What Is a Senior Thesis?

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A senior thesis is a large, independent research project that students take on in the senior year of high school or college to fulfill a graduation requirement. For some students, a senior thesis is a requirement for graduating with honors.

Students typically work closely with an advisor and choose a question or topic to explore before carrying out an extensive research plan. A thesis will be the culminating work of your studies at a particular institution and it will represent your ability to conduct research and write effectively.

Composition of a Senior Thesis

The structure of your research paper will depend, in part, on the style of writing that is required by your instructor. Different disciplines, like history, science or education, have different rules to abide by when it comes to research paper construction. The styles for different types of assignment include:

Modern Language Association (MLA): The disciplines that tend to prefer this style of writing includes literature, arts, and the humanities like arts, linguistics, religion, and philosophy. In this style, you will use parenthetical citations to indicate your sources and a works cited page to show the list of books and articles you consulted.

American Psychological Association (APA): This style of writing tends to be used in psychology, education, and some of the social sciences. This type of report may require the following:

  • Results
  • Discussion
  • References
  • Tables
  • Figures
  • Appendix

Chicago Style: This is used in most college-level history courses as well as professional publications that contain scholarly articles. Chicago style may call for end notes or footnotes.

Turabian Style: Turabian is a student version of Chicago Style. It requires some of the same formatting techniques as Chicago, but it includes special rules for writing college-level papers like book reports.

A Turabian research paper may call for end notes or footnotes and a bibliography.

Science Style: Science instructors may require students to use a format that is similar to the structure used in publishing papers in scientific journals. The elements you would include in this sort of paper include:

  • Title page
  • Abstract
  • List of materials and methods used
  • Results of your methods and experiments
  • Discussion
  • References
  • Acknowledgement

American Medical Association: This style of writing might be required for students in medical or pre-medical degree programs in college. Parts of a research paper might include:

  • Title page
  • Abstract
  • Proper headings and lists
  • Tables & figures
  • In-text citations
  • Reference list

Senior Thesis Tips

Choose your topic carefully: Starting off with a bad, difficult or narrow topic likely won't lead to a positive result. Also select a topic that interests you--putting in long hours on a topic that bores you will be arduous. If a professor recommends an area of interest, make sure it excites you.

Also consider expanding a paper you've already written; you'll hit the ground running by expanding on a field in which you've already done research. Lastly, consult with your adviser before finalizing your topic.

Consider Practicality: Have you chosen a topic that can be reasonably explored in the allotted time? Don't choose something that's so big that it's overwhelming and could comprise a lifetime of research, or a topic that's so narrow you'll struggle to compose 10 pages.

Organize Your Time: Plan to spend half you time researching and the other half writing. Often, students spend too much time researching and then find themselves in a crunch, madly writing in the final hours.

Choose an Adviser You Trust. This may be your first opportunity to work with direct supervision. Choose an adviser who's familiar with the field, and ideally select someone you like and who's classes you've already taken. That way you'll have a rapport from the start.  

Consult Your Instructor

Remember that your instructor is the final authority on the details and requirements of your paper.

Read through all instructions and have a conversation with your instructor to determine his or her preferences and requirements.