Writing in College: What You Need to Know to Kick Off a New School Year

Are you starting college soon? How about your first college-level writing class? Before you trek into this uncharted territory, you’ll want to sharpen your skills and steel yourself for the big day when you’re writing your first major college essay.

But you’ll need something more effective than that double-shot of espresso to get you through those rough drafts and revisions. Let this blog post be your writing survival guide to help you kick off a good school year.

I’ll walk you through what to expect from writing in college vs. high school, tools for success, and resources you can use to help you build confidence and ace those essays.

The Big Leagues

While writing experience and skill can widely differ from one student to the next, you can usually count on one major truth for everyone when it comes to writing in college—it’s more difficult and complex than high school writing.

writing in college

High school essays…

  • Are typically written using the more simplistic five-paragraph structure.
  • Are usually expository, meaning they explain a topic to show that you’ve read the material.
  • Seldom require research outside of what you can find on Google.

College essays…

  • Require writing beyond the five-paragraph structure. You’ll often be expected to write enough to fill three to seven pages, depending on the course requirements.
  • Test your ability to analyze. If you write a narrative essay, you’ll need to reflect on a personal experience, not just describe it. A research paper will require you to argue a specific point of view on a topic.
  • Need evidence—particularly for argumentative writing—to reinforce your point of view. You will learn and be expected to use scholarly sources from academic databases.


In a nutshell, you should expect to spend more time on your college-level essays than you would on your high school ones. It will take some time to adjust to these new expectations, but your professor should guide you through this process.

Great Expectations

Because writing in college will be tougher than it was in high school, you can safely bet that your teacher will have higher expectations of you as a student.

It’s common for each prospective college student to take an essay-based placement exam, which places you in a writing course that matches your skill level.

So whether you have trouble with grammar or speak English as a second language, you should end up in a class with a teacher who understands your unique needs as a writer.

That said, the quality of work you turn in will ultimately rely on how well you follow instructions and apply yourself. So it’s good to know what you’re getting into in advance. Work on essay-writing skills ahead of time, and you’ll be better prepared.

Here’s what your teacher will expect from you as a college-level writing student.

writing in college

Knowing the syllabus

Your class will almost certainly have a syllabus. Read it. Understand it. Ask your teacher about anything that confuses you.

A course syllabus not only outlines the expectations of you as a student, but also should give you an idea of what you need to do in order to write successful essays.

Following the rubric

The syllabus or course workbook should have a grading rubric that breaks down the items that make the difference between a paper that fails, meets expectations, or passes with flying colors.

Editing and revising

Should you write more than one draft of each college-level essay? YES!

Your teacher will grade your essays under the assumption that you’ve taken the time to brainstorm, outline, and write a rough draft of your essay before editing your work into a polished final revision that aims for the “big A.”

At the very least, your teacher expects you to proofread to eliminate misspellings, punctuation errors, and problems in sentence structure.

Even strong writers need to go back and review their work. Simple mistakes can cost you points and even be the difference between a “B” and “C” grade, so don’t skip these vital steps!

Supporting the “why”

writing in college

Because college essays come with the added expectation of claims, analysis, and support, your teacher will be grading your work with this in mind.

This can be tricky territory because there are different types of essays. Depending on which one you’re writing, you may have to shift your approach to meet these expectations.

Remember: college essays are not book reports. You won’t just be recounting what you read or watched to show that you’ve done these tasks.

Instead, your essays will dig further into your ideas, opinions, arguments, and the way you justify your thoughts.

In essence, your writing in college shows that you can think critically about issues or the way you see the world and that you can back up your thoughts with solid evidence or reasoning.

Here are some common types of college essays and what your teacher will expect from them.


In this type of essay, you describe a significant event in your life, but there is a little more to telling a story than just listing the events from A to B. You’ll also need to reflect on the event and tell the reader why the event matters to you.

Compare and contrast

A compare and contrast essay will have you describe two different topics and break them down by their similarities and differences. It sounds pretty straightforward, but there are proven ways to get the job done when it comes to these types of essays.


This essay type is usually the toughest for most students. When you analyze a topic, you’re doing so much more than just describing it. Instead, you explain to the reader the prevalent themes within a topic, the relationships thereof, and why they matter.


An argumentative paper does just what it suggests—you argue for one side of an issue by providing your main claim, the thesis. Then you explain to the reader why your claim is valid while supporting it with citations from established scholarly sources.

Want to see examples of these different types of essays? Check out the Kibin Essay Examples Database!

writing in college

Supporting your claims with evidence (citing)

When you’re writing argumentative or research papers in college, your teacher will expect you to reinforce your claims with supporting evidence.

