Mind the Gap: What Are Colleges Really Looking for in Student Writing


This past week I had the opportunity to speak to New York City high school principals about writing. And as I did a while ago when I looked at how colleges view close reading, I decided to do a bit of research into what colleges were actually looking for in writing for my presentation. As happened then, when I found a significant difference between what colleges expect students to do as close readers and the often formulaic “three goes” at a text with text-dependent questions approach that I see in many schools, I discovered some significant gaps between how we teach writing—especially argument—and what colleges are looking for. And these gaps have enough implications for lower and middle school, as well as high school, that I thought I’d share what I found.

Here, for instance, are some timely tweets I discovered in a blog post written by a Canadian high school teacher title “Are We Teaching Students to Be Good Writers?” He’d attended a presentation by a college professor on the gaps between high school and college writing, and as part of the presentation, the professor shared a survey he gave to this third year college students, asking them what they wished they’d learned about writing in high school that would have better prepared them for college. And many of his students had this to say:

Tweet on Organizing vs. Growing Ideas

I wish I could say things were different in the States, but we, too, seem to spend a lot of time teaching students how to organize and structure their writing without spending equal, if not more, time in teaching them how to develop ideas in the first place. And from about third grade right up to twelfth, much of the teaching around organization and structure is focused Writing Analyticallyon the five-paragraph essay, where some students are taught not only how many paragraphs their essays should have but how many sentences each of those paragraphs should contain as well as the content of each.

For the record, you should know that I’ve helped teachers teach the five paragraph essay myself. And while I do see that it can be a useful strategy for some students some of the time, we need to be aware that most college professors hate it—so much so that many explicitly un-teach it in freshman composition classes. According to the authors of Writing Analyticallya book that’s used in many of those college freshman writing classes, the five-paragaph essay commits the following offenses:

“It’s rigid, arbitrary and mechanical scheme values structure over just about everything, especially in-depth thinking . . . [and it’s] form runs counter to virtually all of the values and attitudes that students need to grow as writers and thinkers—such as a respect for complexity, tolerance of uncertainty and the willingness to test and complicate rather than just assert ideas.”

The thesis statement, too, which seems custom-made to assert versus test and complicate, gets a beating by many college professors, too. In his article for The Chronicle of Higher Education Let’s End Thesis Tyranny,” for instance, Bruce Ballenger writes that “Rather than opening doors to thought, the thesis quickly closes them . . . [because] the habit of rushing to judgment short-circuits genuine academic inquiry.”

This all seems to suggest that even with the Common Core Standards’ focus on college and career readiness, we might not be doing such a great job at preparing students for Mind the Gap 2college writing. To close that gap, though, we need a clearer vision of what colleges do expect, and coincidentally—or serendipitously—enough, Grant Wiggin’s shared one of his college freshman son’s writing assignments in his recent blog post on argument, which does just that.

If you click through here you’ll see that the professor gives a brief summary of the assignment, which he/she calls a “Conversation Essay”. Then he/she provides some tips on college writing that are meant “to dispel some common and often paralyzing misconceptions about the nature of academic debate itself.” In particular, the professor targets what he/she calls an “ineffective” model for college writing: the “combat model.” That model, the professor writes,

“. . . suggests that academic debate consists of experts trying to tear down each other’s theories in the hope of proving that their own theory is actually correct. It suggests an aggressive approach and a battle zone in which people ‘advance’ arguments, ‘attack’ each other’s claim’s, and ‘stake out’ and ‘defend’ their own positions.”

Instead the professor is looking for an essay in which the writer inquires into and explores a problem, a question or one or more texts, with the goal of adding his or her own unique perspective and ideas to the the ongoing conversation about that problem, question or text. I think that means that whatever claims the writer makes need to be an outgrowth of his or her exploration, not what leads and determines the whole focus of the essays. And this vision of an essay seems quite close to what writer Alan Lightman says he was looking for in the essays he read as editor of The Best American Essays of 2000There in the introduction, he writes:

“For me, the ideal essay is not an assignment, to be dispatched efficiently and intelligently, but an exploration, a questioning, an introspection . . . I want to see a mind at work, imagining, spinning, struggling to understand. If the essayist has all the answers, then he isn’t struggling to grasp, and I won’t either.”

