The transition from high school to college writing can be important and challenging for students and teachers. In my experiences teaching high school and college-level English classes, I have noticed both commonalities and differences in the expectations for writing at each level. While students are taught to analyze and synthesize ideas in both high school and college, college instructors often expect students to produce deeper, more sophisticated textual interpretations and to not only synthesize existing views but also contribute new perspectives on a topic. Below I offer suggestions to help high school teachers prepare students to more confidently transition from high school to college writing.

Teach Students to Adapt Their Writing to Various Purposes, Genres, and Audiences

In college, students are often asked to write in different genres for a variety of purposes and audiences. To prepare students for this work, high school teachers can encourage them to write for audiences beyond the teacher and peers, such as community organizations or local officials, and to adapt their writing to various situations. For example, while many high school English classes emphasize literary analysis, teachers might also integrate rhetorical analysis, or the interpretation of rhetorical appeals such as ethos. An essay focusing on ethos, for instance, might examine an author’s credibility and use of evidence in advancing the essay’s claims. In particular, rhetorical analysis, a genre that is valued in many college composition classrooms, not only invites students to adapt their writing to a different situation but also teaches students to become aware of how authors write for different purposes and audiences. In addition, while writing in high school may mainly occur in English and history classes, incorporating writing across the curriculum can prepare students to compose across academic disciplines in college.

Furthermore, high school teachers can expand students’ genre awareness. Students may, as a result of standardized curricula and testing, categorize a piece of writing as an argument or an analysis, as a personal narrative or a research paper, rather than as a combination of these genres. Teachers might help students think more flexibly about genre. For instance, while teaching a research-based argument essay in a first-year college writing class, I invite students to combine elements of personal narrative, primary-source data collected from surveys and interviews, and scholarly research to construct an argument about a topic of their choice related to the local or campus community. Even though I ask students to consider the personal motivations behind their research questions, students are often surprised to find that they are allowed and even encouraged to interweave personal and textual evidence and narrative and research elements into one essay. Asking students to integrate different kinds of writing in one paper can inspire them to expand their conceptions of genre. In this way, teachers can help students recognize that instead of the form dictating the content, an essay’s purpose and audience shape its evidence, structure, and style—and hence its genre.

Inspire Students to Enter and Respond to Larger Academic Conversations

The composition scholars Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz describe the transition from high school to college writing as a “paradigm shift” in which students cross a “threshold” from learning and restating information toward questioning ideas and entering larger conversations (125, 139). Beyond summarizing secondary sources, students are expected to advance their own claims that may differ from or extend established views. One way high school teachers can introduce students to the notion of the academic conversation is to make the concept come to life in the classroom. While teaching first-year college writing, I ask my students to read Mark Gaipa’s essay “Breaking into the Conversation: How Students Can Acquire Authority for their Writing.” In the essay, Gaipa illustrates the academic conversation using the metaphor of a ballroom in which critics are discussing a topic. He offers strategies such as “piggybacking,” or applying critics’ ideas to a new aspect of the conversation, and “leapfrogging,” or identifying gaps in existing ideas, as ways for students to extend critics’ claims (428, 429). Using Gaipa’s essay, I incorporate a class activity in which students walk around the classroom, or “ballroom,” and consider their classmates’ and their own views on the question, What is the moral of “Superman and Me,” by Sherman Alexie? Students then consider how their own essays might contribute new ideas to the conversation on the topic they have chosen. High school teachers can incorporate similar activities as a way to help students develop original claims based on analysis or research. For example, as Alice Yang writes in her Style Center blog post, “Making the Transition from High School to College Essay Writing,” students are expected to engage critically with scholarly sources while writing literary analyses in college. To support students’ critical thinking, teachers can encourage students to determine how their interpretations of a text might expand existing arguments. More broadly, inspiring students to enter the conversation can stimulate their critical thinking and invite them to explore issues of interest.

Encourage Students to Reflect on Their Writing Choices, Processes, and Goals

Finally, it is important to offer students time to reflect on their writing progress. By reflecting on their writing at various stages of a draft or unit, students can become more aware of their writing choices and processes, and this awareness can then inform their future writing as they learn to monitor and evaluate their work and adapt it to various contexts. Teachers can incorporate purposeful reflection through journal entries or portfolios. For example, while teaching high school and college writing, I ask students to write in their journals at the beginning of each class as a way to reflect on their writing progress and goals. Encouraging reflection can enable students to develop their understandings of texts and to stimulate further progress in their own writing. In this way, writing and thinking can interact with each other in shaping students’ growth.

In offering these suggestions, I recognize that these strategies might be hard to implement, since high school teachers are often faced with demands, including preparing students for standardized testing. Moreover, schools may have their own particular goals, resources, and needs, making it difficult for teachers to change the curriculum. Nevertheless, I hope that these ideas offer teachers a step toward supporting students to navigate the differing expectations of secondary and postsecondary school writing. Ultimately, our grander aim is to support students’ continued development as writers throughout their academic, professional, and personal journeys across time and space.

Works Cited

Gaipa, Mark. “Breaking into the Conversation: How Students Can Acquire Authority for Their Writing.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, vol. 4, no. 3, Fall 2004, pp. 419–37.

Sommers, Nancy, and Laura Saltz. “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 56, no. 1, Sept. 2004, pp. 124–49.

Yang, Alice. “Making the Transition from High School to College Essay Writing.” The MLA Style Center, 18 Sept. 2018,

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Ruth Li

Ruth Li is a PhD student in English and education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where she teaches college writing classes. She previously taught high school English at InTech Collegiate High School in Logan, Utah, and Archimedean Upper Conservatory in Miami, Florida.