Your Guide for Learning How to Improve reading and Writing Skills in College

Your Guide for Learning How to Improve reading and Writing Skills in College
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But…I Had All A’s in High School!

That may be true, but the hard fact is that college professors are looking for different things than high school teachers were looking for. Many times, your high school teachers want to see whether you can master the material. College professors want to see that you can synthesize what you’ve learned and formulate a position - and argue for it. You’ll need to analyze texts, go deeper into meanings behind novels, and understand symbolism. You’ll need to take someone else’s writing apart and reconstruct it. You’ll need to report results of original research. Many courses will require that you’re able to successfully put together twenty-pages of polished writing.

It can be a lot to face, and it can get very overwhelming very quickly. Luckily, there are some definitive measures you can take in order to build your skills when it comes to writing and reading tasks.

Building College Reading Skills

In high school, you may have simply picked up a book and read it. This won’t work in college. You’ll need to improve your strategy if you want to be able to participate in class to the fullest extent possible.

1. Write in your books. In high school, you borrowed your books from the school you attended. In college, you will need to purchase your books. My college textbooks are colorful. Why? Because some books were read multiple times. You purchase your college textbooks because they are your tools. Learn the proper way to annotate a text. Don’t highlight every word - but you might want to highlight key passages. Don’t be afraid to make marginalia. Is there something that doesn’t make sense? Put a question mark next to it. Don’t agree with something? Write that in the margin. Want to see the outline of an argument quickly? Mark the premises and conclusion in the margins. By using a strategic method for marking up your text, you’ll increase your understanding of that text.

2. Engage with the author as though you were having a conversation. Even if you are reading fiction, writers almost always have an agenda. In fiction, it might be describing a particular theme; for poets, they might be trying to evoke a particular emotion or mood.

3. Read the assigned passage two to three times. The first time you read the assigned passage, you are just trying to get a grip on what’s going on. The second time you read the passage, look for the structure. Find the symbols the author is using. Look for the elements of characterization the author uses. The third time you read the passage, try to reconstruct the argument and formulate an opinion about the text. What was the author’s purpose in writing this passage?

4. Read more than the assigned readings. Are you reading more than what’s assigned for class? If your professor provides a recommended reading list, purchase those books as well. Are there topics you’re interested in beyond what’s been assigned? Go ahead and go to the library. Is there something you’re not sure you understand? Go to the library.

5. Try to get the first reading in before the semester starts. Books for your classes will often be at the university two to three weeks ahead of time. Try to read your books before class starts. This will give you an advantage over fellow classmates.


No, it’s not gibberish. When reading textbooks, SQRRR can be a helpful method of retaining information. SQRRR stands for:

  • Survey - skim through the assigned reading. Look at headings, images, captions, bolded words, etc. to get an idea of what the chapter is about.
  • Question - write questions from headings to answer while reading. For example, if you have a section called “The Blue Moon,” you might write a question saying “What is the blue moon?”
  • Read - read to find the answers to your questions. You can mark in the margin when you find your answer, or you can write it down on note paper.
  • Recite - formulate the answer to your question aloud and in your own words. Write this answer down.
  • Review - Go over what you have written down to solidify the information in your mind.

This is best used for subjects like science or history - and for your general education survey courses. This method won’t work as well for English courses or philosophy courses where you’ll need to find the arguments in a piece.

Building College Writing Skills

This is a place where many college students struggle. I’m going to say it once. You cannot write a paper the night before its due and get a good grade. Your roommate might do it. She may even get an A. Don’t do it. It’s not good for your academic career and it’s really not good for your body. The stress involved with procrastination hurts your body in the long run. If you’ve always waited until the last minute and gotten by, it’s time to make a change. You’ll thank me for it later.

When it comes to writing in college, there are two pieces of advice that are invaluable:

  1. Settle on paper topics as soon after the paper is assigned as possible. This means that if you are assigned a paper on any topic of your choosing at the beginning of the semester, you should know what you’re writing on by the second week.
  2. Use all of the resources available to you to build your skills. Most schools have writing centers and tutors to help you with your writing. Take advantage of these free resources, especially if you already know you struggled with writing in high school.

The college writing process follows a pattern like this:

  • Choose your topic
  • Meet with the professor to discuss your topic - most professors are more than happy to help you if you go during office hours. Again, take advantage of this! Your professor will often be able to point you in the direction of key resources you’ll want to use for your paper.
  • Conduct preliminary research - make sure to keep an accurate record of what was said and who said it by taking notes properly.
  • Refine your topic
  • Outline your paper
  • Complete research
  • Write a first draft
  • Meet with the professor or with a person at the writing center to go through your first draft
  • Identify any places where you’re struggling
  • Rewrite your paper
  • Let the paper sit for a few days
  • Revise your paper
  • Let the paper sit
  • Proofread
  • Turn the paper in

Give each step a deadline - starting with the deadline for the paper and working backwards. Make sure to let the paper sit at least a day between drafts. You’ll find more errors this way.

Never be afraid to ask for help or clarification when it comes to your writing assignments. You’ll only benefit from this activity.

Read Good Books to Write Good Papers

If you read quality works, you will begin to improve your writing skills. Don’t copy someone else’s work to claim as your own, but you can write out passages from someone’s work - in your reading journal - to see how it’s put together. Notice how authors string together words. Pay attention to techniques used for arguing. Try to read and write something every day, even if you’re only spending thirty minutes on reading and another thirty minutes on writing. Just like exercising the body, the mind needs to be exercised in order to stay sharp.

Still Struggling?

If you’ve followed the tips in this article, and you’re still struggling, you might want to go to the learning resource center. Sometimes you’ll find that a previously undiagnosed learning difference is your stumbling block. There’s no shame in having a learning difference - in fact, once you know about it, you can learn how to work with it. Testing through your school is free, and professors will need to make accommodations to work with you.


Ronda Roberts was a college and graduate student over the course of fourteen years. She had to learn the hard way how to write well for her classes, and is happy to share this knowledge. Additionally, she has co-authored the book Success in Life through Personality Engineering with Murali Chemuturi. This book features a chapter on boosting your college study success skills.

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