Students are unprepared for college-level writing

by | May 28, 2018 | College Prep, High school

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.

EDIT: Originally written in 2010, this article has been updated to cite more recent sources. As you will discover, the problem has not gone away, but remains as disconcerting as ever.

The Problem on College Campuses

“The Snapchat generation may produce more writing than any group of teenagers before it, writing copious text messages and social media posts, but when it comes to the formal writing expected at school and work, they struggle with the mechanics of simple sentences.” Why Kids Can’t Write (NY Times, August 2017)

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. The Why Kids Can’t Write article reveals that

Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. And 40 percent of those who took the ACT writing exam in the high school class of 2016 lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to complete successfully a college-level English composition class.

When High Schools Fail to Prepare Their Graduates

According to The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on education, “only 13 percent of [Baltimore City College] students were deemed ready to start on college-level math and English courses right away.”

As a result, many students must attend remedial classes, “a process that is a financial drain on not only students, but also colleges and taxpayers, costing up to an estimated $7 billion a year.” Most Colleges Enroll Many Students Who Aren’t Prepared for Higher Education, January 2017

The article quotes Sonja Brookins Santelises, chief executive officer of Baltimore City Public Schools, who puts the onus on those who are supposed to be preparing these teens for a college future. “If we’ve been giving kids worksheets with simplistic answers for years,” she says, “and then get upset when they can’t write a five-paragraph essay or recognize subject-verb agreement, that’s not the kids. That’s us.

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. In a NY Times article, What Should Colleges Teach? he rightly suggests that “unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham.”

Fish became alarmed and curious about the poor writing skills his English graduate students demonstrated in their research papers. Graduate students should write well, Fish reasoned, especially since they were teaching introductory composition classes to undergrads.

After asking to see lesson plans for the sections in which English graduate students taught undergraduate composition, Fish found that in almost every section, “students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization.”

Of the 104 sections, only four emphasized grammar, rhetoric, and the craft of writing well.

A Sad but True Example

Some time 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. “At every level, students benefit from clear feedback on their writing.”

Are your students unprepared for college writing? If you start early and work diligently and consistently, you can turn things around!Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape


  1. Evelyn

    So, will WriteShop I&II prepare high school students for college level writing?

    • Kim Kautzer

      Evelyn: While WriteShop I & II aren’t college prep per se, more parents than I can count have told us their teens have gone into college writing well-prepared, with professors often asking, “Where did you learn to write?” (We’ve heard this from parents whose kids completed both WriteShop I and II, but I’ve also heard it from numerous families whose students only got through the first book.)

      English 101 can teach college freshmen about essay structure and form, but students who already have a handle on brainstorming, self-editing, and revising and who know how to use a thesaurus and a few good sentence variations have a definite advantage. Happy parents can say it better than I can!

        “My eldest daughter is in college and while writing her first composition, she thanked me for providing her with WriteShop. She says that with your program she has learned to write with ease.” –Deanne, California

        “I believe in WriteShop so much that I would not teach writing to high schoolers with any other curriculum…. Kristin recently got the only A in her first college writing class on her first long paper. The only writing curriculum she ever used was WriteShop 1 and WriteShop 2.” –Dorie, California

        “I used your product with my high-school-aged daughter in 9th and 10th grade. In 11th grade she received the highest grade in her community-college English 100 class.” –Carolyn B.

        “Last fall, both girls enrolled at a local university for dual credit classes. They both tested out of Intro to Composition, which we recently discovered is not a common accomplishment. Furthermore, [our oldest] has completed Composition 1 and 2, both with As. We are sure that this success is directly related to their experience with WriteShop.” April, Missouri

        “I used WriteShop for most of two years with my oldest daughter when she needed to seriously learn to write. I had felt so helpless and clueless, but WriteShop gave me just the right tools. She then took two community college English composition courses in her junior & senior years [of high school] and got As! Now she’s been accepted to two UC [schools] and I think WriteShop made a big difference in her achievements.” –Ginger

  2. A Bruce

    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.

    • Kim Kautzer

      Agreed! And it seems to be getting worse. Thank you for weighing in.

  3. Kim

    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!

  4. Kim

    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. 🙂

  5. Kim

    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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. Heidi

    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?! 🙂

  9. Kim

    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.

  10. Blossom

    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!



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