Writing for academic success

Academic writing is a necessary skill for almost any college student. Some majors write more than others, but even engineering and math majors need to write a paper or two before they graduate. Writing is also a “transferable skill” that employers look for when they interview job applicants, so it’s an important skill to cultivate. In spite of this, many college students feel unsure in their writing, especially if they are attempting to write in an unfamiliar format. Students who are entering college for the first time or returning after several years may feel unprepared for the writing assignments they encounter.

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Here are some tips for writing well in an academic setting that I’ve learned during my time in college:

1. Read the syllabus thoroughly, as well as any written instructions your professor may give you. If the professor gives you the assignment verbally, make sure to listen carefully and take notes. I often work with students at the writing center who don’t completely understand their assignments. If you’re in this situation, don’t just write and hope you are fulfilling the requirements. Discuss the assignment with your professor or with a tutor at the writing center if you have questions.

2. Make sure you follow your professor’s guidelines. If he says he doesn’t want you to include a thesis statement, don’t include a thesis statement. If she says she doesn’t want page numbers on the first page, don’t put page numbers on the first page. If your professor wants you to use a specific citation style, use it. Yes, you may be most familiar with MLA, but if your professor told you to use APA, that’s the citation style you should use.

3. If this is a research paper, gather good information. If this is a reflective paper, make sure you’re fully engaging with the prompt and creating strong points. If this is a persuasive paper, do all of these things! You want to make sure you have strong content that you can support, either with experts’ opinions or your own experiences (depending on the parameters of the assignment). If you’re struggling to come up with ideas, you can visit your college’s writing center for a brainstorming session; if you are having difficulty locating reliable sources, try paying a visit to your friendly reference librarian.

4. Once you have your content, make sure that your tone is appropriate for an academic setting. Avoid expressions that are non-standard or colloquial. An essay or reflection paper is not the place for this kind of language: save it for creative non-fiction, poetry, or fiction writing, contexts that allow for a different tone. It’s also important to avoid sounding too artificial or contrived; professors aren’t looking for this type of language either. Strive to create clear and concise sentences rather than wordy or convoluted writing.

5. Allow time for revision, and don’t be afraid to revise dramatically if you need to. Ask yourself questions such as “Is this paper focused? Does the organization make sense?” Check for a strong thesis and overall unity, then move on to look at issues such as variation of sentence structure and word choice, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Always proofread your paper, and if possible find someone else (such as a writing tutor or close friend) to look it over. Try reading it aloud to yourself; this will help you catch awkward phrasing and other errors.

6. Remember to take advantage of the resources available to you. Your professor is there to help you learn, so make sure to ask him or her about anything you don’t understand. If your college has a writing center, visit it! Having another pair of eyes to look over your paper is helpful for writers of all skill levels, and if you have specific concerns about your introduction, conclusion, organization, or thesis, this is the place to go. Librarians are an underutilized resource; if you need help finding information or want to know if a source is considered “scholarly,” ask them!

7. This may seem obvious, but to succeed in academic writing, it helps if you actually care about the class and about the subject that you’re writing about. You may think that you can just fake it (and maybe you can get away with it), but if you don’t put the time and effort into fully engaging in the assignment, you’re not going to learn all that you possibly can. If you’re tempted to slack off, remember that this can backfire on you, and you may end up with a grade you aren’t happy with. If you still need motivation, just think about how much you are paying to take this class!

I hope that you find this information helpful, and I wish you success in all your academic endeavors!


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