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Transitioning from High School to College Academic Writing

Christina Crampe

Published on
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You've done it — you've been accepted to college! Those countless campus tours and application essays have finally paid off. While this is undoubtedly an exciting milestone, it can also bring uncertainty and worry. College education can saddle you with a more significant workload, and you'll be taught by professors with higher expectations.

One subject that significantly differs between high school and college is writing. You might have become accustomed to the 5-paragraph essay model in high school, which served you well then. However, college requires a more advanced level of writing that does not rely on an outlined structure. How can you successfully make the shift from high school to college writing?

Breaking away from the 5-paragraph essay

We learned this format as early as elementary school and applied it throughout middle and high school. Here is the basic structure:

  • Introduction
  • 1st body paragraph: Main idea #1
  • 2nd body paragraph: Main idea #2
  • 3rd body paragraph: Main idea #3
  • Conclusion

The 5-paragraph essay is a simple and effective way to organize your writing into distinct sections. The introduction introduces your thesis statement. The three body paragraphs each represent one main idea. The conclusion is a summary of what you've written. Although this is a great way to learn to write papers, this format is too formulaic and isn't functional beyond high school. Let's break down the differences between high school-level and college-level writing, paragraph by paragraph.

What makes a great college-level introduction

fishing hook against a black background
While hooks were the norm in high school introductions, most college professors will see them as wasting valuable space. Photo by Gerasimov174.

The introduction is the first paragraph of the essay. It introduces your argument or thesis statement and creates a roadmap to prove your thesis throughout the rest of your paper. It is essential to make your introduction clear and detailed, so your readers know what to expect. In fact, this is probably the most important part of your essay, so it's important to familiarize yourself with the different techniques you can use at the beginning to grab the reader's attention. If you still don't know how to start your essay, check out the various study materials on the Studocu educational platform.

Here's what a high school-level introduction entails and how a college-level introduction departs from that model.

High school…

  • Hook: The hook is the first sentence of the introduction. Its purpose is to draw readers into your paper — to entice them to read the rest of it. A hook can be a question, quote, anecdote, or even exclamation. The hook does not need to correlate directly to your argument.
  • Thesis statement: The thesis statement is introduced toward the end of the introduction. It is typically one sentence with three main points — each representing one of the essay's body paragraphs — that will prove the thesis. The thesis should be argumentative, but it can be broad and general.

Versus college

  • No hook: College essay introductions do not require a hook. Since many college papers have word count and page requirements, a hook will take up unnecessary space. It's better to dive straight into your argument than to pander to your reader with an eye-catching statement.
  • Thesis statement: The thesis statement is still included, introduced toward the end of the introduction. It can vary in length between one to three sentences, depending on the complexity of your argument. Your thesis does not require three main supporting points; you can use as many or as few supporting details as you need to prove your thesis. Most importantly, your thesis should be specific and argumentative.

Building strong body paragraphs

student using a laptop, textbook, and tablet to complete school work
College writing requires you to conduct extensive external research to use as support in your papers. Photo by NIKCOA.

Once you've got your introduction down, it's time to begin your body paragraphs. These are where you're likely to see the most significant differences between high school-level and college-level writing.

High school…

Under the 5-paragraph essay format, high school essays contain three body paragraphs. There are no strict length requirements for each of the body paragraphs. Each body represents one of the three main ideas chosen to prove the thesis, and each main idea has three points of evidence to support it.

Let's consider an example. Your essay thesis centers on the importance of helping to reduce climate change. Here is an outline of the contents of one body paragraph:

Body paragraph #1: Alternative transportation methods can help reduce your carbon footprint.

  1. Evidence #1: Carpooling
  2. Evidence #2: Bike riding
  3. Evidence #3: Walking

These three pieces of evidence support the main idea of your first body paragraph.

Here are some other ideas to consider as you write your body paragraphs:

  • Research and sources: High school papers don't usually include much — if any — external source material, so you don't have to do any additional research. For example, an essay on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath will include evidence solely from the book. Likewise, a lab report or scientific paper will contain information from the lab you have completed. Some high school research papers require external research but not to the same degree as a college paper.
  • Analysis: In high school papers, analysis of evidence is present but not extensive. It may point out more general ideas that are pretty obvious to readers. One piece of evidence can include two to three sentences of analysis and stop there.
  • Transitional statements: You will most likely include transitional phrases such as "in conclusion" or "in addition" in your writing. They serve to move you from one point to the next, but they don't provide much context for your argument. Each body paragraph will have an opening sentence relating to its respective main idea.
  • Connection to the thesis: Each body paragraph focuses solely on its main idea. There is little to no connection back to the thesis because it is assumed that the bodies serve the thesis.

Versus college

College papers can have as few or as many body paragraphs as you need to prove your argument. The amount of body paragraphs you have is also influenced by the page length restriction or other requirements for your paper.

Body paragraphs should never exceed one page in length. They are each typically one to two-thirds of a page. If your body paragraph is longer than one page, you likely have enough evidence and analysis to split that paragraph into two separate bodies. Double-check to ensure you are not combining two points into one body paragraph. Each paragraph should have its own main idea.

