Online Writing Resources for Students

May 28, 2021 • 6 Min Read

How to Outline Essays, Proofread Papers & Everything In-Between

College and high school students will write many academic essays throughout the course of their education, which helps to inform them about specific topics and sharpen the writing skills they need.
This guide provides information on the types of essays they may be required to write, how to conduct research and strategies for effective proofreading.

Essay Writing in High School and College

“Writing a college essay is an opportunity to grow. Academic papers give students a chance to stretch their minds, to develop original ideas, and to find out what other scholars have written about a topic,” says Janet Ruth Heller, Ph.D., President of the Michigan College English Association.

High school and college students may be required to write a variety of essays. The following provides an explanation of common types of essays, as well as resources where students can find more information.

Argumentative Essay

In an argumentative essay, students are expected to choose a subject, create a strong argument related to that subject and address the counterarguments to their position. To find material for these types of essays, students may be required to read published research on the topic or conduct their own by doing experiments, surveys or interviews.

The structure of an argumentative essay can vary. In some cases, argumentative essays are five paragraphs that consist of an introduction, three body paragraphs that address arguments and counterarguments, and a conclusion.

In longer essays, students can delve deeper into the contextual issues related to the topic, as well as argue the points and counterpoints made throughout the essay.

In order to successfully write an argumentative essay, students must be sure their topic is actually debatable. Students should ask themselves whether or not others can argue against their position and come up with ways the opposition would respond.

Also, in order for a topic to be debatable, it must be backed up by scholarly research and not be based on personal morality or cultural or religious standards.


Descriptive Essay

While other types of essays may give students the opportunity to use elaborate writing, descriptive essays really allow them to express themselves in a creative way. Descriptive essays are also more personal because they’re a description of students’ individual experiences, feelings and thoughts.

The most important thing students need to do in descriptive essays is to show the topic they’re writing about, rather than just telling the reader what it is. This can be done by:

  • using all of the senses to paint a full picture of the action

  • including dialogue

  • choosing vivid language that creates a clear picture

  • describing feelings and thoughts to illustrate a personal connection to the topic

Although students have creative leeway when writing descriptive essays, they still need to follow certain rules. Like other essays, descriptive essays must be organized in a logical way. Students should also express themselves while still creating an essay that is easy for the reader to follow.


Expository Essay

An expository essay is designed to provide a deep dive into a topic to explain, describe or inform. To set the stage for the topic and get the reader’s attention immediately, students should make a strong opening statement in the introduction of their essay. This can be done by including an interesting anecdote, quote, dilemma, or statistic.

After grabbing the reader’s attention, students should then introduce their thesis statement in the same paragraph.

The bulk of the expository essay will provide evidence for what has been asserted in the introduction. Each paragraph will start with one idea and then go on to explain that idea based on research that supports it. To keep the essay on track, students must be sure that each paragraph of the body has a direct connection to the thesis statement.

In the conclusion of an expository essay, students should revisit the thesis statement. However, instead of repeating it word for word, students should rework the thesis by incorporating the supporting evidence they presented in the body of the essay.


Narrative Essay

Narrative essays also give students the freedom to be creative as they are designed to describe a personal story. Like descriptive essays, narrative essays should be filled with expressive language that sets a scene, explains thoughts and emotion, and uses sensory images to make the story real. In addition, these essays are written in the first person, though “I” should not be overused.

In order to write an effective narrative essay, students should create a unified story that is centered around a fundamental idea, make sure the story being presented is written in a coherent way and end with a climax that illustrates the personal importance of the story. In addition, students can make the story they’re telling easier to follow by using strong transitional words like “finally,” “later” and “next.”


Personal Statements & Applications

When applying to undergraduate or graduate programs, personal statements are an important way that students sell themselves to an admissions committee. Also called application essays and statements of purpose, personal statements may require prospective students to answer a specific question or write a general essay about themselves and their goals.

General personal statements allow students to showcase their story in a compelling way. These essays can be used to talk about academic experience, goals for the future, obstacles faced and the learning lessons that came with them, and accomplishments outside of the classroom. For personal statements that require an answer to a specific question, students should stay within the parameters of the question and, if necessary, do research on the subject before writing.

No matter what type of essay colleges ask for, students should be sure to tailor their personal statement to each individual school. Admissions professionals can detect when an essay has been repurposed and it can count against the student’s application.


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How to do Academic Research

Academic research is the foundation that any essay is built on. Without a strong research foundation, the content of an essay may not accomplish what it needs to. This section provides information on how to find sources and evaluate their credibility.

Where to find sources


Archives are found at universities or historical societies. They can include materials that can’t be found anywhere else, such as photographs, personal letters and genealogical information.

Education Resources Information Center (ERIC)

This is a digital library of research provided by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

Google Scholar

The results returned from this search engine include academic journal articles and other scholarly resources.

