Breaking Out of High School Writing

Current Worcester State Freshman Ryanne McGowan explains what it is like transitioning from High School level writing to College level writing.

By Ryanne McGowan

College writing has a lot more freedom than high school writing. My high school did a good job teaching writing fundamentals, but it was also very structured. Throughout my first writing assignment in college I have realized a lot of differences that I am able to connect back to fundamental ideas of writing studies. I have learned a lot in my short time in college so far and have used the fundamental ideas of writing studies to transition from high school writing to college academic writing. .

College writing is a huge transition from high school writing; you are given more difficult topics but a lot more freedom. High school writing was often very structured, and people were often put in a box creatively and had to follow a specific structure. In no way am I saying the way my school went about teaching writing is bad, but it is just very different from college. In my Trauma and Justice class I was given my first college writing assignment and had to take an article that my class read, “Toward a Radical Understanding of Trauma and Trauma Work” by Bonnie Burstow, and were allowed to compare it to either our participation in the national scholar strike, a TEDx talk by Kimberle Crenshaw called “The Urgency of Intersectionality,” or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Starting with the prompt alone, I was given three different options to compare to the Burstow article, giving me the freedom to choose what topics I wanted to talk about in my paper while still having the structure of a similar starting point with Burstow’s article. Overall, I believe fundamental ideas of writing studies are important in educating writers and aiding them in the transition from high school to college writing. 

The class Trauma and Justice is a first-year seminar that explores the relationship between trauma and justice. The course discusses many topics related to trauma and how people respond to it. It also touches on the justice side of it along with how institutions handle trauma. In the class we discussed Plato and his views on justice along with Mary Trump and Maya Angelou’s views and personal experience with trauma. We also read other articles about current events and the study of trauma. A wide variety of social justice issues such as race, gender, sexual assault, and childhood trauma are discussed in the class. It also serves as an introduction to Worcester State University and all its resources. For this writing assignment I took Bonnie Burstow’s “Toward a Radical Understanding of Trauma and Trauma Work” and compared it to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Writing scholar Kevin Roozen’s idea “Writing is a social and rhetorical activity” (17), is an idea I didn’t completely understand until college. In high school, the only audience I was focused on was my teacher. I honestly didn’t care about anyone else; I was writing to impress my teacher so I could get a good grade. This has changed a lot since coming to college, I have learned I need to focus on other audiences such as my peers, other professors, and any other person that could possibly read my writing while still focusing on the professor who is grading my paper. I believe this also connects to “writing addresses, invokes, and/or creates audiences” (20) proposed by Andrea Lunsford. Throughout learning to write in college this has been very important, I have learned I need to create an audience in my head and while writing, I need to put myself in their shoes and try to understand how they will react and also base my writing off of how I want the intended audience to react. I feel like this has added a layer to my writing in college and I have broken out of the box of just trying to please a teacher with my writing. 

According to writing scholar Heidi Estrem, “Writing is a knowledge making activity” (19). As I previously said, in high school a lot of my focus was just writing to get a grade, I didn’t really take time to comprehend things. According to Heidi Estrem, “writing in this sense is not about crafting a sentence or perfecting a text but about mulling over a problem, thinking with others, and exploring new ideas” (19). In college I have had the opportunity to think more throughout the writing process because the writing assignments prompt more of my own thinking. Also, writing is a lot more collaborative in college; I am able to talk through my ideas with others while learning new things from them. We often peer review in college which is where I get some of my best feedback, especially on papers meant for an audience of college students. Overall, collaboration is an especially important part of the academic writing process and helps you process ideas.

Charles Bazerman, a scholar in the writing studies field, claims “writing expresses and shares meaning to be reconstructed by the reader,” (21).  In high school I always assumed my teacher would understand what I meant; I again had my teacher as my audience because I thought that was the only person who would read my essays. I was shocked when I got to college and in the first peer review session, the two people reading my essay had different understandings than what I intended and made different connections about my writing. At first, I didn’t understand why they didn’t get out of my writing what I intended. I then realized that people all think about things differently and have different past experiences that influence their ideas. This caused me to have a lot more awareness when I was writing. If there are certain points I want to make, they need to be very clear and presented in a universal way. I also now understand that people will take things in different ways and that it is okay. 

Learning how to write in college has also been a very big adjustment because there is a lot more freedom, which I liked because I had more control over what I was writing about. The more stressful part of that is having to be more independent and not rely heavily on your professor. In high school, teachers at my school read over our paragraphs while we were writing them to give us feedback before our final drafts and made quite easy to understand assignment descriptions with a set format. College so far has been very different; I have to read an assignment description and pick apart exactly what my professor wants. Also, there is not a specific topic given, there are usually choices which allow students to pick what they want to write about as long as it fits under the guidelines of the project. When I was given the assignment description for the assignment in my Trauma and Justice class I was shocked because I was allowed to pick the other reading I wanted to compare to Bonnie Burstow’s article. This was different because in high school I was usually told which two readings to compare, I didn’t have as much of a choice. I have also realized that college assignment descriptions usually have more detail and requirements, which at first felt very overwhelming but I am improving on understanding. According to Corrine E Hinton in her article “So You’ve Got a Writing Assignment, Now What?” she describes how to better understand assignments when you are given them. She says you need to attack the assignment description the way you read a history textbook, which I at first found very strange but it was very helpful as she explained more. She explains, “When you read a textbook chapter for your history course, for example, you might skim it for major ideas first, re-read and then highlight or underline important items, make notes in the margins, look up unfamiliar terms, or compile a list of questions. These same strategies can be applied when reading writing assignments” (20-21). This shows some helpful tips for new college students on how to better understand their writing assignment descriptions. This was particularly helpful for me and I plan to use it going forward. 

I think an article from the University of Minnesota describes a lot of the issues new academic writers face. It discusses that often students believe that they struggle because their professors are too hard, but the real problem is that it is a new type of writing students need to adapt to. According to the article, academic writing is “writing produced in a college environment. Often this is writing that responds to other writing” (1). The article goes on to explain the differences between this and high school writing and what many students are taught in high school that does not apply to college writing. Something most high school students, myself included, were taught in high school is that essays are five paragraphs: an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. This causes a lot of shock for first-year college students when they start getting assigned papers that are five to seven pages, not paragraphs. Another change is the topics assigned, academic essays in college often have much more mature topics than the papers assigned in high school. They can often be more difficult and challenging to write about and require more research. I believe these are some of the main changes between high school and college writing which causes stress in first-year students and should be discussed more to better prepare students for academic writing. 

Overall, there is a pretty big difference between writing in high school and academic writing in college. When I was first assigned a paper in my trauma and justice class where I had much more freedom in topic and format I wasn’t sure how to start. I liked the freedom but it also made me nervous. There are many parts of academic writing that I have learned are very different and I will need to work on throughout college. Even though I have not been in college for long I have learned so much and have truly already grown as a writer. I have learned about invoking different audiences, how working with others will benefit my writing, why people construct different meanings when reading, and many tips on how to become a better writer. I obviously know I don’t know everything and have a lot of room to improve, but I can’t wait to see where my journey as a writer goes and how it improves throughout my academic writing in college. 


Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Elizabeth A. Wardle. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Utah State University Press, 2016. 

Hinton, Corrine E. So You’ve Got a Writing Assignment. Now What? Writing Spaces,–so-youve-got-a-writing-assignment.pdf. 

[Authors removed at request of original publisher]. “8.1 What’s Different about College Writing?” College Success, University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing Edition, 2015. This Edition Adapted from a Work Originally Produced in 2010 by a Publisher Who Has Requested That It Not Receive Attribution., 4 Dec. 2015,

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.