How to Prepare High School Students for College Writing

When students think about the transition from high school to college, it’s easy to focus on roommates and meal plans, major declarations and Greek life. It might not occur to students that one of the biggest transitions between high school and college happens when they sit down to write a paper.

As Harvard’s director of expository writing explains, it is writing that “gives students their ‘Dorothy moment,’ that feeling of not being in Kansas anymore.” In high school, writing is often limited to English classes, but in college, many classes require papers and substantial portion of grades are based on student writing.

Entering college as a strong writer, then, is a clear prerequisite for success; however, it can be less clear how high school classrooms can successfully prepare students for the challenges of college level writing.

The College Preparation Crisis

Unprepared students arriving to college is not an individual problem but an epidemic. According to the latest national report card released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 37% of seniors in high school are ready for college-level coursework in math and English.

Although there have been encouraging reports suggesting that the highest achieving American students are continuing to perform at higher and higher levels, the lowest achieving students aren’t improving and, in fact, are scoring lower than ever.

To be more specific, the 2015 assessment results show that the average scores of students in the bottom 10th percentile of the U.S. fell by “6 points in reading compared to 2013,” hitting “its lowest level on record.”

While those numbers are shocking, it can be difficult to know what they mean in practical terms.

The influx of students with low verbal skills leads to confused and frustrated college writing instructors. An opinion piece by Dr. John Warner, a Creative Writing professor, bemoans the fact that high school students are told there are dozens of terms that they are “100% not allowed to use,” leading them to approach writing as “a kind of con or confidence game, where the goal is to make the audience believe that the writer is ‘smart,’ (via proxies like a large vocabulary), as opposed to clearly communicating an idea that meets the audience’s needs.”

Many professors who share John Warner’s concerns end up having to re-teach and un-teach much of what their students learned about writing in high school. This phenomenon is not only frustrating for students and professors but also deeply inefficient for our education system more broadly.

Predictably, remedial classes, the more formalized approach to this issue, have become more and more common.

While remediation was once thought of as a refresher for adults returning to college, it has become a necessity for many students coming straight from high school as well. Data from the 2014-15 academic year on nearly 1,000 two- and four-year colleges revealed that “96 percent of the schools enrolled students who required remediation.”

For one-fifth of colleges, the issue is ubiquitous – at least 209 schools placed more than half of incoming students in at least one remedial class.

Some experts suggest that the estimates should probably be even higher, pointing out that “this data may not capture adults returning to school or part-time students.” In some schools, such as Baltimore City Community College, “it’s uncommon for an incoming student not to be placed in remedial education.”

This process is a burden on students, schools, and taxpayers alike with an estimated cost of up to $7 billion per year. Clearly, in many states, there is a “gap between the knowledge needed to earn a [high school] diploma… and what college professors expect students to be able to do on day 1.”

High School vs. College Essay Writing


The college preparation crisis is complicated, and there are many plausible hypotheses that explain its roots. However, one of the most obvious explanations—that the kinds of work in high school and college are simply too different from one another—is also one of most substantiated ones.

In a 2007 study by George Washington University, first year undergraduates reported that they were “rarely required to criticize an argument, define a problem and propose a solution, shape their writing to meet their readers’ needs, or revise based on feedback” in high school. The students explained that their assignments had often focused on offering opinions and summarizing information instead.

In addition, a study done on expository writing at Harvard found that first-year students wrote an average of 13 papers during their freshman year. It is worth noting that the principal investigator of this study “defined papers as five or more pages.”

In contrast, a survey done by The Chronicle of Higher Education found that “61% of high school teachers said their students have never written a paper that was more than five pages.” This means that 61% of high school teachers had never assigned a single paper to their students by college standards.

It is little wonder that students are unprepared to write in college.


In addition to vast differences in length and frequency, essays in high school and college differ in almost every other way—from argument to organization, from style guides to research methods.

The most obvious difference, however, is the death of the five-paragraph essay in college. It is not uncommon for professors to shock their first-year writing seminars with the direction: “Do not write a five-paragraph essay.”

