College Life Series: College Essay Guide

Prepare your students to write at the next level!

Is your student about to embark on a college adventure? It doesn’t take long before new college students have an “eye-opening” run-in with college writing! Academic writing is the type of writing students do in college, and it’s quite different from high school-level writing. While in high school, your students probably got accustomed to the traditional “five paragraph essay.” In college, students become very familiar with research-based writing. How are these two types of writing different? How can you best help your student prepare for college-level writing?

The Difference Between College-Level Writing and High School Writing

A key difference between college-level writing and high school writing lies in intent. The intent of high school writing is often to inform and sometimes to persuade. In college, this focus shifts to a more research-based approach. 

What's the difference between college writing and high school writing?

College students engage in what we mentioned previously as academic writing. This type of writing is developed in response to other forms of writing, namely to controversial topics and argumentative prompts.

Often, new college students feel either their high school teachers didn’t prepare them well enough for college or that their college professors are too tough. In most cases, the student simply didn’t make the proper transition between high school and college writing.

Helping Students Make the Transition to College-Level Writing

Beginning in your student’s senior year, you can start giving writing assignments that more closely relate to the types of assignments your students will have to write in college. Knowing how high school writing differs from college-level writing will help you teach your student. Here are a few ways the two types of writing differ:

  • Length: Instead of boxing your students into the “5-paragraph essay” format, allow them to use as many paragraphs necessary to properly cover the topic. Sometimes this may mean more than five paragraphs, but it could also mean fewer than five.
  • Paragraphs: In high school, paragraph length is up to the student as long as it meets the five-paragraph parameters. In college, paragraphs are much more lengthy, sometimes taking up ⅓ to ½ of a page. Help your students prepare for this by encouraging them to elaborate a bit more on each of their supporting details.
  • Topic sentences: For high school writing, each paragraph contains a main idea that supported the thesis (found in the introduction paragraph). In college, each paragraph should stand on its own. That is, it should begin with a topic sentence that sums up the main points of the paragraph.
  • Thesis statement: Every piece of writing needs a thesis statement for high school. Once students reach college, they realize that’s not always the case. For high school writing, this thesis statement is found at the end of the introductory paragraph. In college, however, it can be wherever it most makes sense.
  • Conclusion: High school students are accustomed to writing an essay in which the conclusion summarizes the main points of the essay. In college, conclusions must do more than that. They must also leave readers with some thought-provoking ideas.

What can you do to help your students prepare for college writing?How to Write a College-Level Essay

With so many differences between high school and college-level writing, you may wonder how you can best prepare your students for academic writing. The following steps are written for the student who will be making the transition from high school writing to college-level writing:

  1. Research: The first thing your student will need to do is conduct an ample amount of research. A good researcher looks at an issue from various – often opposing – points of view to form a well-rounded opinion. Your student should practically become an expert at the topic at hand. By conducting thorough research, students will be equipped to form a good, solid argument.
  2. Analyze: After gathering the research for an essay, students will need to analyze everything they’ve found. This means going beyond the surface and really digging deep to figure out what the author was really saying.
  3. Take a stand: Now that your students have conducted the research and have analyzed the material, it’s time to form an opinion and take a stance. Students can decide for themselves which side to take but if they’re on the fence in trying to decide, it might be best to go with the side for which they have the most evidence.
  4. Thesis: At this point, it’s time to construct a thesis statement. Students should have plenty of information to make an informed thesis statement. They’ll want to take the main points of the argument and roll them up into one coherent statement which they’ll incorporate into the introductory paragraph.
  5. Outline: Many writers find they do much better when they have an outline to follow. Also, an outline will allow your students to see what “holes” they may have in their writing and where they may need to perform further research. It’s better to figure this out at the outline stage than when your student is 10 pages into his or her paper!
  6. Introduction: In high school, the introduction was probably the first thing your student wrote. For college-level writing, that’s obviously not the case. As with any good piece of writing, it’s best to start your introduction with something that will grab your reader’s attention and hook them.
  7. Body: The body paragraphs should expand on your students’ main points developed in the introduction. Each paragraph will have one main idea and a topic sentence.  
  8. Conclusion: Finally, the last step to developing a great piece of writing is to form the conclusion. Unlike high school writing, the conclusion shouldn’t simply restate the thesis and the main points. It’s okay to briefly touch on the main points, but the point of the conclusion is to leave your readers with something to think about and reflect upon. Remember, the conclusion is the last thing readers will see, so leave them with something to ponder.

High school writing is certainly much different from college-level writing. It’s almost as if your students will have to “undo” everything they’ve been taught about writing! There are similarities, but the differences are what sets academic writing apart. Make a conscious effort to help your student transition from high school writing to college-level writing; it will make a world of difference once they enter college.


Tasha has been writing for over a decade now and enjoys blogging about various topics, from kids crafts to homeschooling in general. She’s been homeschooling for over 14 years and has used every style of homeschooling out there, from unschooling to traditional textbooks and everything in between. She serves as a mentor to other homeschooling moms and works hard to juggle working from home, homeschooling, and part-time work outside the home. She’s a mom to 5 and feels like she’s got this multitasking thing down pat.

June 25, 2018


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