Essay 3: I-Search

The Basics

Samples (PDF)


The I-Search paper is designed to teach the writer and the reader something valuable about a chosen topic and about the nature of searching and discovery. As opposed to the standard research paper in which the writer usually assumes a detached and objective stance, the I-Search paper allows you to take an active role in your search, to hunt for facts and truths firsthand, and to provide a step-by-step record of the discovery process.

For this assignment, you will write a will write a 1,200- to 1,800-page paper on the research process you undertake on your topic and include a Works Cited page. You must have at least six credible and recent sources found through the the USC Upstate Library (more would always be good; you are free to include more than six sources):


The I-Search paper should be written in four sections (Yes, you should label them.—preferably with a cool title for each section. No, you don’t need to start a separate page for each.):

  1. What I already know, assume, or imagine and why I am interested. (300 to 500 words)
  2. The search—what I did to go about learning more. (300 to 500 words)
  3. What I discovered and what this means to me. (the rest of the words)
  4. Works Cited

Section 1: What I already know or assume, why I am interested, and what I want to learn. After clearing your topic with me, but before conducting any formal research, write a section in which you explain to the reader what you think you know, what you assume, or what you imagine about your topic. For example, if you decided to investigate the debate over the war in Iraq, you might want to explain your own thoughts about the war, what you know, and why you find this topic interesting. Then, come up with a list of things that you want to learn such as the various exit strategies, the cost of the war, etc. Some advice here: the more specific your topic is, the easier it will be to write your essay. For example, one student who has ADHD might want to investigate the argument that America is overmedicating its youth with drugs like Ritalin. I suggest that you narrow your search to 2-3 very specific questions that you clearly identify at the end of your first section. (Hint: Even though in initial drafts you might write this section in present tense, you will probably want to change it to past tense by the final draft.)

Section 2: The search. Test your knowledge, assumptions, or conjectures by researching your topic thoroughly. Consult useful books, magazines, newspapers, films, tapes, and other sources for information. When possible, interview people who are authorities on or who are familiar with your topic. Write this part of your paper in narrative form, recording the steps of the discovery process (you may want to start with "First I…"). Which aspects were easy and why? Which were more challenging? (You’ll want to take VERY good notes along the way.) Do not feel obligated to tell everything, but highlight the happenings and facts you uncovered that were crucial to your hunt and contributed to your understanding of the topic. Important: you do not need citations in this section, because you should not be revealing specific information from your sources. You are just explaining how you found them.

Section 3: What I discovered and what this means to me. After concluding your search, compare what you thought you knew or assumed and what you imagined you would learn with what you actually discovered. You might begin your introduction to this section with the formula:

"First I believed [     ], but now after my research, I understand [ ]." Then insert an argumentative thesis sentence that covers your argument that is now informed by your research.

Offer some personal commentary along the way "To my surprise, I discovered that..." and draw some conclusion. Use the analytical skills you to critique the arguments that you find along the way. Make sure that you look at objective material concerning your topic, and incorporate not just opinion, but fact in support of your conclusion. Refer explicitly back to the 2-3 questions that you identified in section 1 of your paper. If you found satisfying answers to those questions, explain why. If you didn’t, explain why not. This third section is the more traditional, "research paper" part of your paper. This section is also the part that should contain your citations of other sources. Intentional plagiarism will result in a failing grade for the entire class.

Section 4: Works Cited. At the end of the paper, include a properly formatted Works Cited page listing the sources that you used to write your paper. Make sure that you have the minimum required sources and the variety of sources requested.

Rubric for grading

Each of the following will be evaluated from 1 (Poor) to 3 (Average) to 5 (Excellent). These criteria are listed in order of importance, with the most important criteria at the top and the less important at the bottom.

Adapted from an assignment created by Dr. Esther Godfrey and used with her permission.