College Writing Guide
The writing required in college courses may be different than anything you’ve encountered before. English classes taken in middle school, and sometimes in the early years of high school, provide the basics, but many students lose these skills before they begin college. In addition, for nontraditional students who haven’t studied English in a while, making the transition to academic writing can be difficult.
Professors in all majors expect students to enter their courses with high-level writing skills. A gap in skill level is often met with remedial English courses in the first semester of college. Use this guide to refresh your knowledge of basic grammar rules, and to understand what you need to know and apply in your college classes. This resource can also serve as a reference as you complete your first written assignments.
Types of Academic Writing
There are different writing styles, each with a different purpose or audience. There are situations in which one style will be more appropriate than another, and there is a variety of strategies you can use to approach the work. This section of our guide provides an overview of the writing types you will likely encounter as a college student.
Assignments that require you to support a position, claim or opinion involve a persuasive writing approach. These papers are framed with a thesis statement, which introduces a focused assertion. Examples include: “Fast food consumption is linked to heart disease in low-income communities,” and “The chemicals used in pesticides pose the most significant threat to our health in the 21st century.” The remainder of the paper provides a logical argument and relevant evidence that supports the claim presented in the thesis. Tips for writing argument papers include:
- Clearly describe the central issue, position or premise.
- Provide evidence that supports the position presented in your thesis statement.
- Develop a conclusion based on the evidence you provided.
Research papers can take multiple forms, depending on the purpose and specific requirements of your class assignment. This format can be used to describe the methods used in your own research project, present the results of a research project and to describe the research that has already been completed in an area of interest. Some assignments require a combination of these approaches. These papers typically include formal sections, such as an introduction, review of existing research literature, analysis, discussion of results and conclusion. Tips for writing research papers include:
- Develop a clear and focused research question, hypothesis, thesis or topic.
- Identify relevant sources, including previous research reports.
- Analyze the results found in your sources.
- Describe how results answer your research question, prove or disprove your hypothesis, support your thesis or expand knowledge of your topic.
Similar to argument and persuasive essays, expository papers require you to research an idea or concept and provide supporting evidence. This type of writing includes a thesis statement, as well as the logical presentation of sources that address the idea you are exploring in your paper. A five-paragraph format is typical for expository essays: (1) introduction paragraph, (2-4) three body paragraphs, (5) conclusion paragraph. This form of writing is often used to evaluate your knowledge of a topic and can be included in exams. Tips for writing expository papers include:
- Determine the approach required for the assignment: compare and contrast, cause and effect, procedure or process.
- Write a concise thesis statement that presents your topic, but does not include opinion.
- Research existing information about your topic.
- Provide objective evidence and relevant information found in your research.
- Provide a conclusion that connects supporting information with the thesis statement.
Professors often use written exams to measure your knowledge of a specific topic, understanding of a complex concept or comprehension of course reading and resources. These essays can include components of argument and persuasion, research and exposition, as directed by your instructor. The first step in preparation for essay exams is to complete all of your course reading assignments, participate in discussions and organize your notes and study time. This should take place throughout the course, not just in time for the exam date. Tips for exam essay writing include:
- Read the exam question carefully; look for keywords such as “compare” and “criticize” to direct your approach.
- Create a rough outline that sets up the scope and sequence of your essay, as well as critical concepts and sources you should include.
- Develop a response that presents a clear main point or argument and organized supporting points.
- Monitor your progress if the written exam is timed.
Academic proposals are typically written as part of grant applications or for professional conference presentations. They often outline a research plan or project idea with a goal of gaining support from another group. This type of writing is more common in graduate-level study, but may be encountered by undergraduates involved in collaborative research projects with professors and other students. Tips for writing academic proposals include:
- Pay careful attention to the instructions provided by the organization asking for proposal submissions; follow all formatting and process guidelines.
- Grab the reviewers’ attention with a clear title and focused introduction that explains your plan.