Internet Public Library

This search engine returns credible sources, such as .org and .gov sites.


A local or college library is a good place for students to start looking for credible sources. Although the computer system in the library allows students to search for books, periodicals and scholarly journals, older parts of the library’s collection may not appear in the catalog. It’s always a good idea to ask librarians for additional help finding sources.


RefSeek, which is made with students and researchers in mind, is a search engine that includes scholarly results like encyclopedias, books, web pages and academic journals.

How to evaluate a source for quality and accuracy

Conducting research is more than just collecting sources. In order to research properly, students must also evaluate the quality of the sources they find. The following tips from our experts can help.

Trust library sources first

“In my experience, students rely on ‘popular’ sources, which are the results of cursory Google searches. It’s odd, since library-based searches look increasingly like Google—that is, user friendly interfaces. I think, therefore, that student writers should be skeptical of sources they find outside of the school library’s connection to information,” said Christopher McCarrick, Professor of English at Clarion University.

“Students can certainly start with, say, Google or Wikipedia, but they should not end up there. In other words, let the library and the databases do the initial vetting. Develop a sense of how reliable sources ‘read.’”

Choose sources written by experts in the field

“An expert usually has a doctoral degree—Ph.D., Ed.D., M.D., etc.—and has published articles in scholarly journals and/or scholarly books about the topic that the student is writing about,” says Heller.

“Scholarly articles and books are long, cite many other researchers’ findings and have footnotes or endnotes and a bibliography of sources at the end.”

Only choose sources that are identifiable

“Source evaluation is pure detective work, if not simply an art form. It requires patience, some imagination, more patience and a dash of common sense. Some of the tell-tale signs a source is not to be trusted is if it identifies no author in the byline,” says Christopher J. Irving, Faculty Instructor in English and humanities at Beacon College.

“It sounds too simple to most students, but the simple fact is that they should not assume, as some do, that a source’s integrity is solid just because it is in print.”

Pay close attention to website URLs

“Web addresses that end in ‘lo’ or ‘’ are often illegitimate or, at best, satire. Either way, they should not be used as legitimate sources. Also, analyze the URL for domain names. Blogging platforms—Wordpress, Blogger, Wix, Squarespace, etc.—are available for anyone; the creators of these sites are probably not legitimate journalists or researchers,” said Dr. Erec Smith, Professor of writing and rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania.

“Secondly, odd and quirky titles are generally unreliable. To be safe, refrain from citing such websites.”

Citing your sources and crafting your bibliography

After using the credible sources they have found, students are required to provide citations and a bibliography so their professors know where the information in their essays came from. The following are some style guides that may be used when creating citations and bibliographies.

Instructors will most likely include which style guide to use in the class syllabus. But if students are unsure which citation style is appropriate, they should ask before completing their bibliography.


The Associated Press style guide is designed for journalistic writing and is used by magazines, newspapers and public relations companies.


The American Psychological Association’s style guide is commonly used in social and behavioral sciences such as social work, psychology, anthropology and education.


Published by the Modern Language Association, this style guide is most often used in the humanities.

Chicago Manual of Style

This style guide, created by the University of Chicago, is used for historical research, as well as some areas of the humanities.

Bibliography & Citation Generators

There are a variety of bibliography and citation generators online that can make crafting a bibliography simple. However, students should always double check the citations and bibliography for accuracy before turning in their papers.

  • EasyBib

    Allows users to generate citations for a variety of sources—from books to journal articles to newsletters—in Chicago, APA and MLA styles.

  • BibMe

    This tool creates citations for MLA, Chicago and APA styles and also has a grammar checker.


    Students can create a bibliography in MLA, APA and Chicago styles by entering the ISBNs of the books they used for their essay.

  • Citation Machine

    Makes citations for APA, Chicago and MLA styles, and allows students to check for grammar and plagiarism.

  • Citefast

    Creates APA, MLA and Chicago citations for journals, books, blogs, newspapers and encyclopedias.

  • Citation Builder

    This citation builder allows students to cite entire books or book chapters, as well as journals, and newspaper or magazine articles, in APA, MLA, or Chicago styles.

  • KnightCite Citation Service

    Created by Calvin College, this site provides MLA, APA and Chicago citations.

How to Write a Killer Outline

Once sources have been found and evaluated, students can create an outline to help them organize the information they found and lay out the contents of their essay in a logical way.

“Outlines ensure that all necessary points are completed. Outlines also discourage digression,” says Smith. “That being said, outlines should not be written in stone. If new ideas are discovered or new information is found during the writing process, the student should feel free to veer from a pre-established outline to improve the essay.”

Although outlining can be a great way to keep an essay on track, McCarrick also advises students to keep in mind that it’s not the only way.

