I’ve worked in university writing centers for almost 20 years, and each fall, a few weeks into the semester, we see a huge spike in appointments. This is mostly due to first-year students panicking about writing their first “college” papers. Many are stressed out that their writing skills from high school are not up to par, and they are worried that their first paper grades will be low. The students’ concerns mirror what I hear from many parents at orientation during the summer: “my son has always struggled with writing,” and, “I’m not sure that my daughter’s high school has prepared her for the writing challenges of college.”

So, for any parents getting those texts and calls from nervous writers, I offer the following tips for you to pass along for tackling that first writing assignment:

  • Start early! Don’t wait to write a paper until the night before it’s due. Students may have been successful with this approach in high school, but it’s much harder to do in college. Beginning an assignment as soon as possible allows time for expanding ideas, revising sections and getting feedback from others.
  • Keep it simple. Simple – in word choice, anyway. Students should avoid trying too hard to sound sophisticated by using vocabulary they aren’t comfortable with. Many students fear that their writing won’t sound refined or complex enough for college unless they use flowery language or fancy words. The problem is that it’s hard to integrate this vocabulary unless one has a strong understanding of a word’s definition, connotation, and usage. Professors would rather read a solid piece of writing with simpler wording than have to puzzle out what some complicated vocabulary used incorrectly may mean.
  • Don’t sweat the length requirements. I tell students to not stress out about the page or word count. At first, it may sound overwhelming to be assigned a piece of writing longer than anything they have written before. But, there are solutions to meet the page or word requirements that don’t involve adding fluff. If a student writes a paper that comes up short, they can look for additional points to develop, further examples to include, or areas that could be expanded.
  • Use resources. Writing doesn’t have to be an entirely solitary act. Professors expect students to visit office hours to talk about their writing. The campus writing center can also assist students. Writing center staff focus on far more than just grammar; they can help with brainstorming, outlining, writing thesis statements, organizing ideas, using evidence, and avoiding plagiarism. Students can visit to meet individually with a writing center tutor, who can give additional suggestions for creating a strong piece of writing.
  • Cite sources. Speaking of avoiding plagiarism, students must be careful to use their sources appropriately, and to cite everything from these resources, whether the information is quoted or not. There are great campus resources (see above) as well as online resources that students can use to ensure they are following the standards of citations.

The first writing assignment doesn’t need to be a source of stress! Writing is a skill learned through time and practice. Remind your student that they should practice and ask for help to develop their skills as a writer throughout their college years.

For more information about the college transition, read Your Freshman is Off to College: A Month-by-Month Guide to the First Year by co-author Stephanie Carter on how students can make successful transitions from high school to college.

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