Strong writing is one of the most important skills for any college student.
Many non-native English speakers have no idea what professors in the U.S. expect from a college paper.
A college paper is a piece of writing than can be as long as 20 or more pages. Even native English-speaking college students struggle with how to succeed with such a difficult responsibility.
Deborah Dessaso is the Writing Resource Coordinator at the University of the District of Columbia. Dessaso helps students reach the level of writing that college professors expect.
She says college writing is very different from what many students experience earlier in their education.
Taking Steps toward a Great College Paper
"Usually… a lot of high schools stress a lot of creative type writing. And so you can pretty much say what you want. Meaning is what you say it is. When you get to college you need to be able to formulate an argument and then defend it using credible sources."
A credible source provides verifiable information from experts. This includes books, interviews, newspapers or studies.
Most U.S. high schools teach students how to write five paragraph essays. Students are often unprepared for the amount of research they have to do for a college paper.
Nabila Hijazi is one of the assistant directors of the University of Maryland Writing Center. Hijazi is also an international student from Syria in the second year of her PhD program in English studies.
She says the language barrier is not the biggest problem for students whose first language is not English.
"Sometimes I see international students who know English grammar more than the native or the U.S.-born students. But maybe… they do not know about the writing systems that we have here, in terms of organization, thesis, transition… They do not know how to connect sentences; how to be direct."
In a traditional paper, the first paragraph often contains the thesis statement. This statement is a one-sentence summary of the paper's main argument. The first paragraph of a college paper, or any paper, is usually the most challenging.
The first paragraph is also the most important because it will guide the structure and show the voice of the entire paper.
But not every type of writing is the same. There are also case studies and field reports in addition to traditional papers.
Dessaso says that the best option for a student who wants improve their writing is to read.
"One professor tells me, 'You write something in your head before you write it on paper'… Until you learn to imagine when you read, you'll never be able to imagine something that you have to write before you have to write it."
Reading examples of the type of paper your professor expects you to write can be very helpful. Professors sometimes provide examples. You can also search the Internet for examples of papers about similar topics.
But, you should never copy another person's work. Professors will find out if the work is copied and you will get in a lot of trouble.
Hijazi adds that writing a paper takes time. Students should let other students read their work and listen to criticism.
"I try to teach them that the first draft is not the final draft. They need to be open to the idea that writing is a process. They have to go through different steps, different revisions."
College graduates around the world will tell you they have all been in this situation. It is the middle of the night. Your paper is due in eight hours and you have no idea what to write.
Let's imagine that your professor tells you to write a five-page paper on this topic:
"The SAT is an unfair test for international students and should no longer be required. Do you agree or disagree?"
Here are four examples of how to begin writing on this topic:
1. Tell a Story – "Nadia dreamed of going to Harvard from the time she was 5 years old. 'It was my mother's dream for me,' she said. Every Saturday, she spent 10 hours at a "cram school" studying for the SAT while her friends went to the mall and watched movies…"
2. Use a Quote – "All the SAT measures is how well you take the SAT. It does not show how smart a person you are," wrote blogger Amanda Chan. Chan is one of a growing number of people who argues that SAT is unfair.
3. Present a Fact – "Of the 1.6 million students who took the SAT in 2013, only 43 percent of test-takers met the SAT's definition for being prepared for college. It is natural to blame teachers and test takers for not studying hard enough. But perhaps the test itself has problems…"
4. Describe a Problem – "Every year millions of international students are unhappy with their performance on a single test — the SAT. Years of hard work are reduced to a single test on a single day. Is the SAT the best way for universities to choose the best students? ..."
The next time you have to write a paper, remember that planning is very important. Think about what you are going to write before you start writing. Think about all the information you need to include and how you will present it.
If the ideas still are not coming, read your class materials again with these four methods in mind. Sooner or later, an idea will come.
I'm Pete Musto.