While the five-paragraph essay can be a helpful learning tool (and vital for timed essays on standardized tests), many professors raise warranted criticisms of its widespread use. The UNC Writing Center has an entire article dedicated to criticisms of the five-paragraph essay, which points out the following problems:

Typical five-paragraph essays:

  • don’t allow for sufficient context and encourage “since the dawn of time” introductory sentences
  • encourage thesis statements that list rather than thesis statements that argue and analyze
  • encourage repetition, particularly in topic sentences and transitions
  • have body paragraphs that “stand alone” rather than paragraphs that build on each other
  • lead to conclusions that merely summarize rather than adding new insights
  • allow form to control content rather than content dictating form

While some argue that the best five-paragraph essays can (and do) resist these generalizations, a discussion of the flaws of the five-paragraph essay can be a helpful way to talk about the differences between high school and college writing more broadly. What is the best way to prepare high school students for college level writing?


The research required to find sources to cite is more involved in college than high school.

In high school, a simple Google search is often sufficient to find a few required sources. In college, finding reputable sources means going to the university library to find books in person or perusing academic peer-reviewed journals online.

Many of these journals require paid subscriptions to access, but students typically receive free access through the university library; this system itself can be helpful for discerning what to use in a paper since “anything the library pays for through subscription service is generally an acceptable research source.”

The purpose of research is also different in high school and college. While research in high school can end up seeming like “research for research’s sake,” in college, “you collect evidence in order to make a point, not prove you found five sources.”

In fact, many college professors won’t even specify how many sources you need to find; just like students must write as many paragraphs as are needed to fulfill their argument, they must find as many sources as are needed to support their claims.


The differences in organization and research methods are ultimately pointing toward the most important difference between high school and college papers: the argument.

In high school, arguments typically consist of single-sentence thesis statements that prove the student read the assigned book rather than making a complex argument.

On the other hand, a college thesis statement can be two or three sentences long, and it “sets up a specific argument and takes a position on that argument,” giving “the reader some warning regarding the kind of evidence to expect in the remainder of the paper.”

A sample college thesis statement about Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus might read as follows:

Although it seems that writing could be a simple representation of danger in Doctor Faustus, its significance evolves and increases over the course of the play; writing first operates as a means of acquisition, then a binding act, and finally an indication of the fate of Faustus’s soul. This progression ultimately reveals that it is not writing itself that is dangerous but the underestimation of the power of words.

In addition to requiring this kind of specific and debatable thesis statement, college professors expect to see that students have “thought about limits and objections to [their] claim” since all interesting claims can be “reasonably challenged.”

The University of Chicago’s guide to college writing encourages students to think of this like “an amiable and lively conversation with someone whom you respect and who respects you; someone who is interested in what you have to say, but will not agree with your claims just because you state them; someone who wants to hear your reasons for believing your claims and also wants to hear answers to their questions.”

This is more than just a change in work for students but actually a complete change in mindset. Rather than simply turning in a paper to get a certain grade or please a certain teacher, students ideally write papers to enter into an existing scholarly conversation.

Considering that publishing papers in journals or bringing them to conferences is a possibility in college in a way that it is usually not in high school, this is not only a helpful way to think about writing but also a potential reality for students.

For schools that adopt Marco Learning, the addition of an outside reader promotes students’ mental preparation for this shift.

How to Prepare High School Students for College Writing

There will always be differences between high school and college writing, and the goal is not to close the gap completely.

There is no need to eradicate the use of five paragraph essays in 9th grade English classes, and it is not reasonable to expect that high school students will be able to argue just as complexly as college students. If that were the case, there would be no need for college.

That said, the fact that only 1 out of every 3 high school seniors is considered ready for college coursework means that the current gap between high school and college is insurmountable for most students.

The first step to better preparing students for the transition to college writing is making students aware that such a transition exists.

Students will be less shocked by their college writing classes if they expect to write more papers, longer papers, and more complex papers in college. To that end, it might be helpful to explicitly cover the aforementioned distinctions between high school and college writing in a lesson or series of lessons for high school seniors.


In conjunction with telling students that this transition exists, one educator suggests that the transition to college writing needs to occur before students enter college.

