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High School- vs. College-Level Writing

Natasha had always thought of herself as a great writer. She had earned mostly As on all her high school papers, after all! But, when she got her first college-level research paper back from her professor, she was shocked to see it covered in red ink and brandished with a mediocre grade. “How could this have happened?” she gasped in disbelief. “What did I do wrong?”

*    *    *

Natasha really is a great writer.

She is creative with words, demonstrates clean paragraph structure, and still remembers all of the English grammar rules from her ACT standardized test. There are three main reasons that Natasha received critical feedback on her first college-level paper.

  1. She failed to formulate her own argument on the topic in question.
  2. She did not use her sources effectively.
  3. She did not cite those sources clearly.

These three critiques are among the most common wake-up calls that the expectations and mechanics of college-level writing are often much more advanced than high school-level writing.

Most college-level writing classes focus on producing research papers, which are built around the process of citing different types of sources to generate an argument, or thesis, on a particular topic. From literature seminars devoted to distilling the evolution of American prose to economics classes that engage scholarly debates on fiscal policy, college writing is mostly a matter of learning how to articulate persuasive arguments with supporting evidence.

Since most high school-level writing classes do not teach students how to judge different types of research source material or how to cite that material transparently and effectively as evidence in support of an argument, most new college students wind up learning about these fundamental academic concepts the hard way—by getting some disappointing grades early in their college careers.

Today we’ll rewind the clock a few months and walk Natasha through everything she needs to know about developing her own argument—a new requirement for most students when they get to college. Then, next time, we’ll discuss sources and citations, to help her back her argument up with force and integrity.

Styles of Argument

In general, your college professors will expect you to write with greater sophistication than you may have been used to in high school. Optimally, your writing in college will begin to resemble the kind of writing you encounter regularly in published books, essays, and articles. 

Besides working hard in your college classes, the best way to learn that style is to make a daily habit of reading published books, essays, or articles from reputable publishing outlets like university presses, Penguin Press, W. W. Norton & Company, The Atlantic, Scientific American, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In addition, you can follow individual scholars, authors, or journalists who may be increasingly publishing their professional writing on alternative platforms like Substack.

The common theme is that you should make a habit of selectively reading professional publications over blogs, social media posts, gossip columns, or other forms of informal writing.  Beyond helping you to refine your overall competence with written English, these kinds of professional publications should consistently demonstrate how to write persuasive arguments using supporting evidence.

Perhaps the most important writing skill that your college professors will grade you on is your ability to formulate your own persuasive arguments using supporting evidence.  

In many high school writing classes, you are graded on your ability to evaluate the viewpoints and arguments of others. In college, you will take this one step further. Through college writing, you will be expected to engage in historical, political, scientific, and/or cultural debates yourself. Learning what your primary and secondary sources have to say about a particular topic or question will function as your academic research.

The next step is for you to analyze that information in an effort to generate your own chain of evidence-based reasoning to persuade your readers of what you have to say about a particular topic or question.

The culmination of college-level research and writing is a clear thesis statement in which you declare:

  1. the question at hand or the problem being addressed;
  2. what others have had to say about that question or problem;
  3. your critique of others’ perspectives or use of evidence; 
  4. your own evidence-based perspective or claim regarding the question or problem. 

Although your college professors will certainly grade your writing on all of the conventional metrics—such as grammar, punctuation, and style—the biggest difference between high school-level and college-level writing will be their emphasis on your ability to fulfill these four criteria.

*    *    *

Mastering college-level writing will take time, and Natasha still needs to get comfortable with how to use evidence from her sources correctly to make her argument with maximum effect. But she’s already well on her way to effective college-level writing!