In my next post, I’ll share some of the ideas and practices I explored with the principals last week, including the use of low-risk writing to help students take on that more exploratory stance and of mentor texts to give them both a vision and some choices about how their writing could look like based on what they have to say. But for now I want to offer one more reason why we might want to reconsider giving students a one-size-fits form-contentall structure for academic writing. As I wrote about earlier, when we offer students scaffolds, we often inadvertently deprive them of something—in this case, the opportunity to engage and wrestle with one of the big concepts in reading and writing: how form informs content and how content can shape form.

This concept is what lies underneath the Common Core’s Craft and Structure Standards in reading, and by inviting students to think about what form might best suit and convey what they’re trying to say, we’d helped them become more aware of the purposefulness of a writer’s choice of structure. And in that way, too, they’d reap what Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott says is the big reward of writing: “Becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.” It will also ensure that students won’t have to un-learn what we’ve taught them once they get to college.

28 thoughts on “Mind the Gap: What Are Colleges Really Looking for in Student Writing

    • So glad it was useful, Deb. Are they keeping those drawing notebooks for Lord of the Flies, which seemed like such a brilliant idea—and a great way to building something meaningful to write about. And see you soon at NCTE!

  1. Vicki,
    It is such a dance we do with students and standards! How ironic, but not surprising, that all that work teachers and students do around argument is then untaught in college. The mindset of meeting the requirements of checklists and standards could be just the ticket to shutting down the journey of thought wanted by college professors. The assignment versus the journey. Thesis versus thought. Does the thesis lead the thinking or does our thinking lead to thesis? Unfortunately the former seems the route many teachers and students take to meet the standards. I can’t blame them. The product (grade, test score) is the considered the end point.
    Not that standards or checklists are the enemy, only perhaps when we let it overshadow the goal of reading and writing so beautifully stated by Anne Lamott. Looking at the reading standards on craft and structure (looking at real writing) opens up big windows for our student writers as to how their own writing could go.

    Fantastic thinking that makes me think and centers me as a reader and a teacher of reading and teaching. Thank you so much.

    • Reading this reminded me of my trip to Reggio and the utterly amazing inquiry-based work they do there with young children. That, and the work I know is going on in places like the Opal School and even Reggio-inspired public schools here, makes me wonder what would happen if inquiry was the norm for the way we learn throughout the grades. Then we wouldn’t have unteach all that product-oriented, skills-based, right-answer stuff that can so interfere with kids’ ability and willingness to go on a journey instead. Was thrilled though that NYC principals listened and were intrigued by that approach, as I actually know some of your LAUSD colleagues are (since I heard from Dayna & Fayneesa here, as well).

  2. Vicki,
    I love this ” . . . by inviting students to think about what form might best suit and convey what they’re trying to say, we’d helped them become more aware of the purposefulness of a writer’s choice of structure. And in that way, too, they’d reap what Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott says is the big reward of writing: “Becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.”

    We’ve become so focused on getting ready for the next grade or the next “thing” that we have lost track of the choice involved in meeting the needs of both the audience and the purpose. I may have begun with an essay, but before I’m done, it’s really a poem or even a narrative. The author needs to control those choices – not just the task-creator!

    And as Julieanne said, “love the thinking” this caused. . . I had to let it percolate a bit!

    • My friend & colleague Renee Dinnerstein who helps teachers implement inquiry-based work in the early grades talks a lot about how saw it is that we focus so much on getting kids ready for the next grade rather than digging deeply into the grade they are. And giving kids those choices means that we’re opening the door to real critical thinking, which simply doesn’t happen if the task-creators are calling all the shots. I’m imagining & hoping that we’ll all hear more about this at NCTE, if only to know that there’s actually quite a lot of us trying to do things differently.

  3. Vicki,

    I look forward to reading this blog post again closely and following the many links. You’ve struck a chord that is personal for me at present with a child in AP lit who’s being assigned essays out of books masquerading as instruction. Breaks my mother and my teacher heart to see what this is doing to a kid trying to navigate the world and put her thoughts to paper in increasingly sophisticated ways. Worst part is she has great thoughts and ideas and is making meaning and forming theories but the thing that is judged – and I do mean judged – is the form which often approximates but does not fit the “hamburger” style so valued by the course’s “teacher”. Thank you for your thoughtful post this morning. Gives me hope and support.