- Provide details about how your project meets the grant or conference requirements, as well as how it is related to relevant research and needs in your field.
- Ask for feedback and proofreading from someone who is familiar with your topic.
Common Writing Pitfalls
The proper use of grammar increases the clarity of your writing, and creates an easy flow of words and ideas for the reader to follow. Common problems occur when using the passive voice, incorrect punctuation and confusing word options. The examples in this section provide easy-to-remember tips to avoid these errors in your own writing.
Active vs. Passive Voice
Active voice is generally preferred in most forms of writing. It places emphasis on the subject of a sentence and the action taking place. Active voice usually requires fewer words than passive voice and communicates action more clearly to the reader.
- Passive: It was decided by the administration that new databases must be added to the library.
- Active: The administration decided that the library must add new databases.
Some of the most common forms of punctuation are listed below, along with tips for putting them to use.
Commas divide sentences into separate components, which improves readability, creates a pause and connects thoughts. They may be used with conjunctions (e.g., and, but, for, so), to separate items in a series, or to emphasize a phrase or clause.
- Most students enjoyed the guest speaker, but faculty members said the presentation was inappropriate.
- Before classes begin, you must complete the orientation tutorial, order your textbooks, post an introduction and read the syllabus.
- Dr. Williams, who won last year’s teaching award, offers that course in the spring semester every year.
A colon is primarily used to introduce something in a sentence, but it can also draw attention to a list, example, quotation, noun or phrase.
- The course syllabus includes: assignment instructions, due dates, instructor contact information and grading policies.
- The library was as expected: quiet and full of resources.
- The provost set the policy in her statement: “Academic integrity is expected in all courses, and plagiarism cases will be reported to my office immediately.”
Semicolons separate items in a list when one or more of the items includes a comma. They are also used to join two sentences or independent clauses.
- The professor said there was a lack of reading comprehension; attention to detail and creative, thoughtful responses.
- She enrolled in classes today; too many require expensive textbooks.
Hyphen guidelines are not as strict as those for other types of punctuation. Primary use includes connecting two words to create a compound adjective when they come before a noun in a sentence. They are also used with some prefixes.
- As a well-known expert of ancient history, Dr. Williams has the best-attended classes in the department.
- Student protests on college campuses increased in the mid-1970s.
Apostrophes and the letter ‘s’ are used to indicate possessive nouns. This is different than creating a plural noun with only the ‘s.’
- The professor’s textbooks are now available at the bookstore.
- Each student has an online appointment with the library’s reference expert.
Periods are used to end sentences, and in some abbreviations. Check your style guide (e.g., APA, MLA) for more specific instructions on abbreviations, since the rules vary.
- A complete thought can be expressed in a single sentence.
- She was going to interview with Consolidated Cogs, Inc., however, they did not offer the benefits, etc. she needed.
Words to Watch
Many college students struggle with some of the most common punctuation and grammar mistakes. Review the words listed below, along with tips for proper usage.
They’re, their, there
These words all sound the same, but have different meanings. They’re is the contraction of they and are; their is possessive (as in, it belongs to them) and there is a location (as in, here or there).
- They’re going to be glad they discussed the project with a reference librarian.
- Their project earned an A!
- I’ll meet you at the library, but won’t park there.
Two, too, to
These words all sound the same, but have different meanings. Two is a number (as in, one, two, three). Too is used to say “also” or as an alternative to “very.” To is a preposition (which often indicated movement) or as part of an infinitive (e.g., to write).
- I just ordered two more textbooks.
- She needs textbooks, too. They are getting too expensive!
- I will go to the bookstore to buy my textbooks.
Its is a possessive pronoun. It’s is the contraction of it and is. If you get confused in your writing, try replacing the word you want with “his” or “her.” If you can do this, use its (without an apostrophe).
- The library kept its doors closed during the holidays.
- It’s time to go home for the holidays!
Weather is a reference to the atmosphere and conditions like rain and snow. Whether introduces alternatives and is similar to the word “if.”
