college papers

September is a whirlwind of a month for new college students. You spent the entire summer planning, packing, and saying goodbye to your old life. Over the past month, you have settled into your comfy room, have started to understand your new roommate, and have found your way around campus. Now, before you can even breathe a sigh of relief at having accomplished this milestone, your professors have assigned your first college papers.  

This is a moment of panic if writing has never been your thing. Just hearing the word “paper” might bring back bad memories of late nights spent staring at your computer screen as you pulled one agonizing line after another out of your fritzed-out brain. Or, you might be one of the “I got this” types who doesn’t worry about writing at all. You know you can get a pretty good 5-paragraph essay to materialize on your laptop while catching up on past episodes of Pretty Little Liars.  

Both types should take a moment of reflection before starting that first college paper. College writing has a different purpose and has to be attacked in a different way than the writing you did in high school. Think of your high school writing like riding a bike with training wheels. Just like those training wheels are fastened to that small bike, the format and content of your high school papers were more fixed. This was especially true for your DBQs and FRQs for AP classes and for the short essay writing for ACTs or SATs. That training structure helped you get the hang of it, but you couldn’t get off the sidewalk, and you couldn’t go very fast.  

For college papers, the training wheels are off. You’ll have the freedom to go where you want in your papers. You can explore interesting ideas and take unexpected routes. But, with all of this freedom comes more responsibility. It’s your job now to engage and enlighten your reader. You can’t simply follow the training formula. You have to have something to say in a college paper, and you have to make your professor (who is an expert in the field) think about your ideas. 

In his excellent college writing text, Writing in Response, Matthew Parfitt of Boston University says, “When college professors read student essays, their expectations are often quite different from those of high school teachers.” The difficulty for the new college student, Parfitt goes on to explain, is to figure out what those differences are. High school teachers had the responsibility to teach you how to write a paper. That’s why they put those training wheels on for you. Essentially, you were writing papers for the purpose of writing papers. College professors, on the other hand, use those papers for their intended purpose.  

That purpose is for you to use that paper as your ticket into the academic discussion going on in your field of study. You’ll present and defend your thinking as part of the body of knowledge that is being created. Professor Parfitt makes the point that all college instructors consider their students to be a part of the academic discussion that happens on college campuses. They want students to be readers and thinkers in their fields in the way that the professors themselves are. The college paper is the proof that your critical thinking and problem-solving ability is ready for that conversation.  

So, whether or not you were a wiz at the high school essay, here are three tips for writing a college paper that show your college cred.

Tip 1: Take the time to fully understand the writing assignment

Advice from the University of Chicago Writing Program states that it is important to be sure you have a good grasp of the writing task before you begin. College professors generally won’t teach you how to write the paper, but they will give you a writing prompt or situation for a response. Pay attention to the verbs used in that prompt. “Describe,” “analyze,” “illustrate,” “discuss,” or “explain” are all verbs that require different writing approaches. Be sure that you understand how to put that verb into play before you start the paper.

Tip 2: Make an argument

Argument is the primary form for college papers. Because you are presenting an original idea in a paper, you are essentially arguing that you are correct. So, you’ll have to present your idea and support it with logical reasoning and evidence. The University of North Carolina Writing Center advises that college professors want your paper to prove that you understand the material and that you can apply it in a unique way. This means that you may need sections of short summary, but the bulk of the paper must be an argument for your point of view.  

Tip 3: Think creatively

The University of Maryland University College states that writing in college is an active process that will enable you to “develop new knowledge for yourself.” The act of working through your ideas in writing will help you think in new ways. It helps you apply your new knowledge in creative ways, and the argument format of most college papers helps you develop better logical reasoning skills. So, free your creativity in your college papers. It will help you develop as a thinker, and your professors will appreciate an engaging and enlightening read.  


Overall, approach your first college papers with an awareness of the differences between the expectations of high school training and college thinking. With some careful thought and advance planning, your papers will represent you as the intelligent, creative, problem-solving academic that you are.  


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