    • Hey Dayna—This reminded me of a conversation I had with the remedial reading & writing teacher my daughter had to see when she was younger. She was supposed to write a hamburger style information piece on wild horses (which was her topic of choice) and she’d collected all these amazing facts that simply didn’t fit that structure. I remember saying to the teacher, if the point is for her to convey what she learned, couldn’t she write some kind of wonderful rhapsody on wild horses and focus on the language and imagery instead. And I was told no. She had to learn how to organize her thoughts. The good news is that they survive—as thinkers, if not writers. But do you know the books Where We Are, What We See and You Are Here, This Is Now? They’re anthologies of poems, stories and essays by high school students and many of them are stunning. Might help your daughter know that there are others who see—and judge—writing differently.

  4. “…an essay in which the writer inquires into and explores a problem, a question or one or more texts, with the goal of adding his or her own unique perspective and ideas to the the ongoing conversation about that problem, question or text.”
    I’m trying to remember a time when I either asked a student to engage in an ongoing conversation or was asked to participate in one. Yikes! I love the idea of being part of a grand, ongoing conversation! That really knocks me, as teacher, off center stage and suggests a community of thinkers. Yikes! I am reminded of a student essay I read recently that compares the onset and growth of ideas to drops of water coming together, from creek to stream to ocean, to make something more powerful than their individual selves. A grand conversation! Delicious!

    • Oh Fayneesa—knowing that you’ve found something delicious makes my day! And strangely enough, I was thinking of you yesterday when I stumbled on a wonderful graphic mind map that shows the power of documentation that I’ll try to send you. I like to think that in September we were all engaged in a inquiry-based grand conversation with The Raft & Say,Yes and their authors—and one about how to help children become empowered thinkers and reader, as well. Yes? Those are conversations I’m really looking to continue when I’m back in January—or next month at NCTE!

  5. Hi Vicki,

    My wife shared your post with me today. I shared it with my co-worker and he liked it so much we are making it the focus of our collaboration team meeting tomorrow.

    My two biggest problems with student writing are:
    1. Writing that sounds like its purpose is to be turned in to a teacher.
    2. Writing that doesn’t address the gray.

    I have my students blog using WordPress.com to address the first. I’m still struggling with issue number two, but a few of the ideas in your post are helping me form an idea of what my students can do to enter the global conversation. Thank you.

    • Love the idea of addressing the gray! It’s interesting that when you get to high school, the Common Core does talk about writing arguments in a way that demonstrates a thorough knowledge of the topic or text—which you’d think would include the gray. But we seem to pay much less attention to that than to other parts of the standards. Anyway, I’d be curious to know what comes out of your meeting. And BTW, I am on twitter. My handle is @VickiVintonTMAP—and I’m also doing some work this year in L.A. So here’s to our paths crossing at some point, either on twitter or in California!

  6. I really appreciated your timely post. Last week, I had a similar conversation with high school teaches as we tried to pound out an interdepartmental analytic rubric. The concepts of thesis and structure were consuming portions of the conversation. The social studies representative was most articulate in describing the function of an introduction: placing the issue or question(s) at hand in the larger context of the world. Using that as a foundation and what you have shared with us here, I think the next round of our work will be even more lively in discussion and hopefully, productive in descriptive decisions…maybe event leading to inductive writing structures that value nuance and the real problems of thinking through issues worthy of the time and effort rather than the assertive, deductive stance schooled essay writing has taken over the century.

    • Sometimes, I think this stuff must be in the air as so often I wind up writing about something that others are thinking about, too. And one of the pieces I read—perhaps it was the Bruce Ballenger article—specifically talked about helping student writers in making the shift from deductive to inductive thinking and structures. And as for rubric, take a look at the wonderful one created by P.L. Thomas, which shifts the focus from structure to meaning and artfulness. There’s a link to it mid-way through his blog post “Why Are We (Still) Failing Writing Instruction”: http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/12/03/why-are-we-still-failing-writing-instruction/. In the meantime, it’s really great to know that these much-needed conversations are happening!