- The weather forecast calls for rain; bring your umbrella!
- She’s deciding whether she should take that class in the spring or summer.
The use of alot is usually considered an error. Use a lot (two separate words) to indicate a large number or many.
- The new library database includes a lot of new journals.
For additional assistance with grammar and punctuation, try the following writing tools and resources:
Citations provide a way for you to give attribution to the authors that inform your writing, and help you avoid plagiarism. Citations should give credit to those whose ideas or concepts you include in your work, direct quotations and paraphrasing. Style guides provide a structured way to format citations so that they are consistent and verifiable. There are many style guides to choose from, but the three presented in this section of our guide are widely used by colleges and universities. Check with your instructors to make sure you are using the preferred style guide in your classes.
The Modern Language Association (MLA) writing guidelines are used by a wide range of schools and professional publications. Students in English, foreign language, cultural studies, literature and arts programs typically use the MLA style for their written assignments. See the examples below:
King, Stephen. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. New York: Scribner, 2015. Print.
Allen, Darryl E., and Jo Lacy Idlebird. “Depreciation’s Effect on Capital Budgeting Metrics Needs More Educator Focus.” American Journal of Business Research vol. 7 no. 1 (2014): 45-51. Questia. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.
Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham. “Research Methods for Educational Enquiry: Methodological Approaches for Small-scale Research.” 05 July 2012. Online video clip. YouTube. Accessed on 24 Nov. 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXIjnAgijS0
“French Revolution.” History.com. A+E Networks, 2009. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.
(Author, page number)
Students have difficulty computing capital recovery of investments (Allen and Idlebird 45).
According to Allen and Idlebird “the format of the statement of cash flows did not affect students’ accuracy” (45).
“The format of the statement of cash flows did not affect students’ accuracy” (Allen and Idlebird 45).
MLA style recommends in-text citations (as illustrated above). However, longer, explanatory notes may be included as footnotes (placed at the bottom of the page on which they appear) or endnotes (listed on a separate page at the end of the document). These options provide readers with additional resources and background information not necessary needed in the main text of the paper.
- Studies by Jones (102) and Williams (40) provide similar conclusions related to needed research in the area of student business finance skills.
Footnotes can also be used instead of the parenthetical in-text citations described in the section above. Check with your instructor to confirm what is expected for your assignments.
- Stephen King, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams (New York: Scribner, 2015) 224.
The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA), originally published in 1929, is currently in its 6th edition. It has been adopted for use primarily in the fields of psychology and education, as well as many social science disciplines. See the examples below:
King, S. (2015). The bazaar of bad dreams. New York, NY: Scribner.
Allen, D. E., & Idlebird, J. L. (2014). Depreciation’s effect on capital budgeting metrics needs more educator focus. American Journal of Business Research 7(1), 45-51. Retrieved from https://www.questia.com/
Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham (2012, July 5). Research methods for educational enquiry: methodological approaches for small-scale research [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXIjnAgijS0
French revolution. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/french-revolution
(Author, year of publication, page number)
Students have difficulty computing capital recovery of investments (Allen and Idlebird, 2014).
According to Allen and Idlebird (2014), “the format of the statement of cash flows did not affect students’ accuracy” (p. 45).
“The format of the statement of cash flows did not affect students’ accuracy” (Allen & Idlebird, 2014, p. 45).
APA style recommends in-text citations (as illustrated above). However, longer, explanatory notes may added as footnotes. These notes provide readers with additional resources and background information, which may not be included in the main text of your paper. APA style does not include the use of endnotes. Check with your instructor before adding footnotes to your written assignments.
- Studies by Jones (2001) and Williams (2010) provide similar conclusions related to needed research in the area of student business finance skills.
- This research presented in this document focused on undergraduate students enrolled as entrepreneurship majors; the preferences of additional student populations may be relevant to review when creating new curricula in this area.
