For College Students: How to Make a Strong First Impression on Paper

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When you think of first impressions, you probably think of your physical appearance, your clothing, your speech, and your manners. While all these things are important in a general sense, they probably won’t influence your teachers or affect your grades as much as the first written assignment you hand in for a particular course. So to make a strong first impression on paper, consider the following six tidbits of advice.

1. Make sure your assignment is typed and handed in on time. You’re in college now. That means handwritten papers are no longer acceptable. Even if you don’t have a computer or a word processor at home, as a college student, you probably have a computer account on campus and numerous computer labs available to you. Take advantage of them, and give yourself plenty of time to complete the assignment on schedule. A first assignment that is typed and on time may lead your professors to think that you are organized and prepared.

2. Write to the correct length. If your professor asks you to write two full pages, don’t write one or three. Believe it or not, teachers have a specific purpose in mind when they assign the length of an assignment. They may want you to be precise and direct in a short assignment, or they may want you to provide examples and background information in a longer paper. Writing to the requested length may lead your instructors to conclude that you can follow directions and are willing to do so.

3. Use a strong thesis early in your paper. Your thesis is your main idea, and your thesis belongs, generally, at the end of your first paragraph. Your thesis also lets your reader know where the essay is headed and how it’s going to get there. Here’s an example of a strong thesis: “The Hudson River should be dredged for four main reasons.” A strong thesis in the proper location will let your instructors know you are serious about what you have to say.

4. Use transitions to move your readers from one idea to the next. If you’re writing about the four reasons for dredging the Hudson, you should use words like “first, second, third, and fourth” to separate your reasons. Yes, a new paragraph will indicate that you’re moving on to a new idea, but without a transition, the reader might not know if the new idea is still part of the previous reason or a new reason altogether. Transitions make your writing more clear and make you appear ordered and logical.

5. Have a strong conclusion. Just as your thesis introduces your main idea, your conclusion reminds the readers of that idea and allows them to remember your idea and think about it. You may want to conclude with a summary, a challenge, or a call to action. A strong summary shows that you are secure and confident.

6. Use the spellchecker and the grammar checker on your computer and proofread carefully. In the days before computers, teachers may have been a bit more lenient. They might have forgiven a spelling error, for example, if it looked more like a typing error. Today, however, you can’t let anything slide by. Your professors expect you to use the tools available to you. Your professors also expect you to catch the errors that the computers miss. A paper that is free of spelling errors and typos will show you to be a competent and careful writer.

First impressions — either positive or negative — are hard to overcome. This semester, take your time with that first writing assignment and make a great first impression on your instructors.

Written by

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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