Post-secondary 101: Intro to academic writing

Transitioning from high school to post-secondary school can be difficult. Much of the post-secondary experience is new, including learning how to write academically. There are many new concepts to get used to, like scholarly research methods, proper citation styles and longer essays.

Post-secondary-level writing can feel like a big jump from what students learn in high school, and it takes some time to fully grasp.

Here is some advice to get you started.

Understanding the assignment

It is imperative to understand what an assignment requires in order to do well. Every assignment will serve its own purpose within a course. Some assignments allow students to explore, and others have specific guidelines.

Rebecca Bleich, an associate professor and writing instructor at the University of Toronto, says many students experience problems reading an assignment guideline for the first time. For many students, the problem is not that they don’t have the proper writing skills for an assignment but that they do not properly understand the guidelines.

“I start [writing consultations] with what the assignment is looking for,” Bleich says. “Then what the student’s goal is and what it is they’re trying to express through the assignment they’re writing.”

Annotated bibliographies

Annotated bibliographies can come in different forms, but they always require students to write short paragraphs, called annotations, for the text(s) being studied. Each annotation includes a summary and a brief evaluation of the text. Evaluation can include outlining the strengths and potential weaknesses of what the author has said.  

Dr. James Southworth is a writing consultant at Wilfrid Laurier University. He says asking key questions can help keep an annotated bibliography on track. This can include questions like: What is the author’s thesis? What is their main argument? What is the significance of the text?

Argumentative essays

Many high school students are taught the five-paragraph essay, sometimes called the “hamburger style.” For Southworth, this structure of writing can be quite limiting.

A university paper needn’t be five paragraphs, and in most cases, it won’t be,” he says. “Similar to that, it needn’t have three points to support the thesis. We can dispense with that and focus on, at least in an argumentative context, making the strongest argument possible.”

Bleich says structures like the five-paragraph essay are good for starting to learn how to write but that students shouldn’t limit themselves to them.

“The purpose of the hamburger style model is to teach students how to construct an argument and how to follow that argument through to the end,” she says. “But it is limiting because almost never are you going to be asked to write that type of essay in a university context. Oftentimes, you’re going to be asked to synthesize or analyze. It’s a lot more flexibility.”

Breaking habits

Learning to move past structures like the five-paragraph essay can be difficult, but it is possible. For Bleich, this means adjusting the way you look at essays.

“You’re trying to make a claim, and then show people why this claim is valid,” she says. “It’s not about how you structure it. It’s about what information you need to effectively support your argument.”

Southworth suggests looking at your work as if you were a critic.

“Actually try to prove your thesis wrong,” he says.

With this way of thinking, you will begin to learn how to find the strongest possible argument instead of trying to come up with three potentially weaker ones.

Thesis statements

The thesis statement presents the purpose of a paper to the reader, and it can look different based on the assignment it is attached to. Southworth says when writing thesis statements for argumentative essays, there are two main principles to keep in mind.

The first is that an argumentative thesis must always be contestable. This means someone should be able to disagree with it. Otherwise, there’s no real argument being made.

The second principle is specificity, ensuring a thesis is specific. Here, it is useful to include the main reasons why you are supporting your claim. This provides the structure of the paper.

Southworth also advises students not to be afraid of changing their thesis while they’re planning out their essays. If you find that you cannot properly support your thesis when you bring up counterarguments, then consider changing it.

“This is very normal and a good sign in the process of writing a paper when you change your views,” Southworth says. “That can really make for strong points because [the thesis] has gone through this process of challenging, thinking and revising.”

Using resources

There are many writing resources available for students to access. Students can book appointments at writing centres and receive one-on-one help from individuals like Bleich and Southworth.

“A lot of students feel they can’t go to a writing centre unless they have a completed draft or a finished piece, but no,” Bleich says. “Go to the writing centre when you get the assignment, and they can help you get started with it.”

Many post-secondary schools also have the option to speak with a librarian for help with writing. Librarians can be especially useful for helping with citations and formatting. They can also guide students in the right direction in terms of research.

There are also several books that can be very useful to students who prefer to learn on their own. Southworth recommends “They Say / I Say” by Cathy Birkenstein and Gerald Graff and “Practical Grammar” by Maxine Ruvinsky.

Learning academic writing for the first time can be daunting, but it doesn’t need to be. There is plenty of support available for students to access. It may take a bit of work to find them, but in the end, you will feel more comfortable with your skills and find confidence in your writing.

About the author

Kyle Quilatan

Kyle is a writer for Youth Mind who studied English at Wilfrid Laurier University. When he’s not writing, he enjoys art and music.

Kyle Quilatan

Kyle is a writer for Youth Mind who studied English at Wilfrid Laurier University. When he’s not writing, he enjoys art and music.

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