The Chicago Manual of Style is published by the University of Chicago and is currently in its 16th edition. It is often required for students in the humanities, arts and social sciences. This guide is one of the most comprehensive writing manuals, providing detailed formatting instructions for a wide variety of writing situations. See the examples below:
King, Stephen. 2015. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. New York: Scribner.
Allen, Darryl E., and Jo Lacy Idlebird. 2014. “Depreciation’s Effect on Capital Budgeting Metrics Needs More Educator Focus.” American Journal of Business Research 7: 45-51. Accessed November 24, 2015. https://www.questia.com/read/1P3-3725860091/depreciation-s-effect-on-
Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham. “Research Methods for Educational Enquiry: Methodological Approaches for Small-scale Research.” YouTube video, 1:06:12. July 5, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXIjnAgijS0.
History.com. 2009. “French Revolution.” Accessed November 24, 2015. http://www.history.com/topics/ french-revolution.
(Author, year of publication, page number)
Students have difficulty computing capital recovery of investments (Allen and Idlebird 2014).
According to Allen and Idlebird (2014), “the format of the statement of cash flows did not affect students’ accuracy” (45).
“The format of the statement of cash flows did not affect students’ accuracy” (Allen and Idlebird 2014, 45).
Notes and bibliography
Chicago style includes two primary options for citing referenced works:
- author-date format (presented in the examples above)
- the notes and bibliography format (illustrated below)
Check with your instructor to see which Chicago approach is appropriate for your class assignments.
Notes are often abbreviated versions of the citations provided in a bibliography. Note the formatting differences in the following examples:
- Stephen King,The Bazaar of Bad Dreams (New York: Scribner, 2015), 100-101.
- King, Bazaar of Bad Dreams, 100-101.
King, Stephen.The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. New York: Scribner, 2015.
Additional Writing Types
While you may not encounter these as class assignments, the following are important forms of writing that you will need for college admissions and course communication, as well as in your career after graduation.
Personal Statement or Letter of Intent
College applications at the undergraduate and graduate level typically require some sort of written statement that includes your interests, goals and reasons for applying. These essays may also be part of scholarship applications, and are similar to cover letters used in the job search process. Tips for writing personal statements include:
- Focus on the purpose of the letter or application and provide only the most relevant information.
- Take a direct and open approach to sharing your interests and how the application will help you reach specific goals.
- Be concise and follow all instructions related to length and format.
Email is a primary source of communication in many education and employment settings. As you engage in email conversations with college officials and professors, keep in mind that this is a professional exchange. There are expectations for the composition of messages and the etiquette used. Tips for email use include:
- Provide a clear but concise subject line that conveys why you are sending the message.
- Do not type using ALL CAPITAL LETTERS because this can come across as a form of screaming.
- Include salutations, such as “Dear Professor Williams” or “Hello, Mr. Jackson.”
- Keep your message focused on the subject; write in short paragraphs that are easy to read.
Blogs and Journals
Some courses require students to maintain personal blogs as a way to submit assignments, encourage reflective learning or to develop portfolios. Whether this is part of your program or something you pursue on your own, it is important to understand the impact of effective writing in these formats. Tips for student blogging include:
- Watch your language; consider this a type of professional communication and be aware of the potential reach of your words if your blog is publicly accessible.
- Explore writing in the first person as you share your ideas and opinions about assigned topics, as well as other relevant areas of interest to you.
- Review each post for spelling and grammar errors to publish the best writing possible.
- Read other students’ blogs to learn more about the format and compare different writing styles.
Online Writing Centers and Guides
- Writer’s Web | University of Richmond Writing Center
- OWL Online Writing Lab | Purdue University
- Grammarly Handbook
- Online Writing Tips | Webster University
- Grammarly Blog
- After Deadline | The New York Times
- Grammar Girl
- OxfordWords Blog | Oxford Dictionaries
- APA Style Blog | American Psychological Association
These can be helpful tools, but always double check the output with your style manual before adding to your bibliography! You will be responsible for any mistakes or omissions the generators might make.