Writing in High School vs. College

Melanie Falconer
Melanie Falconer

Our collaborative team of content writers and researchers stay up-to-date on the latest news to help you ace your applications. We hope you enjoy the blog.

Learning how to write well for college is fundamentally the most challenging dilemma students will face, in my experience. Academic writing in high school vs. college differ in key aspects. Let’s talk about how your writing must change when transitioning from high school to the university.

We get it. The night before a deadline, some high school students procrastinate instead of re-reading their copy of One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It is a very common urge, to put off the high school essay–and it can be a very easy thing to pull off.

This is due in part to our high school education’s emphasis on summary as opposed to analysis. Most high schools want students to master the material instead of truly analyzing it. But when embarking on their college planning, students should also prepare for a major shift in writing standards.

Besides taking a writing workshop or working with a tutor recommended by a college planning adviser, a student should practice writing in a college format.

College writing will differ in these three key aspects: 

1. Diversified Topics in your College Writing

Think about where a student spends the most time on writing. Is it science? Art? History? The most common answer is English. In college, what subject will demand the most writing?

The answer? Every subject. Even in a science or math class, students will be expected to read their textbook, read scholarly articles, and write extensive research papers. A student may choose to take subjects they’ve never been offered before, like philosophy, linguistics, archaeology, sociology, and more. In all college courses, a student will be expected to have strong writing skills and write a lot.

Tip: When a student is doing their college planning, they should research what subjects their ideal colleges offer and which ones appeal the most to them. If they’re feeling ambitious, they should read some of the writing published in those disciplines. This will give you a firsthand example of how writing in high school vs. college can differ.

2. Analysis Emphasized More Than High School Writing

Most high schools do not emphasize heavy research, analysis, or innovation in a given topic. University courses will usually demand a lot of depth. This can be very challenging for some students who were not effectively taught how to analyze or break down what’s in front of them.

The big difference is a shift from what to why. High school teachers will often ask what happened or what someone did. In college, since most professors are expected to make innovations in their own field, students will be asked why something happened and encouraged to look at the deeper significance of something.

Tip: Students should learn to ask themselves why more often, and early on. They should do their best to try and discover hidden motivations and theories for what surrounds them.

3. Thesis Based Writing in High School vs. College

In college, the thesis is the holy grail. Most students will know what a thesis is by the time they’re in college. If they don’t, not to worry–most universities will emphasize its importance very early on.

A thesis has many important elements (that should be discussed with a writing tutor or in a student’s first college writing course), but it is in essence an argument or conclusion made based off of research and evidence. In other words, it’s not simply what we know to be true already (“Under the presidency of Bill Clinton, NAFTA was passed”). It is not yet proven or could be challenged with another point of view, as in: “NAFTA made the Mexican economy overly dependent on the United States and had dangerous ramifications for their citizens.”

In fact, a student’s entire essay will surround their central argument. Anything that is irrelevant to their main claim should not be included in their paper.

Tip: Learning what a thesis looks like is essential to a student’s college planning. First, they should learn what it is by trying to identify it in articles or writing worksheets. Then, they should learn how to come up with one of their own. They can do this by reading about a subject they are passionate about and creating an argument based on the evidence they found.

Conclusion

Learning how to write well for college is fundamentally the most challenging dilemma students will face when transitioning from high school to the university. Whereas they used to be able to put off assignments until the night before and pull it off with grace, in college, they are expected to research outside of the text in front of them, analyze all of the material, come up with a strong thesis, and write clearly and concisely all in one go. It is not easy stuff.

If a student wants to come prepared, they should work on these skills now rather than later!

Questions? Let us know!