Letters to New College Students

Letter #1:

Dear new college students,

I could give advice about things like proper grammar or how to develop your specific voice in your writing pieces—both of which are valuable components of college writing—but one of the most significant things I have learned about college writing actually comes before you put your pen to the paper. I would argue that the choice of your topic and argument is the most important (and most fun!) point of your writing process.

Think about it like this: when you choose a topic for a college paper, you have this incredible opportunity to focus on an issue in your course that especially interested or even bothered you. Once you choose this topic, you then get to develop your unique perspective on the issue. This step of the process is actually much more fun than it initially sounds, because in developing an “academic argument” you are essentially stepping up to the metaphorical “open mic” in the academic world and announcing, “I have something new to say about this.”

Even though this step is crucial, there is no need to stress about selecting the perfect topic or writing an appropriate argument—your professor is an invaluable resource. Not only will your professor be thrilled to discuss more in-depth a specific topic from the course, but your professor can also guide you in understanding the current academic discourse about this topic, formulating your fresh perspective based on this background research, and even finding helpful sources to support your exciting new idea.

During my early weeks and months of college writing, I had a difficult time realizing that professors actually wanted to know what new ideas I had regarding my paper topic. I felt that little ole’ me was not qualified to defend new perspectives on topics that had already been studied and debated in academia, and as a result I wasted my first few college writing assignments by regurgitating what others had said. Once I began to better understand what my professors were looking for, however, I wrote much more interesting, focused, and argumentative papers (and also received better grades).

So, I encourage you, new college students, to dive boldly into your college writing assignments—go to your professors with your exciting new ideas about your topic, and really enjoy the research process as you assemble evidence for your case. Good luck, and happy writing!

— Mary Catherine



Letter #2

Dear writers,

As you embark on a new journey of writing longer, harder assignments than ever before, I have a few tips for you. First of all, try to get comfortable with the idea of a lousy first draft. You can always fix it later. When I was a freshman, I would struggle for an hour to write a single sentence because I wanted the first thing I wrote to be suitable for submission. That wasn’t an efficient use of my time, and it won’t be an efficient use of yours, either. The most important thing is to start writing; it gets easier after you’ve already put some words on the page. Even if they’re just some keywords or sentence fragments.

On the subject of revision, I hope you finish your first (or second, or third…) draft with ample time to ask for feedback from a friend, TA, or instructor. Other people can always provide insight into your prompt/project/paragraph that you may not have seen, or give you helpful suggestions for what to work on next. However, if you’re short on time, you can be your own best editor! Be especially critical of your topic sentences; revisit them after writing each paragraph, and be honest with yourself about whether the argument matches up. Read your papers out loud to locate weird phrasing and grammar issues.

This last tip is small and fairly superficial, but no one told me before I wrote my first paper in college and I hope to spare you from the embarrassment I felt. As it turns out, titles on papers are expected. (“Assignment #2” is a bad title.) Write them last, and don’t feel obligated to make them catchy.

Best of luck on your college writing projects! You deserve to be there, and you are capable of doing the work.


Mary Gwin

P.S. If your professor lets you pick a citation style, Chicago is the best!




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