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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

About College Writing

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College Writing: What's Different About It?

The way students do things in college might seem somewhat mysterious to newcomers. It seems like there are different requirements for good writing and thinking in every area. It even seems like there is a different way to study and read in every subject area. There's no doubt that reading, writing, and thinking is more complex in college and that you might have to change some of the methods you used very effectively in high school.

How Writing in College... Different from Writing in High School

Professor Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz* followed a number of college students through all four years of college at Harvard, making a study of how their writing changed as they progressed and what qualities indicated ahead of time that students would be likely to succeed. Sommers and Saltz found that students who were willing to assume the role of the novice, who were willing to experiment, to try new ways of reading and writing and thinking were more likely to succeed than those who stuck fast to their old ways of doing things. Sommers and Saltz also found that students who were genuinely and personally interested in their studies—students who found a way to make the questions and issues discussed in class relevant to their own lives and thoughts—had more endurance, more staying power when tasks became difficult. It sometimes takes a lot of work to understand and apply ideas and theories you learn about; people who have a personal investment in their classes tend to stay with it while they are developing the writing and thinking skills they need to excel.

Selected Websites

What is an academic paper? (Dartmouth)

On a practical note, the following information from the Writing for College page in Student Resources at the Dartmouth Writing Program website describes

  • how high school writing differs from college writing.
  • how to begin writing a "sound" college argument.
  • how to move from personal writing to more analytical writing

Go to the Writing for College page for detailed information.

College writing (UNC-Chapel Hill)

This information from the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill focuses on the five paragraph theme. It defines it, includes a lengthy list of its frequent flaws before indicating when it would be useful, and discusses how to break out of this genre. Although its emphasis is on the negative aspects of this genre, you can "read between the lines" to see what is expected in college writing. The bibliography at the end is interesting, one article indicating a link between the current mania for testing and the popularity of the five paragraph theme.

Go to the College Writing page for detailed information.

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*Sommers, Nancy and Laura Saltz. "The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year."
College Composition and Communication 56 (2004): 124-49.