College Writing vs. High School Writing



  1. Scope, Weight, and Process

 In most every case beyond say, a freshman writing class, you can expect writing assignments in college classes to be longer than most of what you did in high school and expect the assignments to carry more weight. Many classes have only two papers in a semester: a mid-term essay and a final essay. So, don’t expect to slack off on one assignment with an eye toward redemption on the next one — there may not be a next one.

As far as the added length, one Vanderbilt Instructor describes the common student reaction like this:

“For me personally, it feels as if my students’ main complaint is that essays are too long. Even when I assign 5 page papers, my students don’t believe they can find enough things to say to fill the minimum pages. But if the student works on crafting a strong thesis statement, they can always find new ways to explore the text. This is especially true because they no longer have to write in the “5 paragraph essay” model — instead of just providing new examples of their argument with each body paragraph, they can advance new ideas and arguments each time (as long as they relate back to some aspect of the thesis).”

-Alex Oxner, Ph.D. candidate and Vanderbilt Instructor in English

There’s also less likely to be the step-by-step process that you might have been used to in high school. If you are accustomed to writing a research paper by turning in note cards, then the thesis and first paragraph, then the first page, and so forth, then having a complete twelve-page research paper due all at once may feel daunting. Also, don’t expect the five-paragraph format to work, or even a linear organization to work, for a longer paper. You should be thinking more holistically and be aware that the opening paragraph (and title) may actually be what you write last—after you’ve revised the essay several times and have a clearer sense of your purpose and argument.


  1. Range of Assignments

One of the more challenging aspects of college writing assignments is the sheer variety of courses and thus the wide range of purpose and audience for the pieces you write. Some examples of issues resulting from that range:


You’re not necessarily writing for the teacher

In high school, your essays were almost always going to be read and graded by your teacher. But don’t expect that to be true in your college classes. For example, in one Vanderbilt Math class (yes, writing for a math class!) there is a Cryptography assignment examining “the origin, use, influence, and mechanics of a code or cipher of your choice.” Students submit the essays to a blog that anyone in the class can read, so the language of the essay may need to be less specialized than if just written for the teacher. Don’t be surprised if your engineering professor asks you to write a guide for how to build something and to post it to a broad audience, such as this cool website. And it is reasonable to expect in a Freshman writing class, that you will, as one student notes, “do a lot of peer editing and response letters to peers.”


Guidelines are often open-ended 

For example, from a introductory Sociology class: “Anything shorter than 2 pages is not likely to be sufficient; anything longer than 3 pages probably means you need to be more concise. There is no “correct” answer to the central questions, and the only materials you need are the readings to date, your class notes, and your brain.” And from an introductory History class, slightly more specific, but still offering a lot of choice: “compare and contrast two primary sources concerning European Imperialism…”

One consultant at the Vanderbilt Writing Studio describes the student experience with Open-ended guidelines like this:

[A]s a consultant, I might say to students who come in to the Studio, as they often do, feeling that they have little “structure” or “direction” on a writing assignment, “This is a common feeling. It is also an unsettling one. Often, college professors expect their students to be more advanced than high school writers and therefore think they should need less direction.”

-Deann Armstrong, Ph.D. candidate and Vanderbilt Instructor in English


 Sometimes an assignment just tells you what it is NOT

Rather than a rubric or checklist of requirements, some teachers will simply tell you what they don’t want. Here’s one from an Introductory Art class: “This is not a research paper. It is rather an exercise in careful looking, analysis, and interpretation based purely on the visual information provided by the work itself. The grading will not presume necessarily “right” or “wrong” answers, but rather will expect a coherent, tightly argued discussion that flows from point to point and arrives at a convincing conclusion. Demonstrate your ability to look well and to use visual evidence persuasively. Ground all generalizations with specific visual evidence. Use your verbal and intellectual skills to propose topics, problems, etc., and then attempt to solve them.”



  1. Emphasis on Academic Argument

 To establish an argument, you’ll need to go beyond pointing out what is already known and accepted. Don’t simply summarize a text or an experiment or regurgitate class notes or rehash a conversation from class. In They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein assert that “Academic writing in particular calls upon writers not simply to express their own ideas, but to do so as a response to what others have said” (ix). Or as the Vanderbilt Writing Studio adds, “think of your argument in terms of what the authorities or conventional wisdom maintains about a given topic (They say) and how what you think differs or diverges (I say).” Here’s a Writing Studio They Say/I Say template that may be helpful.

Some questions the Writing Studio suggests you ask about your own argument:

  • What is the accepted view (or stasis) against which you are making a claim?
  • What kind of counterpoint (or destabilization) do you propose?
  • Do you offer a resolution to this destabilization?
  • Overall, is the argument debatable? Supportable? Specific enough? Interesting enough? Complex enough? Is it consistent throughout the paper?


Ultimately the definition of academic argument remains complex and has been examined from various angles by a variety of texts on Academic Writing. Gary Jaeger, Director of the Vanderbilt Writing Studio, recently reviewed a selection of those texts, providing a look at both top-down and bottom-up perspectives on argument. It is a helpful way to gain a better understanding of what strategies might best help you improve your own arguments.

%d bloggers like this: