Quick Tips Part 5: How to Come Up with a Thesis

By Stefanie Weisman

If you’re a high school or college student, you probably dread having to come up with a thesis.  A thesis is the argument you make in your paper based on research and/or your own experience.  Sometimes a thesis will come to you very quickly, in a flash of inspiration.  But most of the time, it takes a lot more work.

When writing a research paper, consider yourself part of a scholarly debate.  It’s perfectly acceptable – even encouraged – to challenge the ideas you read in a book or heard from your teacher.  A thesis should be your own unique, original contribution to the debate.

To come up with a thesis, think critically as you read books, articles, and other sources.  You should constantly ask yourself questions such as:

  • Why did a person or character do something?  What motivates him/her?
  • Who/ What is responsible for an event or action?
  • What is the cause of something?  What is the effect of something?
  • What is the significance of an action or event?
  • What are some potential flaws in an author’s argument or idea?  Are there other possible explanations?
  • What do you think about an issue?  Do you agree with the given interpretation?  Why or why not?
  • How did an event or action take place?  Why did it take place the way it did?
As you do research, try thinking like a reporter – always ask “who, what, where, when, why, and how?”

Do you have any tips for coming up with a thesis?

For more tips on writing papers, check out The Secrets of Top Students.

Quick Tips Part 4: How to Use Google for Academic Research

By Stefanie Weisman

Sure, you use Google to look up cute cat videos, but it can also be a great tool for academic research.  Here are some tips on how to use Google to find sources good enough to cite in your papers.

  • Use double quotes to search for an exact term or a set of words in a specific order.
  • Include “site:” to limit your search to a particular website (e.g., “site:nytimes.com”) or top-level domain (e.g., “site:.edu” – this is useful if you only want to search websites hosted by universities).
  • If you’re looking for pdf documents – which tend to be more scholarly than regular websites – enter your search term(s) followed by “filetype:pdf”.
  • When trying to find a term on a web page, don’t forget about Ctrl-F (or Command-F if you use a Mac).  Just type the word or phrase you want to find in the box that pops up, and it’ll show you all the places where it occurs.
  • Use Google Scholar to search for academic articles, and Google Books for easily searchable texts.

What are some Google search techniques you like to use?

For more tips on writing and research, check out The Secrets of Top Students.

Quick Tips Part 3: Common Grammar Mistakes All College Students Should Avoid

Make sure you know the difference between . . .

  1.  Your vs. You’re
    • “Your” is the second person possessive adjective and describes something as belonging to you.
      • Ex.: Your paper is written very well.
    • “You’re” is the contraction of “you are.”
      • Ex.: You’re going to do very well on this test.
  2. Its vs. It’s
    • “Its” is a possessive adjective meaning “of it” or “belonging to it.”
      • Ex.: I love that bakery.  Its bread is to die for.
    • “It’s” is the contraction of “it is” or “it has.”
      • Ex.: It’s also got amazing coffee.
  3. There vs. Their vs. They’re
    • “There” can indicate a place, introduce a noun or clause, or be used for emphasis.
      • Ex.: I’m going to be sitting over there.
    • “Their” is the third-person plural possessive adjective meaning “of them” or “belonging to them.”
      • Ex.: I don’t like our new neighbors.  Their dog was barking all night.
    • “They’re” is the contraction of “they are.”
      • Ex.: They’re buying a house.
  4. Who’s vs. Whose
    • “Who’s” is the contraction of “who is” or “who has.”
      • Ex.: Who’s going to the baseball game tonight?
    • “Whose” is the possessive form of “who.”
      • Ex.: Whose baseball bat is this?
  5. Who vs. Whom
    • “Who” is a subject, the person performing the action of the verb.
      • Ex.: Who wants ice cream?
    • “Whom” is an object, the person to, about, or for whom the action is being done.
      • Ex.: To whom should I send this letter?
  6. Then vs. Than
    • “Then” can mean “at that point in time,” “next,” “in addition,” “also,” “in that case,” “therefore.”
      • Ex.: The man opened the door.  Then he turned off the light.
    • “Than” is a conjunction used in comparisons.
      • Ex.: He is taller than his brother.

For more tips on grammar and writing, check out The Secrets of Top Students.

Quick Tips Part 2: How to Use Citations in Your Papers

By Stefanie Weisman

Writing a paper and need help with citations?  Can’t choose between APA, MLA, and Chicago Style?  Here’s a quick overview to help you decide:

The three most common citation styles are APA (American Psychological Association), MLA (Modern Language Association), and CMS (Chicago Manual of Style).  Your teacher may tell you which one to use, but MLA is used most often in humanities courses; APA is generally used in social sciences, engineering, and business courses; and CMS tends to be used in history courses.