“In my teaching, I talk about and model outlines as one way to give a paper structure—structure and organization are the key points here—but I also show writers other methods such as, for example, drawing papers as maps and then finding the most direct route from beginning to end,” McCarrick says. “Outlines and maps are not woven into the fabric of the universe; they’re tools that serve writers, not prescriptions that tell writers what to do.”

Types of outlines

  • Alphanumeric

    This type of outline is the most common and is formatted in the following order: Roman numerals, capitalized letters, Arabic numerals and lowercase letters.

    See an example
  • Decimal

    A decimal outline helps to show how each level relates to the entire outline. For example, the first section of a decimal outline may be formatted as 1.0, 1.1, 1.1.1, 1.2, 1.2.1, and so on.

    See an example
  • Macro

    Also known as topic outlines, macro outlines are made up of general phrases about a topic without going into detail. Since this outline illustrates a big picture look at the topic, students can use this to ensure they’ve covered all the points they wish to discuss in the essay.

    See an example
  • Micro

    A micro outline, also called a sentence outline, is generally used for topics that are complicated in nature. When using this outline, students use full sentences to organize the details they want to use in each section of the essay.

    See an example

What to include in an outline

  • Thesis statement
  • First main topic sentence or phrase
    • First supporting sentence or phrase
    • Second supporting sentence or phrase
    • Third supporting sentence or phrase
  • Second main topic sentence or phrase
    • First supporting sentence or phrase
    • Second supporting sentence or phrase
    • Third supporting sentence or phrase
  • Third main topic sentence or phrase
    • First supporting sentence or phrase
    • Second supporting sentence or phrase
    • Third supporting sentence or phrase
  • Conclusion


Common Writing Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

As college and high school students navigate the essay writing process, they may make some common mistakes. The following are some that our experts warn students to avoid.

Mistake #1: Forgetting about the reader

In some cases, students forget that the reader may not be well-versed in the essay’s subject matter, which can cause them to leave out key information on the topic.

How to avoid it

“Student writers face a tough situation: they’re new to college and to ‘professors,’ rather than teachers. Don’t professors know everything about a subject? I ask classes to explain their information to an actual person who they know—a parent, grandparent, sibling. We talk in class about appropriate content and word choices for such ‘known’ readers and work our way to composing for more abstract readers,” says McCarrick.

“I also tell student writers that they can always ask what readers need to know, usually by having a professor read a draft.”

Mistake #2: Incorrectly using quotations from sources

Students may choose quotes that are not relevant to what they’re writing about, which may be done in an attempt to pad their research papers.

How to avoid it

“Students should read articles by published scholars carefully to see how these writers use sources,” says Heller. “Good writers use quotations only when they are very relevant to a point that the author wishes to make or to critique another scholar’s theory.”

Mistake #3: Procrastinating

Some students may not manage their time efficiently, and not spend adequate time writing the essay or doing pre-writing work.

How to avoid it

“Procrastination is the bane of all writing, and too often composition students are under the impression that everything they produce on the page must be solid gold on its first attempt. This is so completely wrong that I believe it may require a course of its own,” says Irving.

“My best advice is that managing a writing schedule and producing something—anything—towards an assignment every day helps provide a student with clarity towards their own work.”

Mistake #4: Leaving out information

Students may only choose sources that support the argument they’re making.

How to avoid it

“Cherry-picking, or acknowledging research that backs a pre-established argument while ignoring research that refutes that argument, is dishonest and non-scholarly,” says Smith. “Information antithetical to one’s argument must be acknowledged and must either be refuted or allowed to change a pre-established thesis statement.”

Proofreading 101

The research has been done, the essay has been written and the bibliography has been created. Some students may believe their job is done. But before handing in any essay, it’s imperative for students to proofread their work.

“It’s absolutely crucial that students keep in mind that the paper they are producing is their paper. It has their name on it, it contains a collection of their ideas and it is a quantifiable example of their reflections and examinations of their coursework. A student’s paper is, in many ways, a kind of DNA signature to the student’s thought process,” says Irving.

“No student should ever produce a paper that he or she does not give at least one focused read. Reading a paper can identity a surp1rising number of errors—perhaps like the one you might have just missed.”

In order to ensure that they’re not missing any errors, students should use the following proofreading tips.

  • Complete writing the essay at least one day before proofreading. Fresh eyes can make it easier to find errors.
  • Use professors’ previous feedback to create a list of what to look for when proofreading. Check for each item on the list separately.
  • Change the font and size of the text to trick the brain into thinking it is a new document.
  • Print out the essay.
  • Read the essay out loud.
  • Use a ruler or blank piece of paper to focus on one line of the essay at a time.
  • Read the essay from the end to the beginning one sentence at a time. This makes it easier to pay attention to each individual sentence.

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