How is College Writing Different?

In one of my earliest blog posts, Learning to Write Well: Why Bother?, I wrote that you will likely need to be able to write effectively throughout your life, whether that’s for professional or personal reasons. Writing for college classes, however, is a very specific type of writing that requires a specific skill set. A lot of students come into college missing at least some of these skills. In a later post, I will talk about imposter syndrome and why students enter college with varying levels of preparation, but for now, just know that a lot of students enter college these days without the skills they need to write a successful college paper. That’s literally the reason this blog exists.

Not knowing what’s expected of your academic writing in college is not a measure of intelligence; it is a measure of preparedness and understanding.

So let’s get started.

What your professors expect

When you step into your first college classes, your professor expects you to begin the semester with at least the ability to do the following:

  • Understand how to deconstruct and respond to a writing prompt
  • Write at least a standard 5-paragraph paper (introduction, conclusion, three body paragraphs)
  • Find and use peer-reviewed sources
  • Cite your sources appropriately, using a common citation style
  • Paraphrase, summarize, and quote accurately
  • Write fluently enough that the paper is easy to read and grade
  • Show what you have learned in the course

Don’t freak out if you don’t know how to do things on this list. That’s what this blog is for. You also likely have other resources available to you, including your university writing  center (some schools will not have these), the composition classes you’ll be required to take, individual teachers, and tons of well-written books that will help you learn to write better. I’ve already covered writing prompts here and will be writing about the others in the future.

Notice that I presented the list above as a minimum skill set. In order to understand what else might be expected, let’s look at your professors’ expectations for you at different stages of your college career.

Part 1: The purpose of academic writing as a new undergraduate

In How to read an assignment sheet and rubric, I explained that your teacher isn’t just assigning a writing project out of habit, but rather because learning to communicate well is often one of the stated outcomes of the class and may be part of the university’s published mission.

At the core of college writing is the expectation that the student be able to understand and use what they have been learning. In the past, you may have written papers that were nothing more than regurgitating what you’d read in research articles. In a poor paper, students often simply re-state what the author of the research paper wrote, and throw quote after quote into their paper. When a student does this, I say that they are letting the material control the paper.

For example, when a student in one of my classes quotes a definition from the book but does nothing else with it (like explain or apply it), then they are showing poor control over the material they’re using. It’s kind of like being handed a bucket of legos, being asked to make something unique and creative, and instead just building something from the box directions.

So what should you do instead? Your job, at this stage, is to accurately and fully address the writing prompt, and:

  • Show the instructor that you understand the course material by putting it into your own words when possible, explaining it, and drawing explicit connections
  • If you are required to include sources in your paper, show that you thoroughly read the material, that you understood the material, and that you are able to use it intelligently and in relation to the course material

When you accomplish the above, you show that you are in control of the material, not the other way around. You should also be concerned about how well you write and how well you use sources. Your university writing center can help.

Part 2: The purpose of academic writing as an experienced undergraduate

By the time you reach your senior year of college, your teachers will expect you to have a much stronger grasp of writing. After all, you should have been practicing for four years (although many teachers now don’t assign writing projects because they don’t know how to handle the lack of writing skills in incoming students. This is a shame, but here we are). You will be expected to produce papers at the level identified above, but also . . .

. . . to go beyond. In earlier years, your papers may rely heavily on course material or published research. Now, your papers should rely much more heavily on your own observations, judgement, critiques, etc. To be clear, you should still be solidly grounding your work in the established literature (textbooks, course readings, articles, books, etc). But after several years of courses in your degree field, you should have a greater perspective and deeper understanding than you were able to muster as a first-year student.

Part 3: The purpose of academic writing in graduate school

I’m including this section because academic writing as an senior in college is a step before graduate school–although more undergraduates are publishing in peer reviewed journals, so you may push to this level as an undergraduate, too. In graduate school, you’re expected to begin taking part in the academic conversation that makes up the discipline you’re getting your degree in. What does this mean?

In any degree field, academics “talk” to each other through academic publications in peer-reviewed (or refereed) journals (more on this in a later post), and conference presentations. They contribute to theory in the field, critique existing work, and conduct new research. As a graduate student, you contribute to this conversation as a junior scholar.

The transition from undergraduate to graduate writing is a HUGE leap and is often very difficult for new graduate students. It’s a shift from being asked to report what others have said . . . to bringing your own intellect to bear on the issues and presenting it to the larger community for their critique. If you are an undergraduate who is considering graduate school, this is what you are working toward.

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