If It Weren’t For the Last Minute…

If It Weren’t For the Last Minute…

So it’s upon us – Finals Week and the end of the semester. You might be feeling overwhelmed as everything comes due all at once. And that feeling is only made worse if you don’t have your research done. True, it would have been better to get it done earlier. There would have been more options available to you. But it’s not too late, and there’s plenty you can do to ensure that you have a great final paper.

Presuming you already have your topic in mind, you’ll want books and articles to support your argument. If you’re doing this the night before it’s due, Interlibrary Loan is no longer an option and the library might already be closed. If so, try ebooks. Databases like eBrary and EBSCO eBooks have a lot of great titles across the academic disciplines. Even so, make heavy use of the book’s index or the keyword search function. There’s no sense in (or time for) reading the whole book if only ten pages are relevant to your research.  If the book doesn’t have an index, dump it and choose another.

search function

For articles, limit to just full text. The big databases like JSTOR, ProQuest, and Academic Search Premier are either all full text or you can easily click a check box to only get full text items back. Some databases have little to no full text, such as Web of Knowledge and America: History and Life. Skip them. They would have been great a few weeks ago; but now we need what is immediately available. Many databases also let you search for a certain number of pages, as well, if you need them short in order to be able to read and understand a lot of articles. Also, read the abstract. Spending two minutes reading the description can save you half an hour of reading an article that wasn’t going to be useful to you anyway.


For some assignments, you’ll be asked to find a primary source. For science-oriented articles, this is one where the author conducted their own research. Skim through to see if it has sections labeled Methods, Methodology, Results, or Analysis.  If it does, you’ve found a primary source.  If not, dump it and pick another article. For humanities-oriented classes, a primary source is one where the author was a participant in the events described. It could be a diary, letter, or interview. Some databases like American Civil War: Letters and Diaries and North American Immigrant Letters & Diaries are perfect for this.

You’ll want to cite all of these sources in your paper, as well. The Online Writing Lab from Purdue is the best guide on the internet to formatting and citation for MLA and APA style on the web. Use it to guide you on making your bibliography, in-text citations, running headers, and more. Many databases also have automatic citation features that can speed the process of creating a reference page. Just be sure to proofread the citations, as they are machine generated and thus prone to errors (particularly in capitalization). But starting with something is a lot faster than starting from scratch.

But what if you still haven’t even picked your topic? Again, your job is harder, but not impossible. First, try to pick something you already know a lot about. It will make reading, evaluating, and synthesizing your sources a lot easier if the concepts and basic facts aren’t completely foreign to you. If you’ve already done a paper on a similar topic before, you might even have some of those sources already.

Second, pick something popular or that a lot of people care about. That will greatly increase the amount of material available. The more innovative or unique your thesis is, the harder it will be to get sources at the last minute. Yes, that creative idea would probably have made for a better paper. But that ship has sailed. You need to do this quickly. And writing the 4,000th generic paper your professor’s seen on marijuana addiction will be a lot easier to do than your clever passion project about barbiturate use in Wayne County over the last century. Things that are controversial, big news or historical events, or major innovations are the best types of topics to pick at this point.

Finally, pick a broad topic. Yes, you can still go too broad – you’re not going to write a masterwork on the New Deal in one night. But picking one of its programs, like the Emergency Banking Act might work. Avoid narrow topics – your investigation on the effect Chairman of the House Banking Committee Henry Steagall had on the EBA will give you an anxiety attack when you can’t find enough information right away. If you’re on the fence, remember, it’s easier to start too broad and narrow your topic down with things that seem interesting than start too narrow and struggle to find enough.

Don’t worry, you can do this. Waiting until the last minute wasn’t the best idea, but it’s no reason why you can’t turn in a great paper or project. And we’re here to help – ask us at iueref@iue.edu.

Leave a Reply