In fact, she explains, “from the elementary level, through high school, it is vital that teachers think of the work they are doing as already transitioning students for college-level writing and, subsequently, the writing their students will do in their professional lives.”

This doesn’t necessarily require creating entirely new assignments, but simply connecting existing assignments to college-level expectations.

When assigning literary analysis, “a teacher might take part of a lesson to talk about who the audience is for that assignment and why,” as audience is generally considered more heavily for college papers. During another lesson, a teacher might push students to think of counterarguments to an article that they read, emphasizing that students will be expected to address counterarguments in their own papers in college.

If teachers choose to create assignments specifically geared toward easing students’ transition to college, they should consider giving students an open-ended prompt or allowing them to choose their own topic entirely.

This is a particularly appropriate task for juniors and seniors in high school. It is not uncommon for a college professor to say, “Write a paper on this book!” and giving students more autonomy over their own assignments will help prepare them for that possibility.

This freedom might also excite and motivate students the same way that the freedom to choose majors and classes in college often makes students more passionate about their academic work.

In this assignment and other assignments, it would also be helpful to push students to write longer papers.

Assigning a few 5+ page papers and perhaps one 10-page paper in senior year of high school will help to make the first few assignments in college less overwhelming. When students grapple with these longer papers, they will inherently run up against many of the hardest parts of the college transition.

With a paper that long, they will likely be forced to abandon the five-paragraph format and will need to find more substantive sources through JSTOR (and other free academic search engines) to support their arguments. With these additional sources, teachers can enforce a stricter MLA citation style to match college expectations as well.

Providing scaffolding for students during this time, and potentially multiple drafts to refine their ideas, will help them figure out how to write a new type of paper with the sufficient time and space that frantic coffee-fueled all-nighters in college do not provide. USC Hybrid High deploys a remarkable program to elicit exactly this experience for their seniors through their Senior Thesis Project.


Whatever kinds of assignments you give, whether they are traditional high school assignments with connections to college expectations, or high school prompts with college page length requirements, the last key to preparing students for college writing is providing college-level feedback.

Most guides about the transition from high school to college note that “college instructors are much more likely than high school teachers to respond in detail to student writing” and the aforementioned Harvard study found that “eighty-seven percent of freshman cited ‘detailed feedback’ as the most important element of writing instruction.”

“Eighty-seven percent of freshman cited ‘detailed feedback’ as the most important element of writing instruction.”

— Harvard Study of Undergraduate Writing

As Harvard’s director of expository writing puts it,

If you’ve spent hours and hours on a paper and then you get it back with check, check, check, ‘solid job, A-minus,’ it feels like an empty experience…But if you get the paper back and you have the sense of a real reader reading it, debating with you and suggesting ways to extend your analysis, the experience is far richer.

Providing high school students with college-level feedback on their papers serves two roles.

  1. Firstly, the mere presence of the feedback prepares students for getting that kind of response to their work in college;
  2. Secondly, the quality and quantity of the feedback itself helps to raise the students’ papers to a college-ready level.

Looking Forward

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.”

— Joan Didion

In an essay, author Joan Didion explained, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.” This quote confirms the educational adage that first you learn to write, and then you write to learn.

Writing to learn is most apparent and important in college, where most coursework consists of lengthy, complicated papers based on lengthy, complicated readings. If high school students enter this kind of environment with shaky research skills and an unyielding loyalty to the five-paragraph paper, they will struggle to learn at all.

Preparing high school students for college writing is a vital way to lower college dropout rates, reduce the need for remedial classes, and raise four- and six-year graduation rates.

However, it is difficult (if not impossible) for high school teachers with hundreds of students and no TAs to match the kind of feedback that professors with fewer students and more support can give. Marco Learning helps fulfill that need for high school teachers.

Our accomplished college writers and future educators can provide your students with detailed, actionable, and constructive feedback on their papers, freeing up about 88% of teachers’ grading time to then spend on crafting lesson plans and assignments that will help ready their students for college.

By creating writing assignments with college expectations in mind and by partnering with Marco Learning to get students college-level feedback, we can make sure high school students are ready for college—ready for writing and ready for learning.