Preparing for College Writing: Papers, Essays, and Reports

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College students will most likely take a variety of courses in the pursuit of their undergraduate degree. These courses can include basic requirements all students must take, a choice of electives, and specific classes under a declared major. Whatever type of course you take, one requirement is most likely certain – writing. Writing will be expected as students respond to questions to demonstrate understanding, compose essays, present arguments in papers, and analyze information in reports.

What to Expect

In preparing for writing in college, you should first have a clear understanding of what an instructor expects in a paper. Some instructors will be explicit in what to include in an assignment; some will give you a general topic or question and see what direction you take it. If you are not asked to “agree or disagree” or “compare or contrast,” you may be asked to “illustrate,” “explain,” “analyze,” or “evaluate.” These words do not merely ask for a summary of a reading. Unlike high school, college level writing goes beyond summarizing reading material. You will summarize some information, but more often you will be asked to read, research, analyze and think about the information, and then present it to so that readers can assess it and use it. So, if you are unsure of what an instructor expects in a writing assignment, ask!

To accomplish these types of writing assignments, students should identify points or claims that support arguments. A good point or claim usually says something important about the material you have read, is not obvious, is information that no one would agree with just by reading it, and can be supported in a few pages. While reading critically, students should take notes and begin listing points that develop an argument and support it.

In another type of assignment, instructors often want you to show how material is put together or how it works, to “show how” or “demonstrate”. They may ask you to identify elements of an argument, elements of a narrative, or elements of a poem. To accomplish this, you should show how these elements work together, or against one another, to create a larger picture or effect. Realize that you are still being asked to make an argument. You must form your analysis so that it supports a claim or argument you have formulated and support it with discussion and explanation.

Brush up on the Basics

By the time you enroll in college classes, you should have an understanding of the English language. You may, however, be a little rusty on the mechanics of writing. In preparing for college writing, you should review the parts of speech and grammar basics. Remember, you will be proofreading rough drafts and answers to essay questions. Reviewing what you may not have practiced in a while will help you improve your writing skills.

Get Help

One of the last – and best – tips for preparing for college level writing is to locate the writing center on campus. Trained tutors can offer individual assistance on the steps of the writing process, including organizing essays, formatting bibliographies, and correcting grammatical errors. To assist a tutor in helping you, be sure that you clearly show what you have done, and which parts of the assignment trouble you. Be sure you prepare an outline that shows where your paper stands, what you have drafted, or a list of topics you have begun to research. If you have a rough draft, prepare a copy for a tutor to edit. Before you finish working with a tutor, write down specific ways to complete and/or improve your paper.

Working with a tutor can help you avoid, intentionally or not, plagiarizing. You plagiarize when you use another person’s words or ideas, but fail to credit that person. Tutors should specifically assist you in using, and citing, sources correctly, whether you include quotes in your work or not. Receiving help from a tutor is acceptable at any school – plagiarism is not.


Williams, J.M. & McEnerney, L. Writing in College: A Short Guide to College Writing. (n.d.) University of Chicago Writing Program.