Writing your first college essay can feel overwhelming. Maybe English class wasn’t your strong point in high school, and now perhaps you have to get through two English Composition classes in college. You’re not familiar with the instructor’s expectations, and sweat starts to trickle from your forehead at the sight of the first writing assignment. Your classmate asks the instructor a question about the guidelines, and is told “It’s in the syllabus.” Ugh. What to do?
College writing expectations might be a little different than what you experienced in high school. What might have garnered you praise and an A+ on your high school papers might barely pass in college. Simply turning in a paper with no punctuation or grammar errors won’t impress a college instructor. They expect you to know how to write an error-free sentence. Five paragraph essays are a common assignment in high school, which is simply an essay organized with an introduction, 3 body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The five paragraph essay is a great template to learn how to organize an essay, but college writing courses will expect students to write much longer papers, often with more analytical and critical thinking as well as secondary source material. Below is a partial list of college instructors’ desired student outcomes from their writing assignments (from The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing). Knowing exactly what your instructor expects you to learn will help you better understand the assignments:
- Respond to needs of different audiences (a person who is in favor of year-round school would require different reasoning than a person who is against it)
- Respond appropriately to different rhetorical situations (analysis is different than evaluation, which is different than summary)
- Use conventions of format and structure appropriate to the rhetorical situation (you might introduce a thesis earlier for a literary analysis than you would for a policy proposal)
- Adopt appropriate voice, tone, and level of formality (persuasive essays require the use of what instructors often refer to as “academic tone,” which is formal and free of slang; a narrative essay often is less formal and more conversational)
- Write in several genres (a composition class might include assignments on narrative writing, literary analysis, personal profiles, argument, or evaluation)
As you can see, college writing instructors might have many different expectations, and learning the academic terms instructors use can be challenging. Also, be aware that most college writing instructors will expect you to write multiple drafts of a writing assignment, collaborating with peers for initial feedback towards revision. Sharing your writing with peers can be stressful if you’ve never done it. I always tell my students to avoid writing about anything they don’t feel comfortable sharing with their peers.
Most college professors value creative, independent thinkers. Critically thinking about a topic and integrating your own ideas with those of others is not only valued, but expected. In high school you might have gotten by with regurgitating other’s ideas, but in college, you’ll be expected to evaluate, analyze, and synthesize primary and secondary source material, as well as integrate your ideas with these outside sources. Understanding not only how to find reliable sources (not from the internet), but also how to integrate your ideas with other’s is challenging for new students.
Think Outside the Box
There is a list of essay topics that all instructors keep locked in their head because even thinking about these topics makes their hair fall out. Many even include the list in their syllabus as topics NOT to write about. Even so, students still want to write about them. Why? Because they wrote about them in high school, so they think they know something about them, and it will be easy. I’ll bet you can guess what they are. A few:
- Legalize marijuana
- Lower drinking age
- End childhood obesity
To instructors, these topics, and others that have been written about over and over, are stale. There is nothing new that can be said about them. When college instructors see these paper topics, they immediately assume the student is too lazy to find another, more unique and innovative topic, a topic that has personal resonance. The most creative paper I ever read was from an education major who wrote about how wall paint color in elementary classrooms can enhance student learning. She had peer-reviewed (not internet) research to back it up, and I’d never read anything like it. She was also personally invested in the topic, as she was going into education. Brilliant.
Demystifying college writing is simply a matter of understanding perhaps new and different expectations than what you’re used to. In college, it’s not unusual for instructors to have less explicitly stated guidelines than you might have had in high school, but this also gives the student writer more freedom of expression and room for critical thinking and creativity.
If you have a question about an instructor’s expectations, ask. Your peers probably have the same questions. If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, visit your Writing Center for guidance. But few or broad guidelines might mean the instructor is giving you lots of room for interpretation and wants you to take advantage of the opportunity to be creative. Show them what you can do.