  7. Vicki,
    I’m reminded of something Tom Newkirk said about writing expository and persuasive text in his book Minds Made for Stories: writers try to “invite and guide” readers to “stay with me” for the duration of the text, which often means really thinking about why the subject of our writing is worth it for the reader. More reason to spend the time to live with contradictions and uncertainties for awhile before declaring oneself on one side or the other. Also, again Newkirk, expository writing needs to establish that larger context of importance, the “tension that builds to a resolution”, the “itch that needs a scratch.” And this is hard to do if we must write in a form that is static, one that is not in the service of building tension, or describing the itch so it just NEEDS to be scratched. In both cases time is pretty important.

    • Just finished reading a collection of essays that a friend recommended–No Man’s Land by Eula Biss, and it’s such a wonderful example of a write who feels that need to scratch an itch. Unfortunately, all those five paragraph essays often only have the teacher as an audience, which I’m sure is part of the problem. Just wish there were more good models for kids so they could see the fun of going on a journey of thought with a reader–and give them a vision to write towards.

  8. Vicki–Good post. A couple of years ago a group of high school and college teachers sponsored by NCTE, the National Writing Project, and the Writing Program Administrators (the people who run college freshman English programs) produced a “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing.” It presents a vision of what good preparation for college writing should look like that’s pretty different from the CCSS. You can read a summary or the whole thing here: http://wpacouncil.org/framework

    (I was on the committee that created it)

    • I know–and adore–the WPA, NWP & NCTE Framework, and, in fact, shared the habits of mind with the NYC principals who all took note, as well as shared it on the blog as well. It’s definitely a document that should have a wider audience as too often what goes on in classrooms does little to support things like curiosity, flexibity and meta-cognition, which are all critical for learning to stick.

  9. I know you’ve written a good blog when I get so frustrated about it! My initial defensive response (But! But!) totally stems from knowing that you are right and not wanting it to be true because it means I need to think and worker harder.

    I am so guilty of explicitly teaching a 5 paragraph essay (and even the number of sentences per paragraph!). I need to dance with this new perspective and find a way to (in intermediate elementary grades) introduce organization of writing without relying on it as a factory mold.

    Thanks for pushing my thinking!

    • Having taught the five-paragraph essay, I will say that it’s much easier than letting the kids wrestle, but I really believe the pay-offs are huge. And just because you don’t start with some kind of five-paragraph template doesn’t mean you can’t offer & teach it if you see some students really needing it. But I think it’s useful to see it as one of several strategies, not the only way to go. And P.S. Thanks for sharing your frustration–and for being willing to dance!

  10. I really enjoyed your post. It is like taking the writing of the essay back to its origins-back to the essays of Emerson and Thoreau where you could actually envision minds at work as Thoreau cranked out “Civil Disobedience” or Emerson delved into the beauty of “Nature”. I have had my students create a provocative question that they are currently researching. Everything you have said supports this approach over the write a thesis and support it approach-that you for that validation. 🙂 I can’t wait to read more on this subject as we begin organizing what we have found through our research this week and next.

    • Glad the post struck a chord! And love the idea of research being guided by a provocative question instead of a treasure hunt for evidence to support an already set-in-stone thesis. It’s what authentic practitioners in almost every field do, whether they’re historians, scientists or nonfiction writers. And I’ll take a stack of essays driven by provocative questions to read over thesis-driven ones any day!

  11. Sadly we are now teaching “recipes” for writing in my kindergarten too. No matter how good the recipes are for persuasive writing, personal narratives or informational writing the result is the kids writing all sounds and looks alike. More importantly, the children don’t get a chance to discover, invent or think on their own. The results are formulaic. Can the recipes help as you say? Of course but they too should be only one of many strategies for our youngest learners.

    • I’m reminded of a visit to a kindergarten class where children were writing ‘How to’ books. They’d been told that their books should include 5 steps – regardless of whether less or more were actually needed – and that led kids to write books about, for instance, how to ride a bicycle and that only allowed them to talk about getting your bike and your equipment, like helmets, on without really getting to writing. So sad they way that limit kids’ thinking in the guise of helping them.

  12. Pingback: Writing Meaningfully About Meaningful Reading Part 1: A Look at Low Stakes Writing | To Make a Prairie

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