Students are unprepared for college-level writing

Are high schools failing seniors? Are students unprepared for college writing? Learn what can you do to get your students ready for university.

A while back, I talked about the importance of strong writing skills in the workplace. Today I want to take a look at the grim statistics regarding poor writing skills on college campuses and help you explore things you can do now to ensure that your children do not join those ranks.

The Problem on College Campuses

First-time college students face their new post-high school careers with excitement, fear, and any number of challenges. But good writing, for many freshmen, may pose the biggest challenge of all.

Professors want to see concise, coherent and well-reasoned writing assignments. And regardless of the discipline—whether English, history, biology, or art—they expect students to write at a higher level than they did in high school.

Are incoming students unprepared for college writing? We hear again and again that many freshmen lack the most basic skills to write clearly, effectively, and coherently because their working knowledge of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and paragraph structure is so poor.

According to California State University, “. . . 60 percent of first-time freshmen enrolling at the CSU each year do not show entry-level proficiency in [college-level English] assessments, even though they have earned at least a B average in the required college preparatory curriculum.” As a result, many students must attend remedial classes, which do not count for college credit and add cost and time to earning a degree.

When High Schools Fail to Prepare Their Graduates

Tufts Daily, the independent student newspaper of Tufts University, reports that it’s becoming more and more apparent that the nation’s high schools are not devoting enough time to writing skills and may not be providing students with a strong enough writing-based curriculum.

The Tufts article notes that according to a study by the Chronicle of Higher Education, 44 percent of university faculty members say their students are simply not ready for the rigors of college-level writing.

When College Writing Courses Don’t Teach Writing

Arriving on campus is no assurance of success for incoming freshmen who need basic writing courses but aren’t necessarily getting them.

Professor Stanley Fish says universities should rethink the political and ideological emphasis of most composition classes. He rightly suggests that “unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham.”

Fish relates that a few years ago, he became alarmed and curious about the poor writing skills his English graduate students demonstrated in their research papers. Graduate students should write well, Fish believed; especially since they were responsible for teaching undergraduate students how to write in introductory composition classes. Fish asked to see lesson plans for the 104 sections in which English graduate students taught composition to undergrads. He found that in 100 of the sections, “students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization.” Only four sections emphasized grammar, rhetoric, and the craft of writing well. (Eagle Forum Education Reporter)

A Sad but True Example

Several months ago, a friend came into possession of a freshman English paper and shared it with me. Sadly, it serves to reinforce the statistics and testimonials that only too frequently cross my desk. From start to finish, this student’s essay on William Blake’s “The Tyger” is riddled with errors:

  • Uncapitalized proper nouns such as jesus and greek
  • Missing punctuation, including periods
  • Casual language (“…it is actually about more than just a tiger and stuff.”) 
  • Slang (“Allusion is all over the freekin place.”)
  • Misplaced apostrophes and more slang (“Tyger’s have four feet. Cool, huh?“)
  • Use of second person (“If you look at Blake’s history…”)
  • Run-on sentences and sentence fragments
  • Absence of transitions
  • Lack of organization
  • Use of numerals instead of words (“…5 years ago…”)
  • Use of Wikipedia as a “credible” source

This student represents a mere drop in a very full bucket. Thousands of similarly skilled young men and women are accepted into major universities every year—high school graduates whose writing abilities just aren’t up to par.

You Can Make a Difference!

I could continue filling your brain with testimonials and data and examples. But the bottom line remains the same: students are emerging from their high-school cocoons as undernourished butterflies whose wings are inadequately developed for flying through college writing.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As a homeschooler, you’re in a privileged position to help your students. In future articles, I’ll get into more detail, but for now, rest assured that you can:

  • Learn to identify your child’s unique grammar, spelling, and writing issues.
  • Tailor curricula and writing lessons to address those needs.
  • Make sure you’re covering the basics.
  • Expand instruction to include more college prep work.
  • Offer your child what a classroom teacher of 150 cannot: one-on-one instruction, frequent writing assignments, and detailed, consistent feedback.

Are your students unprepared for college writing? If you start early and work diligently and consistently, you can turn things around!

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  • Posted April 27, 2010


    My comment isn’t just about college writing, because I agree wholeheartedly with you on this, but also about college in general. The current 300 level history class I am taking at an accredited University uses Wikipedia as a credible source! I have never had that happen before and am a bit shocked to say the least. Fortunately, my instructor uses more than just Wikipedia for his information or I would have been tempted to drop the class!

  • Posted April 27, 2010


    My son taught a writing course for homeschoolers last year. The whole Wikipedia thing was a major bone of contention for him. No matter how many times he reiterated that Wikipedia is not a credible source, it kept rearing its unreliable head.

    And to make matters much, much worse, a number of students plagiarized, copying passages from (you guessed it) Wikipedia.

    Thanks for weighing in, Blossom. I appreciate your thoughts.

  • Posted April 27, 2010


    I was just looking over one of the writing courses that we got to review as part of the Crew this year, and thinking about this very thing!
    I’m anxious to read what else you’ll be sharing on this topic as my Ashley will be in 11th grade this next year and, though she LOVES writing, I know she needs to be a better prepared writer.
    When are you planning to post more?! 🙂

  • Posted April 28, 2010

    JoJo Tabares

    Both writing and speaking skills are seriously lacking in today’s society as a whole.

    Businesses are hard pressed to find applicants, even in this economy, with the communication skills needed to succeed in business. College students are in desperate need of writing and speaking skills in order to succeed. It’s not only their writing classes and academic endeavors, but their skills in building relationships with professors such that they can fully understand what is required. In addition, they lack the social skills to get along with other students and the conflict resolution skills to succeed in life.

  • Posted April 28, 2010

    Julieanne Miller

    Hi! I enjoyed your article, Kim. I’m a homeschool mom, formerly a teacher in the public schools. Every spring, I score hundreds of student writing essays for my state. I see the same horrible writing that you showed in your student essay example.

    I’m wanting to teach a writing class to homeschool parents some time this summer or early fall. I’m wondering if I might be able to copy and paste your article into our private, local Yahoo group to show them more evidence of why we need to be teaching our children writing skills with specific, directed activities.

    Would I be able to receive your permission to do this?

    Thank you for considering this.


    Julieanne M.

  • Posted April 28, 2010


    You’ve hit the nail on the head, JoJo. We see academic struggles and failures on the surface, but the university experience is much more overarching. Success requires above-average communication and social skills, along with a solid dose of self-motivation!

  • Posted April 28, 2010


    I’m sure Ashley will be a success, Heidi. You’re so conscientious! I hope to start posting tips next week, but with a convention coming up, it may be the week after. 🙂

  • Posted April 28, 2010


    Julieanne: I’d be glad to have you share the article with your group—just be sure to include the copyright line. Thanks so much for asking; I appreciate your integrity!

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