What College Students Wish They Had Known

We surveyed current Vanderbilt undergrads about their college writing experiences as compared to their high school writing experiences. One question we asked was

What writing advice would you give to the high school Senior version of yourself?

Asking college students what they wish they could tell the high school Senior version of themselves reveals several areas where they felt unprepared or had misconceptions. One sound but general bit of advice is Don’t expect it to be the same. Got that? Some more specific advice from college students includes:


1.  Don’t be cute in your writing in college, because you won’t be the best anymore.

That’s a bit negative—you might still be best—but other ways that students echo this point is Don’t try to show off by using big words and even You don’t have to write like a 18th century poet to have good prose. Simple is better.

 One tendency that many freshman writers have is to think, “I’m in college now, I need to sound like a scholar.” This is a mistake. Strong writing is genuine and clear. Putting on a “professorial” voice rather than trusting your own voice often leads to bad writing. Think about it this way: If you put on a mask and try to talk to someone through it you’ll be harder to understand than if you spoke naturally, without the mask; clarity and conciseness—not erudite convolutedness—should be the goal.   


2.  Get started early. You can’t write a ten page paper the same way you can a three-page paper.

Even if you are someone who could crank out three pages for a high school assignment the night before, that’s not going to work for longer college essays. With longer essays, you’re going to need to get beyond the five-paragraph model, and that also needs more planning and careful organization.

What are some good pre-writing techniques? First, you’ll need to set apart some time and space. In high school, perhaps you had your own room or a quiet place in your house. Living in a dorm, sharing a bunk space, or generally having more free time and more distractions may make it harder to find the quiet and solitude best for writing. Still, every writer is different: some people work best in the bustle of a coffee shop, some people in a carrel in the basement of the library. Once you find a place, though, then you need to find a way to shut out potential distractions—namely how to keep your phone and other social media connections out of the scene.

You could turn everything off, but if that’s too much to ask then there are several helpful apps that you might use.

Once you have your writing space established and a substantial block of time set aside to write, now you can get started on your Outline / Prewriting. There are lots of suggestions about different prewriting techniques. Marilyn Holt, a consultant at the Vanderbilt Writing Studio, offers this advice:

[M]y advice for students would to be to think early about paper structure and time management. Students should develop methods to motivate themselves to begin working on the paper early, rather than procrastinate until the last minute. Possible options include writing partners, which can serve as a sounding board for paper ideas and hold each other accountable for progress on current projects.

The Writing Studio also offers these helpful brainstorming ideas.


3.  Become more intimate with the writing assignments and the material. And do all of the reading.

If you haven’t developed strong annotating skills, now would be a good time to do so. This goes hand-in-hand with the importance of prewriting. A few areas to scan for, and highlight, as you read, include

  • contrasts and contradictions
  • extreme or absolute language
  • tough questions
  • epiphanies or aha moments

College students surveyed often note that to improve as a writer they had to do more reading and read more analytically than they did in high school. If you are not willing to read more conscientiously, then it will be hard to write better.


4.  Again, don’t expect college to be the same as high school. 

But don’t expect them to be unrelated. If you have put in a lot time writing in high school, that time will benefit you in college. Surveying Vanderbilt students, who have come from a variety of high school experiences, shows that those who did more writing in high school felt less stressed about their transition to college. Jeff Shenton, Assistant Director of the Vanderbilt Writing Studio, articulates that sense in his quantitative analysis of the survey. Similarly, a survey of University School of Nashville alumni currently or recently in college, reveals an almost universal appreciation for a rigorous high school writing experience.


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