College Writing: From High School to College

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Recent high school graduates often struggle adjusting to college-level writing. It’s not that they struggle with mechanical and grammatical issues; rather, their writing lacks focus and originality. Likewise, many new college students mistakenly assume that college professors are impressed with sophisticated vocabulary and wordy sentences. College professors typically look for coherent and well-organized essays. In other words, possessing a good understanding of a subject will not always translate into a high grade on an essay.

Regardless of major, all college students are periodically assigned essays. Students are required to provide brief summaries of assigned readings, conduct original research and present conclusions in writing, and write persuasive essays. In most classes, professors require students to frequently analyze an article and support an opinion with examples from it. Most professors heavily scrutinize the thesis statement. This statement identifies the writer’s argument and serves as a roadmap for the rest of the essay. The thesis must be supported with empirical evidence, examples from assigned readings, expert opinion, and logical explanations.

Argument: a key feature of college writing

College students are frequently required to offer written opinions. Written arguments must be organized, coherent, and supported. Professors typically look for the following when analyzing arguments:

  • Arguments that illicit interest
  • Logical evidence that makes a student’s claims reasonable
  • Effective counterarguments to evidence that weakens a student’s claim

Do not hesitate to offer an opinion that a professor will disagree with. Professors usually grade students on how effectively students support their claims.

Students are assigned to write argumentative essays to develop and improve analytical skills. Those without intentions of attending graduate school or pursuing academic careers may feel this is unnecessary, but most employers heavily recruit graduates with excellent analytical skills. Most companies need employees who can conduct research, analyze complex problems, and develop solutions. Those with excellent writing and analytical skills are better able to evaluate other peoples’ arguments.

Interpreting assignments: a guide to professors’ expectations

Professors sometimes provide vague essay instructions. They usually provide detailed instructions about content, organization, and formatting requirements, but some professors assign open-ended writing assignments to see how effectively students analyze arguments and support their conclusions.

Before you conduct research or begin writing, thoroughly read the assignment sheet and clarify any confusions with the professor. Regardless of assignment requirements, most professors expect students to provide a summary of the topic they’re analyzing. When reviewing assignment sheets, look for the following language, (placed in italics), to determine what the professor is seeking:

  • Analyze the argument made by the author. Do you agree or disagree with it? Provide examples from the text to support your response.
  • Develop a solution to solve a complicated problem and support your recommendations with logical arguments.
  • Compare and contrast the arguments made by both authors. What do they disagree about?

These examples are very specific. However, professors often assign open-ended essay questions where it’s the student’s responsibility to develop an argument. For example, a professor could assign a literary analysis essay where students are required to read a book or article an offer an opinion about what a particular character or event represents. It’s the student’s responsibility to develop an argument and identify examples to support it.

When confused about an assignment, never hesitate to ask a professor or teacher’s assistant for help.

Another key feature of college writing: what’s your point?

Regardless of the type of essay you’re assigned, you’ll be required to offer and support an opinion. Students choose topics to write about that interest them, but they often neglect to make an argument. Neglecting to select a debatable topic makes it difficult to develop an argument.

State your argument with supporting evidence in the thesis statement. Unless otherwise instructed, a thesis should be no longer than a sentence. The essay’s body will be built around the thesis statement.

But what’s a good point?

Most students change the thesis multiple times while writing an essay since they’re unsure of what to argue and how to support it. It takes time to develop an argument and conduct sufficient research to identify supporting evidence. If you begin writing your essay without a good thesis, it will make the writing process more difficult.

An effective thesis identifies a debatable, original, and interesting argument. It should also be very specific and direct since most college writing assignments are between 5-10 pages. Avoid choosing topics that could only be adequately addressed in a dissertation or book.

The following is an example of ineffective thesis statements:

  • The national debt is a major problem.

In this example, a vague argument is made and nothing is provided to support it.

To improve this thesis, the student writing about this topic could specify the thesis as follows:

  • The national debt must be reduced to improve the nation’s credit rating and ensure the dollar remains the world’s reserve currency.

This thesis statement identifies a debatable topic and provides evidence to support it.

Keep in mind that you will more than likely need to write a rough draft before a good thesis is developed. Writing assignments enable students to analyze and address complex problems, so it’s not uncommon to change your opinion about a topic after conducting some research. Do not hesitate to begin researching and writing about a topic when you’re unsure of what argument to make.

Many students feel it necessary to stress the importance of their topic by using such phrases as “this is a very significant issue.” Phrases such as this are unnecessary and wordy. Instead, use cause and effect phrases such as “this must change or . . . “


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