There isn’t one right way to write a college-level paper; every essay will have different requirements. Before you write a bunch of material you can’t use, spend some time reading over the assignment guidelines. Look for keywords that reveal what approach you should take and what skills you need to demonstrate. 

For example, if your professor asks you to “report your experiment’s results” or “summarize the article,” your writing needs to be concise and objective. If, on the other hand, the prompt asks you to “present an argument” or “formulate a thesis,” providing a brief overview of a topic isn’t enough; you need to take a position on a specific issue and provide evidence to prove your opinion is valid. 

Words like “describe,” “explain,” “discuss,” or “analyze” indicate you need to go into detail. If your analysis would fit in a Tweet, it needs more development. One way to ensure you’re being thorough is to pretend your audience hasn’t read the novel or isn’t familiar with the topic, so you need to explain key concepts and provide examples. Don’t gloss over something just because your professor already knows about it.

2. Talk to the prof.

Let’s say the assignment guidelines are a little vague or so full of jargon they might as well be written in ancient Sumerian. The only person who can help decipher these requirements is the professor who assigned the essay. 

Students often avoid approaching their professors outside of class because they find them intimidating. First-generation college students are especially reluctant to draw attention to their perceived weaknesses by asking for help. Remember your professors are ordinary human beings who are there to help, not judge. Your instructor would much rather you take the initiative and clear up any confusion before the assignment is due than complain about a bad grade later.

Most faculty post weekly office hours. To confirm your instructor’s availability, send a polite, professional email to set up an appointment. Bring a copy of the guidelines, a list of questions, and any writing you’ve already done. Once you have a better idea how to approach the assignment, you might set up a followup appointment, so your instructor can read your draft and let you know if you’re on the right track.

3. Start early and write often.

If your professor assigns an essay that’s due in two weeks, that’s a clear indication you’ll need the full two weeks to produce your best writing and still have time to complete other school work and occasionally sleep, eat, and shower. The day you find out about an assignment, start working. 

If you don’t know what to write about, do some brainstorming. You might do some freewriting or word association. You might generate a list of questions you want to explore. You could also organize your ideas visually using a mind map or a fishbone diagram

Writing a 20-page research paper is an intimidating prospect, but it’s more manageable when you break it down into smaller tasks. Set time aside each day and commit to writing one sentence, locating one source, or editing one paragraph you’ve already written. Once you meet your daily goal, you might have enough momentum to keep working. 

4. Use all available resources.

Brainstorming doesn’t have to take place alone in your dorm room at 2:00 AM. Your campus is chock full of people ready to help you with every step of your writing process. Your reference librarian can help you search for reliable sources using library databases, so you can read academic journal articles without hitting a paywall and won’t end up citing a webpage created by a third grader. 

Once you’ve written a draft, take advantage of your college writing center or any free tutoring available. Even the best writers miss mistakes in their own work, so the more eyes you have on your paper, the more errors you’ll eliminate. Even if you can’t take your paper to a professional, trade papers with a classmate and give each other feedback or read your essay aloud to someone else to catch awkward phrasing or unnecessary repetition.

Online resources beyond your particular institution are abundant. Websites that provide homework help sometimes have college-level tutors who can explain basic concepts and provide general suggestions. Remember these resources are there to support your writing, not write the paper for you. Copying material from a message board or turning in a sample paper you found online is plagiarism, which could mean a one-way ticket home and a career in pizza delivery.

What strategies do you use to tackle challenging writing assignments? Share your advice in the comments.