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Academics | College Essay | September 2012

Writing a College Essay: Tips for Success

By Laura Snyder | For

Writing a College EssayFirst-year students often struggle with the transition from high school writing to college essay writing. Many are surprised to find their professors have very different expectations about what makes a “good” college essay.

“Transitioning to college essay writing requires students to take on greater depth and greater breadth of knowledge,” says Dominic DelliCarpini, dean of academic affairs and professor of English at York College of Pennsylvania.

One of the first surprises might be just how much you’re expected to write.

“Many students are used to writing only for classes in the humanities: English and maybe history,” says William Kelly, director of the Center for Writing Excellence at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. “They may be unaccustomed to having multiple writing assignments from multiple classes. They’re not expecting to have more than one paper going on at the same time.”

Different assignments will require different kinds of papers. That old five-paragraph essay that worked so well in high school is less useful in your college courses.

“Often, new students think that one form of writing will fit any topic,” says Collette van Kerckvoorde, who directs the Writing & Thinking Workshop at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Massachusetts, a five-day orientation helping students navigate the transition to college-level writing. “We try to teach them that there are many ways to communicate with their reader. We encourage them to be creative and to think of different ways to raise ideas.”

“The five-paragraph essay can provide you with a useful way of structuring your thoughts with an introduction, evidence, and a conclusion,” says DelliCarpini, “But not all writing occasions lend themselves to that specific structure.”

Be expected to make more arguments, professors say. Most high school essay writing is designed to show you’ve understood what you’ve read, for example; college writing requires you to make a critical judgment of that reading.

“Even some of the best students are most comfortable parroting what they’ve been told or read, and are less comfortable about having an opinion,” says Kelly. “It’s very different to students to realize the importance of imparting their voice, the need to make a stand.”

When making an argument, you’ll need evidence to support your point. And Google and Wikipedia won’t cut it.

“The expectation of what constitutes an appropriate source might be different in college,” says Kelly. In high school, you may have done research for research’s sake. In college, you’ll be expected to use more “scholarly” sources that will support your argument – not just prove you could find five sources.

Finally, understand that good writing is the result of a process.

“The early stages of writing can be messy,” says DelliCarpini. “Be willing to toss out thoughts that don’t fit your purpose or audience in favor of better thoughts and more polished products. Writing is an inefficient process, but a rich one, if you are willing to come back to it with a new eye.”

Success at college means doing more than you are asked to do, reminds DelliCarpini. “College requires more independent work than high school, and that applies to writing as well,” he says. “Write every day, and use it as the tool of inquiry that it really is. Good thinkers, exact thinkers, write all the time. For you and for others, as a student and a citizen, writing is about as central to learning as any activity.”

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