All of these citation styles consist of two parts:

  1. A section at the end of your paper, in which you list all the sources you used for your paper, in alphabetical order.  In MLA style, this is called the “Works Cited” page.  In APA style, this is called  the “References” page.  And in CMS style, this is called the “Bibliography.”  In this list, you will usually have to include the author of the work, the title, the journal or anthology it comes from (if applicable), the editor or translator (if applicable), the publisher, the publisher’s location, and the date of publication.  If your source is a website, you will probably have to list the web address and the date you accessed it.
  2. Attribution for each quote, paraphrase, and summary in your paper.  Whenever you use someone else’s words or ideas, you must state the source and the page number(s) where they come from.  This may occur in the form of in-text citation, which appears within the body of the paper (as in the case of APA and MLA); or in the form of footnotes or endnotes (as in the case of CMS).
You do NOT need attribution when:

  • You state your own, original ideas.
  • You state something that is common knowledge.

If you’re in doubt about whether something needs attribution, however, you’re better off citing it just to be on the safe side.


Here are some great online resources to help you with citations.

Online Guidelines:

  1. Bedford/ St. Martin’s Website guide to researching and documenting sources
  2. The OWL Purdue Online Writing Lab

Online Citation Generators:

  • Griffith University provides a free online referencing tool in which you select what citation style you are using and the type of source you are citing.  It then shows you an example of how to format that citation.
  • Son of a Citation Machine is another free online source in which you choose your citation style and enter information about your source in order to view the correctly formatted citation.
  • EasyBib provides a free citation generator for MLA format.
  • You can also use Zotero to organize your research and generate citations automatically.  This requires you to download some free software.

What are some tools you like to use?

For more tips on writing papers, check out The Secrets of Top Students.


Quick Tips Part 1: Taking Notes in Class

By Stefanie Weisman

It’s back-to-school time!  I’m going to be posting a series of “quick tips” on this blog, to help you start the school year off right.

Here’s quick tip #1: When taking notes in class, make sure you use lots of symbols and abbreviations to record things quickly and efficiently.  Here’s a list to help you get started:

Symbol/ Abbreviation  Meaning
 + and, in addition to, plus
 –  except for, excluding, minus
 =  equals, is equal to, is the same as
 ∼  is similar to, is like, is about, resembles
 <  is/ has less than
 >  is/ has more than, exceeds
therefore, thus, because
leads to, results in, means, signifies
 ↑ gets bigger, increases, grows
Δ change in [something]
w/ with
w/o without
b/c because
ex. for example
vs. versus, as opposed to

You should also develop your own abbreviations for different types of courses – especially for long, complicated words that come up frequently.

And when the teacher uses multi-syllable words that take a long time to write, try to substitute them with shorter synonyms – for example, “means” instead of “signifies,” and “but” instead of “however.”

For more study skills tips, check out The Secrets of Top Students.

Moving Off-Campus: What You Need to Know

By Stacy Eden

Moving into your first real apartment or house off-campus is tricky, especially if you spent a year or two in the dorms. For most college students, dorm life is the first time to live without the watchful eye of the parental units. And because you have this experience under your belt, you may be thinking that an apartment is pretty much the same thing, right? Wrong!

Your first apartment or house is a big adjustment, maybe even bigger than adjusting to the dorms. You have roommates, the commute to campus, renters insurance and cooking your own meals to keep you busy when you’re not studying. But don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Here are the essential hacks every new off-campus student needs to make the transition go smoothly:

Prepare for Moving Day

It’s a lot different than moving into the dorms. For one thing, your parents may not be there to help this time. And while your friends are willing to help if you promise to feed them, don’t rely on anyone to show up out of the goodness of their heart. And don’t expect a rented moving truck to be easy to drive either. If you have big or heavy stuff to move, it may be worth it to budget enough cash to hire movers. It may save you a lot of time and frustration in the end.

Take Inventory of Damages

Take pictures on your phone of every dent and ding in the walls, every little blemish and any other damage in your apartment first thing on your move-in date. Email the pictures to yourself with the subject: security deposit. Landlords are notorious for blaming renters at the end of the lease for small flaws that were already there to keep the deposit. If you have photographic proof that the damage was already there (most camera phones have a photo time stamp), you have a better chance of getting your deposit back.

Get Renters Insurance

Odds are you have some pretty valuable stuff in your new place, like your computer, speakers, TV, musical instruments and gaming systems. Don’t risk what you can’t afford to lose. Get renters insurance — You’ll sleep better at night.

But don’t stop there. Make a list in Excel of all your valuables; include the make and the model, and hang on to the receipt if you can. Also take a picture of where each high-ticket item usually is in your house or apartment. This makes it easier to file a report with police and put in a claim with the insurance company if you need to.

