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Get Rid of Fluff, Write More Clearly, and Highlight the Main Ideas

How to prepare a submission for the Student Research Paper Competition: advice from previous winners

© Daniil Prokofyev

The deadline for applying to the 2020 Student Research Paper Competition is October 15. Earning a winner’s or laureate’s diploma comes with a range of bonuses, such as receiving additional points in consideration for increased state academic scholarships and applications to master’s programmes (where applicable), automatic admission into the Science Republic, financial assistance for participating in academic events, and more.

Below, competition winners of previous years share their tips on how to prepare your paper for the competition.

Polina Bugakova
Alumna of the Bachelor’s Programme in Public Administration, 3rd place in the nomination category ‘Best Undergraduate Research Paper in Education’

If the length of your paper exceeds the limit, I would recommend that you shorten your literature review section. To do this, you can highlight only the key ideas and devote a short paragraph to each one. The main thing is to indicate all the authors who, in one way or another, developed each of the ideas. For example, I wrote about the accessibility of higher education. In my initial literature review, I looked broadly at each of the factors that can limit access to higher education. When I adapted the paper for the NIRS competition, I briefly listed the main ones, explained their influence, and indicated all the authors who wrote about each of the factors.

  • Pay attention to the requirements. If you’ve written a good quality paper, then the only thing you need to do is to ensure that your paper complies with the competition’s formal requirements.

  • One piece of advice: shorten the paper in a way that does not muddle your argument. This can be difficult, but your academic supervisor can tell you exactly how to do this.

Timur Slavgorodsky-Kazanets
2nd-year student in the Master’s Programme ‘Comparative Social Research’, 3rd place in the nomination category ‘Best master’s student/alumni research paper in Political Science’

If you wrote a fairly rigorous term paper or a thesis (i.e., you had to write at least 100,000 characters, for example), then I would of course advise that you get rid of any fluff. I’m sure there is some there. In quantitative works, fluff often takes the form of descriptions of some more or less obvious indicators for 300 pages. In qualitative works, it may be a deliberate study of irrelevant factors in order to show, ‘Well, this will not help us very much.’

If you can’t cut down on fluff, you can sacrifice some of the areas where you provide detailed descriptions of your methodology. Any methodological changes can be described more succinctly. Which, by the way, is often found in the Western research tradition: a scholar has to be able to explain their work to people with the widest possible range of backgrounds, and using ornate academic language is not conducive to this.

I think that even the competition review committee will probably lose interest in a paper if the writing style is too dry—this, I think, is a hangover from the Soviet system, which, for better or worse, applicants now must overcome when participating in the competition. In short: write more lucidly, and in a way that is as interesting and as clear as possible.

Bogdan Romanov
Alumnus (’19) of the Bachelor’s Programme in Political Science, HSE – St. Petersburg, 1st place in the nomination category ‘Best undergraduate research paper in Political Science’

It never hurts to check your grammar and punctuation again.

You’ll get nowhere without a fresh readthrough: sit down, read through the sentences, and think about whether you can eliminate words without causing detriment to your argument. You don’t have to read it straight from beginning to end! As the author of the text, you know your paper’s structure and contents. Therefore you can at random poke around and read through any section, make eliminations, and then skip to another part of the paper, and so on. You don’t need to make sure the text is coherent; you just need to remove excess words.

I think anyone would agree that any research paper or thesis has words that can be eliminated, because these kinds of assignments have minimum word requirements. But when reworking your paper, these words can be deleted just like that when applying the stylistic tactics I mention above or getting rid of irrelevant, flowery paragraphs. After all, when you were initially writing the paper, if you read something for it over the course of your research, you probably couldn’t help but include a bit about it.

You also need to think about what to do with the bibliography and any attachments, which can be up to 40,000 characters in total. Here it is better to ask your supervisor for advice; maybe they will suggest deleting some of these things or reformat them.

In general, just participating in the competition itself allows you to develop the skill of editing your own work, because until a certain point, I always submitted my work immediately after finishing it with only a very quick readthrough. For Student Research Paper Competition, though, I had to sit down and really closely reread the thing. It was torture.

Vlad Khvostov
Alumnus (’19), 3rd place in the nomination category ‘Best Master’s Student/2019 Alumni Research Paper in Psychology’

Almost always, my course papers and my thesis exceeded their maximum character limits. Most often I tried to shorten the lengthy introductions in the theoretical review and some small excesses in different parts of the work.

First and foremost, make sure your text makes sense. Know that the experts who will be reviewing your paper are not your supervisor, to whom you need to prove how much you’ve read and understood. The review committee members are most likely people who do not specifically deal with your topic, so I think they value a good and understandable text structure (among other things). If I were an expert, I would like to understand the work most of all, and not admire how many complex things the author managed to do.

The deadline to submit your work to the 2020 Student Research Paper Competition is October 15. Read more information about the competition here.

September 14