Why Is College Writing So Much Harder Than High School?


Struggling with your college assignments? Learn the truth about college writing skills, and the changes you’ll need to make to succeed, in this article by NJ teacher Matthew H...


In another post, I had discussed the relationship between academic and creative writing. Bottom line: no difference. Good writing is good writing. So why is it that most university level expository writing (and similarly titled courses) demand so much more than even AP level high school English classes? Below are some inconvenient truths when it comes to important college writing skills.

Truth 1: You were insufficiently prepared
No disrespect intended toward any of the fine educators occupying high school English classrooms. Unfortunately, many of them are forced to teach writing styles catering to standardized tests. Whether SAT, AP, or state required exams, you were instructed how to write an essay in under 30 minutes. College writing is a bit different in that professors expect the best quality output from you over the course of several days rather than something crammed in the morning before it was due. If you coasted in high school writing classes, you will not succeed in college unless you make some major changes. Take time to familiarize yourself with the essay topic, complete any necessary readings and draw conclusions appropriately.

Truth 2: Personal anecdotes are (mostly) meaningless
This sounds a bit harsh, yes, but you’re going to hear about it eventually. While you definitely want to connect to your writing and have others relate to it as well, personal anecdotes are not the way to go. Chalk it up to another SAT-related misfire, where directly recounting personal experiences are permitted due to the stringent time constraints. In college writing courses, you are expected to directly cite sources and draw connections between two or more authors’ work. Quoting a published piece carries a lot more weight than explaining what happened to your best friend in sixth grade, regardless of what the topic is. Substantiate any claim you make by either directly or indirectly citing a source (use proper APA or MLA format!).

Truth 3: Whatever your major is, good writing will set you apart
In high school, you may not have excelled at writing, but had your favorite subjects to fall back on. In college, whatever you choose to major in, from mathematics to zoology, you will need to write. A lot. Why are good college writing skills so important to have? Considering that it is the only way to communicate ideas to a mass audience without directly speaking to anyone, being able to express yourself with the written word is of utmost importance. If what you major in is supposed to be your area of expertise, you are expected to have a keen knowledge of that discipline, and the best way to demonstrate such deep understanding is to effectively explain topics within your field by writing about them. In other words, you prove you know what you are talking about when you know how to talk (or write) about it.

So, college writing skills are different from what the typical high school student has been exposed to. How should you adapt when arriving to your university? First, get the last-minute cram writing sessions out of you head, and replace them with several days’ worth of reading and note-taking. Avoid using personal anecdotes by focusing on direct quotes to cite from scholarly articles or other published literature. Lastly, never assume that writing is not important for your major or minor; even engineering students will have to hand in reports (and a well-written report is the difference between an A and a B+).

MatthewHMatthew H. provides tutoring in various subjects both online and in New Milford, NJ.  He recently received his MA from NYU with a background in Sociolinguistics and related research. Learn more about Matthew here! 


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