Pay Rent on Time

Late fees kill your summer savings. It can be tough to get that check to the front office or in the mail every month when you have classes, tests and a social life to think about. But this is one place where being late doesn’t fly. Talk to your roomies about setting up direct deposit so you’re not waiting on anyone’s share of the rent to make you late.

Also take a look at your lease before you sign to make sure that late fees are in writing and aren’t totally unreasonable. Nolo has a great legal guide to dealing with difficult landlords and excessive late fees in case you do get yourself in hot water.

Plan Your Commute to Campus

Rolling out of bed and trekking across the quad was probably your longest commute to class last year, but now that you’re off campus, be prepared to face the insane traffic that comes with just about every college campus across the country. Plan extra time to get to morning classes, and you might want to reconsider that 8 a.m. class, as it will probably coincide with rush hour traffic. A bicycle is always an option, but make sure it’s the right mode of transportation for you with this list from Fearless and Loathing.

Stacy Eden is a Phoenix, Arizona native with a passion for art, power tools, and historical significance. She draws inspiration from classic cars, ancient mythological sculptures and jewelry designers such as Delfina Delettrez, Shaun Leane, and Dior Jewellery creative director Victoire de Castellane.

Heading off to college?  Start the school year off right with The Secrets of Top Students.

7 Things to Consider Before Going Back to School to Further Your Career

By Liz Greene

Despite what you may have heard, a college diploma isn’t the only way to get a decent job. There are multiple professions where you can make serious money without a degree — including working as a web developer, paralegal, or insurance agent. However, many careers that start without the need for formal education can be furthered by adding a degree to your portfolio. When weighing the idea of whether or not you should go back to school, there are a few things you should consider before you make your decision.

going back to school

Evaluate whether a degree will help you achieve your career goals.

The first step is to be absolutely sure that you’re on the career path you want to be on and research whether additional schooling is a necessary to further that path. You don’t want to find yourself several years down the road massively in debt, without the position you wanted.

Know what degree you will need.

If you start without a degree of any kind, a clear place to start would be to obtain an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. If you already have a bachelor’s degree, you’ll want to find out whether a certificate or a degree program is the next step — and which degree is going to offer the best prospects for career betterment.

Decide if the financial investment is worth it.

There’s no doubt about it, going to school is an expensive venture. It’s important to evaluate whether your future salary will allow you to pay off the accumulated educational debt in a reasonable amount of time. Thoroughly research your options before committing to a program. Attending classes at a private university will likely cost substantially more than those offered by a state school or community college. However, depending on the major, the value of getting a degree from a first-rate university might make the additional cost a worthy investment.

Explore financial aid and scholarship opportunities.

Carefully explore your financing options — you might be eligible for special scholarships, grants, or beneficial financing arrangements. Contact your school’s financial aid department for more information, and be sure to check with your employer to see if they offer a tuition reimbursement program.

Look into transfer credits and work experience

Sometime the experience you have can be one of the greatest benefits. If you earned college credits in the past, check the transfer credit policies at the college you’re considering to see if your credits will apply. Some colleges will accept work experience as well. You can easily shorten the amount of time it takes to earn your degree by getting credit for for the knowledge and experience you have already acquired.

Consider an online/nontraditional program.

Deciding where to attend college is an important step in the process. If you work full time and have a family, you’ll want to find out which colleges in your area provide resources to help nontraditional students earn their degrees — full-time versus part-time curriculums, night classes, etc. A great way to get started is to visit a school’s website and search with the keyword “nontraditional student.”

If the program you’re after isn’t available at a nearby university, an online degree program is something you can consider. Most colleges offer full online programs or blended programs that allow you to do a great deal of the coursework online as well as scheduled in-class time to meet with your professor. However, it’s important not to mistake online classes for being easier or less time consuming. Online classes require just as much a discipline and time management skills as traditional classes.

Evaluate whether you’ll be able to balance school, work, and family.

For each hour you spend in class, you are likely to spend an additional two hours studying and completing assignments. If you have a family, a full time job, and a social life, how will you find time for classes and assignments? Are you and your family willing to sacrifice time together? School commitments will mean additional stress on both you and your loved ones. It’s imperative to consider the impact on your life and whether or not you’re willing to shoulder the burden.

Going back to school can be a massive benefit to your career. Gather your data, gauge your finances, talk to your family, and take the time to make the best decision for your particular set of circumstances — it’s the best way to set yourself up for success.

Liz Greene hails from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. She’s a lover of all things geek and is happiest when cuddling with her dogs and catching up on the latest Marvel movies. You can follow her on Twitter @LizVGreene or delve deeper into her internal musings at InstantLo

Heading back to school?  Don’t forget to order your copy of The Secrets of Top Students.