Everyone is a writer, according to the National Council of Teachers of English. And that’s a good thing, given that being able to write is a vital skill across many professions.
“There’s really no escaping writing,” says Allison Kranek, manager of the writing center within the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing at Ohio State University. “Engineers still have to write. Business people still have to write. Doctors and lawyers still have to write.”
And while some students may dread the thought of making outlines for their papers or visiting a writing lab, they should understand that writing proficiency is needed in college and can pay off in the long run. In a 2020 survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 90% of employers viewed the ability to communicate through writing as either a “somewhat important” or “very important” skill.
“People who don’t write well work for those who do,” Harry Denny, an English professor and director of the writing lab at Purdue University in Indiana, wrote in an email. “And more broadly, effective communication contributes to better leadership, healthier workplaces, and more inviting communities.”
In high school, students often write essays and begin to develop research prowess. But college writing can present new challenges, experts say. Students can prepare themselves for the transition by using available resources and addressing potential areas of improvement while still in high school.
How High School and College Writing Differ
Most colleges require students to take a first-year writing composition class, according to the Council of Writing Program Administrators, a national association for college faculty members with an interest in directing writing programs. The council says these courses should aim to develop students’ rhetorical knowledge; strengthen their critical thinking, reading and composing skills; and familiarize them with writing processes.
Composition classes are designed to give students a foundation that they can expand on as they begin to specialize in fields of interest. After completing a composition class, students can expect to do more writing in college and will often be assigned longer papers.
They may also be required to write in more courses, Kranek notes.
“We know that lots of students write in English courses in high school, but they might not have written in history or science courses,” she says. “They can typically expect to be doing writing in different disciplines” in college.
In addition to writing about a broader range of subjects, college students could also be tasked with writing in different genres, styles and tones. Laboratory reports, psychology papers and literary analyses are three particular kinds of assignments that are common in college, Kranek says.
How to Prepare for College Writing
Experts have plenty of advice for high schoolers who are concerned about taking on lengthier and more diverse writing assignments when they get to college.
Kranek and Denny encourage them to seek guidance. Many high schools have writing centers and libraries. Kranek urges students to use those resources and to request feedback from their teachers.
Collaborating with classmates and friends can also be helpful, Denny says.
Since college students typically have to write in a variety of styles, they can benefit from working on their versatility in high school, experts say.
“Make sure that when you come to writing new things, you’re always asking questions about who it’s for, what your purpose is, what the context is and what kind of genre you’re writing,” Kranek says.
Denny encourages students to consider the specific kinds of work they may have to do in college based on their interests.
“Students should think about varieties of writing they see in what they imagine as possible majors,” he says. “How does a historian write differently from a physicist? How might creative writing help someone approach lab reports differently?”
Students can use self-awareness to pinpoint the parts of the writing process that give them trouble, Denny says. “Do they struggle to get started? To develop and expand ideas? To refine and tweak their messages?”
How Parents Can Help
Shelley Rodrigo, an associate professor and senior director of the writing program in the English department at the University of Arizona, suggests that parents encourage their students to read and write about things that interest them.
“Motivation matters,” she says. “Support students in reading and writing what they’re motivated to read and write about.”
Rodrigo adds that a student’s interests don’t have to be academic – they can come from unlikely sources.
“Yes, we have a lot of parents who like to critique how much video game time students might put in,” she says. “But a lot of those have fan websites, and a lot of people will spend hours reading, writing and dialoging with one another about those games.”
Kranek says parents can push their students to see the lifetime value of developing writing skills.
“Ultimately, parents can underscore that, regardless of where we go to college or what we do after college, writing will likely be a skill essential to our personal and professional lives,” she wrote in an email. “The opportunities we have to engage with writing before and during college allow us important opportunities to practice and hone our writing skills.”