Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew: Write Well

My father, a retired professor from Cornell University as well as a former high school science teacher, was excited when I told him about our panel discussion "What College Professors Wish Freshmen Knew." He has a passion for education and is a life-long learner. He was interested to hear what the faculty would advise, and he readily offered what he called "Number 1, Number 2, and Number 3: Write well, write well, write well."

Our four panelists—two biology professors (Drs. M and S), a psychology instructor (Ms. B), and the head of private college's English department (Dr. O) — agreed unequivocally. (Click here to read the background of our panel discussion.) Across disciplines—no matter what the major— students need to be able to express themselves clearly in writing.

Dr. O emphasized that a student should always find out what set of grammar rules a professor considers important. Having a good grammar reference book is essential. He has two favorites: A Writer's Reference by Diana Hacker and Hodges' Harbrace Handbook by Cheryl Glenn and Loretta Gray. Don't just put the book(s) on a shelf; students should be familiar with the content and actually use the book as a reference.

The professors placed varying degrees of emphasis on grammar, but all agreed that good grammar is vital to clear written communication. Dr. S. conceded that in the sciences he is less concerned about the grammar than Dr. O is in English. He is more concerned about how well a student can explain and frame an argument. In his biology classes he expects well-supported, clearly laid-out answers and essays organized by topics. Dr. M. noted that the best students always have outlines or bullet points scribbled on their test booklets, indicating that they have thought through the entire essay before beginning. Ms. B. begged students to proofread their essays (and especially, she pleaded, do not leave an "I" uncapitalized!).

One audience member asked what the most glaring grammatical errors are. The most glaring error is today, just as it has been through the decades, comma splicing. Read up on it and make sure your kids know when to use a comma, when to use a semicolon, and when to use a period.  Students aren't experienced proofreaders anymore, Dr. O mentioned, relying instead on their word processing program's grammar and spelling functions. He said many students use spellcheck but don't catch words like "are" and "our" or "hear" and "here." Dr. O stressed that an excess of technical errors makes an essay unreadable. You might have great ideas, but they are lost in a sea of misplaced modifiers and other grammar gremlins.

The professors felt a true urgency to communicate how critical essay skills are for college students. Writing well is a crucial determining factor in whether a student is excellent or just average.

All the professors urged students to get help when needed in their school's writing labs. Ms. B. pointed out that sometimes professors will even give extra credit for going to tutors. As a writing lab instructor, Ms. B. said that she has very few students actually come in for help, and those that do are nearly always the top-level students—not the ones who really need it.

 And this is a good place to mention the evils of plagiarism. Many faculty have a zero tolerance for plagiarism—and unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism.  Students should always make careful notes about where they have obtained information, and they should cite their sources. Essays are usually analyzed by computers to pick up plagiarism, and this is a serious offense. Students should remember that anything that is not his or her idea or common knowledge needs to be cited.

When a student gets to college, stressed the professors, he is expected to know how to write a college-level essay. So how should students prepare in high school? Well, it sounds simple: become a confident writer. By the time students are seniors, they should be so fluent in writing essays that it is second nature.

• Parents, give your homeschooled kids timed essays. Timed, in-class essays are something that many homeschoolers never experience. In fact, I am chagrined to say that I am an English teacher at our co-op, and until recently I had never given a timed essay examination! I had one of those hit-your-head moments when I realized that I was doing a terrible disservice to my students by giving them take-home tests so that we could use our weekly class time for discussion. Wow!

• Dr. O suggests entering a few essay contests in high school. While students might not win, the feedback from the judges can be invaluable and a great way to see how your student stacks up against others.

• Students should be able to fluently write all kinds of essays: expository, analytical, persuasive, compare/contrast, narrative, descriptive, etc. Understand how to write each one. OWL at Purdue and the Guide to Grammar and Writing give great primers, and hundreds of other internet sources can help. A simple search for "basic essay writing" will yield more results that one could possible use!

• Make sure your student has a few research papers under his belt. Do it the old-fashioned way with index cards and outlines at least the first couple of times; after that, allow him to develop his own system.

• Take a co-op class or Bravewriter class. Do dual enrollment at the local community college while in high school to learn what an instructor there is looking for. Most importantly: practice, practice, practice.

Again, don't let your student think that writing well isn't important because she plans to major in math. In every major, students need to be able to express themselves clearly in writing. But beyond college, clear written communication is a life skill that will never stop serving one well.

This is #1 in the series "What College Profs Wish Freshmen Knew." See also:
#2: Read the Syllabus.
#3. Be Responsible
#4. How to Interact with Professors
#5. Study
#6: Get Involved


  1. This is very informative. As a homeschooled and homeschooling mom who has been to college, I failed to realize the need to intentionally teach this. I also realized that I may need to brush up on my essay writing skills myself as I didn't know how many different kinds of essay there were. Thanks.

  2. Thanks so much for posting this series.

  3. Writing With Skill, by Susan Wise Bauer, is an excellent source for learning to write the above listed essays. I highly recommend it for homeschool students.

  4. I love that you used a photo of a Milligan College building! This is such important info. I'm so glad you opted to release it in a series of bite-sized chunks. It makes it easier to take in.

  5. I wish someone would have touched on those with learning disabilities in the article, namely dyslexia. I am currently using Writing With Skill with my dyslexic daughter. It is an excellent series, and we did work through Writing With Ease, as well.

    The point about timed essays does not work with dyslexics, and even those with other disabilities like dysgraphia or ADD/ADHD.

    1. Great point. Any student with a disability should immediately go to that college's office of disabilities. Professors must do everything they can to work with students with disabilities.


I love comments! Thanks for taking the time to leave one. I have comment moderation on, so your comment will take a little bit to appear.