This evidence comes in the way of citations—quotes, paraphrasing, and summarizing the words of scholarly articles—that provide proof that your claims are valid.

You will probably be taught how to cite sources in whatever method is most appropriate for the type of course you’re in. But if not, your textbook should have a comprehensive guide on how to do this. Use it!

English classes usually require MLA format, whereas a number of courses may require APA.

Your teacher will also expect you to correctly cite your sources. Your textbook’s guide should break this down in two items:

Parenthetical in-text citation: This is when you use parentheses at the end of your cited material in the essay itself.

Works Cited/References page: For each source you use in a college essay, you will have to provide a complete citation on a separate page at the end of the essay that tells the reader where the information came from.

In lieu of your textbook, the Purdue OWL has pretty great up-to-date guides on how to cite sources—both in-text and on a Works Cited or References page—on its website, complete with examples to help you out.

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Writing in your own words

On day one of classes, your teachers will probably emphasize that plagiarism is akin to a high crime in the academic world, that it comes with dire consequences—including failure of a paper, maybe even the course—and possible expulsion from the university.

It’s best to take them at their word and don’t ever plagiarize, which is when you try to pass off someone else’s work as your own.

Most teachers are pretty good at spotting this, and many universities require you to submit your papers to plagiarism-checking databases.

This is why citation is important. But even in those essays in which you’re citing others’ work, you need to balance this so that most of the writing is in your own words. The teacher expects to see your ideas and reasoning, not someone else’s.

A tip on citations: Usually 1-3 citations per page is fine, provided that they don’t make up most of the writing on those pages. You also don’t want to overly rely on just one source. One or two sources per essay page is typical.

Resource Roundup

If all of the above sounds overwhelming, don’t fret! A lot of this will come to you in bits and pieces over the duration of your course. Improving your skills will be a learning process. It will take time and work, but it can be done!

And you’re not alone in this process. You have human and written resources at your disposal to help you with your writing. Make good use of them, and you’ll likely do much better than if you hadn’t.

writing in college

Your workbook and textbook

This may seem pretty obvious, but if you don’t keep up with your readings, you’ll soon find yourself lost. These books were designed specifically for your class and are meant to prepare you for success.

These texts usually come with exercises that are especially helpful if you struggle in certain areas of writing, whether it’s grammar and structure, or logic and analysis, etc.

If you find yourself struggling with a particular concept or technique, it’s a good chance these books have practice work to help you improve.

Your teacher

Your college teachers aren’t only available during class time. Most hold office hours each week in which you can visit them to discuss your work and ask for help in areas where you’re having trouble.

Even if their hours don’t match up with your schedule, you can request a meeting at a time that works for you both. Just be polite when asking, and definitely don’t be afraid to ask!

Building a good rapport with your teacher can be super-helpful for when times get tough.

Classmates, friends, and study groups

College should feel like a community. Early in the semester, reach out to your fellow classmates or friends, or sign up for study groups that focus on essay writing.

Your peers can look over your work and help point out issues you may have. Doing this for them will give you practice too!

Writing labs

Most universities have some kind of writing lab or center where you can walk in or schedule an appointment to get help with your essays.

You should keep in mind that, while the people who work there can help you with grammar, sentence structure, ideas, and argument, they will not edit or write your papers for you.

The library

Sure, you’ll probably do almost all of your work on a computer, but the library can come in handy when you need help finding sources for your papers.

Librarians are super-helpful sources of knowledge and can guide you to resources you may not have found on your own. They can also help you navigate your university’s scholarly databases when you’re having trouble.


Of course, Kibin will always be here to help you when it comes to editing your papers and showing you how to improve your writing in all areas. Don’t forget to give us a try!

Writing in College: The Takeaway

writing in college

Writing in college can and should be challenging, but that doesn’t mean it has to be frustrating or impossible. Like anything that may not come easy to you, if you practice, try new methods, and seek help when needed, you will get better.

Many students don’t do well on their first couple of college essays because high school writing hasn’t prepared them for this new challenge.

If this happens to you, it’s not time to worry—it’s time to take action.

Even if you fail your first college essay, try not to be discouraged. Instead, think of this failure as an opportunity to learn which areas you’re already strong in and which you need to work on to do better next time.

If you need some extra help understanding what you need to do to improve your writing, meet with your teacher. Teachers can guide you and help you reach their expectations when it comes to your work.

And as always, Kibin’s editing service has your back to help you succeed in this process!

Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.