Some other things to consider as you write your body paragraphs are:

  • Research and sources: College papers will often require external research and sources. This isn't always a requirement, but the extent of external research is more common than in high school. For example, an essay on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath may include direct quotes from the book as well as external research on the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Likewise, a scientific research paper might include results from your own experiment and external statistics from past published experiments.
  • Analysis: Aside from the thesis statement, your analysis is the most important part of the paper. The analysis is extensive and specific, aiming to bring light to an unexplored topic. You will point out small details readers may have considered unimportant and draw conclusions about them. You'll bring a fresh perspective to evidence and teach your readers something new.
  • Transitional statements: You'll likely use transitional statements in your college writing, but they will serve a more significant purpose. Each body paragraph will begin with a transitional sentence connecting one body paragraph to the next. They should be specific — not general — and outline what you'll be discussing in the paragraph. You do not want any of your paragraphs to be disconnected. After all, they each serve the same purpose: proving the thesis statement.
  • Connection to the thesis: Every body paragraph refers back to the thesis. While each paragraph has its main idea to discuss, you can't forget the purpose of each one. You should actively discuss how your analysis of evidence proves your argument.

Ending with a strong conclusion

one orange head and one blue head made of puzzle pieces and exchanging a puzzle piece
College writing challenges you to draw interdisciplinary connections to demonstrate why what you're writing matters. Photo by Gabydesign21.

The conclusion is the last paragraph of an essay. Like the other elements, the content of the conclusion differs between high school writing and college writing.

High school…

  • Summary: High school conclusions summarize what you've discussed throughout your paper. You restate the thesis and the three main points you've made supporting your argument. There is no further analysis included in the conclusion.
  • Drawing connections: These conclusions draw no connections between disciplines. For example, an English paper conclusion solely discusses what was written in the essay. Using The Grapes of Wrath as a topic example again, the conclusion focuses only on the book and its literary implications. You do not draw connections between the book content and its historical connections.

Versus college

  • Summary: While you usually restate the thesis at the end, college conclusions are not merely a summary of what you've written. Rather, these conclusions answer the "so what?" question. Why should readers care about your argument? Why is your paper important? What does it add to the existing research on this topic? What's its relevance? These are just some of the questions to consider as you craft your concluding statements.
  • Drawing connections: One way to answer the "so what?" question is to draw interdisciplinary connections between what you've said and what's already been written. For example, if you're writing a sociology paper on the foster care system in the United States, you could connect it to what you've learned in an economics or history class. How does a child's socioeconomic status impact the likelihood of ending up in the foster care system? How has the creation and role of the foster care system evolved over time? These are the kind of questions to consider as you make connections across disciplines in your conclusion.

Other things to keep in mind

photo of the definition for citation taken from a dictionary
While you might not have used citations often in high school papers, they will be required in nearly ever college paper. Photo by egokhan.

Now that we've discussed the differences in formulating your papers, let's consider some of the other key distinctions between high school and college writing.

Quality over quantity

High school writing assignments do not tend to have minimum word counts to meet, so you can write as much as you want to prove your argument. However, college writing assignments usually have strict word count requirements so that you focus on the quality of your writing instead of the quantity. You must write good, compelling arguments and analysis. Your writing should be concise so you can communicate your ideas clearly and effectively without filling your paper with fluff.

Summary vs. analysis

While high school writing does require some analysis, the summary does not introduce new ideas. You can summarize a source as evidence and summarize your paper in the conclusion. In contrast, college writing requires strict analysis. Any summary you provide should be no longer than one or two sentences to introduce a source or provide context.

With college writing, you need to provide quality analysis. Consider everything — even the most minor details — including punctuation marks, speech patterns, and motifs, because sometimes the smallest, most inconsequential-seeming points make for the most significant analysis.

Word choice and specificity

You might be tempted to use complicated language in your college papers to impress your professors. Spoiler alert: they probably won't be as impressed as you might have thought. Instead, use field-specific terminology throughout your paper. If you're writing a biology research paper, it will make sense to include words like "polypeptides" and "anabolism." When writing your paper, take care to use simple language that fits the context of your argument. This will keep your writing clear and concise, prioritizing understanding over complexity

Specificity is similar to word choice, but it refers particularly to overstatements. You should avoid using overstatements in your college writing. Generalized phrases like "society," "throughout history," and "many people believe" are examples of terms that signify generalizations and assumptions. Remain focused in your writing and use terms specific to the community, institution, or field you're writing about.

Tone, voice, and tense

In college, your writing should maintain an active voice. This gives your writing more clarity. Your tone depends on your argument, but it should mostly remain neutral. Your tone matters most when you include external research in your argument. For example, if you're paraphrasing a scholarly article with a positive tone, your paraphrased version should also convey a positive tone.

The tense is also largely dependent on what you're writing. For example, English Literature papers use the present tense. Meanwhile, some disciplines – like the sciences – do not have a strict tense requirement and might include a mix of past, present, and future tenses. You should always be aware of what tense your discipline requires.


High school papers almost always use MLA for citations, if they require citations at all. College citations depend on the disciple in which you are writing. For example, English Literature essays follow MLA format, which includes the use of parenthetical citations in your paper. However, history or political science papers require Chicago Style citations — this includes the use of footnotes, not parenthetical citations. Psychology and behavioral science disciplines use APA style.

The distinction between style guides might be confusing, but there are many informative sources online, such as Purdue Owl , that can teach you how to properly cite a source in any citation style.

Making the transition

We've thrown a lot of information at you about making the move from high school to college, so take your time learning your new expectations and go easy on yourself as you learn new ways to write. Don't forget that practice makes perfect, so practice writing as much as you can.

If you find yourself continuing to struggle in this transition from high school to college writing, don't be afraid to ask your professors for help. They hold office hours for a reason! You can stop by to discuss your thesis, and some professors will even read drafts of students' essays and give valuable feedback. Remember that you're not the only one trying to make this shift. You have plenty of resources at your disposal — use them!

Header photo by Mangostar.

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