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12 Crucial First-Year College Writing Course Skills

Updated on April 13, 2023Students
First-Year Writing Seminar

In your high school career, teachers may have fed you warning stories about all the ways college academics are harder than high school academics. Although some of their warnings may have been over the top, one thing’s for sure—college writing is definitely different from any of the writing you’ve done up until that point. 

When you’re writing essays in high school, most of the time you’re writing for a general audience. In college writing, your paper is usually geared toward one specific audience: the professor. High school teachers are often less rigid than college professors and won’t always deduct points for mechanical errors or misinterpretations of the writing prompt. Not so in college. Also, don’t expect reminders about due dates, readings, or necessary materials from your professors. In college, you’re expected to know how to write well and be on top of your assignments and coursework. So let’s get into all you’ll need to know to meet your professors’ expectations and excel academically in your freshman writing courses.

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The syllabus is your best friend!

A syllabus is an outline detailing everything you need to know about the course. At the top, the syllabus usually includes:

  • Class and course number
  • Classroom location
  • Meeting times
  • Professor’s name and contact information
  • The professor’s office hours

Office hours can be a great opportunity to get to know your professor and share anything you might be struggling with, so take note of them. 

 Below that, the syllabus should detail:

  • Attendance policy
  • Grading policy (the percentage of your total grade each assignment is worth, whether they accept late assignments, etc.)
  • Required texts 
  • Topics you’ll cover
  • A schedule of assignment due dates

Once you’ve read through the syllabus and gotten a feel for the course, add those due dates into your calendar so you don’t forget them! 

Now that you’ve got the syllabus down, let’s walk you through the twelve skills you’ll want to learn so you can write with confidence as a first-year student. 

Getting the basics down cold

In your freshman writing seminar, you’ll be expected to have all of the skills it takes to write a strong, comprehensible, and compelling piece of writing. Here are some of the basics you’ll need to have in your toolbox to get into the groove of collegiate-level writing:

Reading comprehension

In college, you’ll likely have to write arguments about different pieces of literature. 

When you read something, think about what the author is trying to do. Stay curious. Formulate your own perspective on each piece of work you come across. And when you start the writing assignment, make sure that you consider every question and address all parts of the prompt. 

Writing mechanics

Having a firm grasp of grammar rules is necessary in college. Grammar mistakes, misspellings, and the like won’t be ignored by most professors, so brush up on your writing mechanics if you need to. Grammarly can help you identify where you might be making some common grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. 

Clear and concise communication

We’ve all been assigned a daunting word count and tried to add as much “fluff” as possible to reach it. But college professors see through those tricks. Say what you want to say as clearly and concisely as possible. Your writing will be much more readable this way.

Once you’ve got a handle on these essential skills, you’ll also need to learn:

  • The ins and outs of the writing process
  • How to structure an essay
  • The types of essays you’ll likely have to write 
  • How to properly cite your sources

Writing skills for first-year students


Prewriting is the process that prepares you to write your paper. Especially for collegiate-level assignments, prewriting ensures that what you want to get across is clear, well-structured, and supported. Prewriting, brainstorming, and outlining all fall under the same umbrella of helping you prepare to write your paper—and all of them help keep you organized while you’re in the thick of writing an assignment. These techniques will save you time in the long run and show your professor that you put a lot of thought and time into the assignment. 

The rough draft process

You can’t write the essay you’ll be proud to turn in to your professor without first writing a rough draft. The rough draft is your space to test out your ideas and theories. It’s the foundation of your paper, but it’s also a great place to explore your thoughts on the topic and work up from there. 

Editing and revising

The rough draft is usually . . . rough. You’ll need to edit and revise your writing to make it flow; this may include adding transition sentences, plugging in missing information, or checking those basic mechanics we talked about before. Even the best writers make mistakes, so always go back and recheck what you’ve written before turning it in. 

Formatting paragraphs

Strong paragraphs help get your argument across in a logical way. They are the building blocks of any well-written essay or research paper, so make sure your paragraphs adhere to your outline in a way that supports your thesis statement and develops your argument. 

Constructing sentences 

As you’re beginning to see, writing skills are all interconnected. Think of them as a team. If one teammate is lacking, the whole team can suffer. In the same way, strong paragraphs rely on strong sentences that flow together and build on your argument.

Essays for first-year students

Common types of essays

Once you know the point of a prompt, the assignment becomes a lot easier. You can easily categorize prompts into one of the essential types of essays. Although it’s good to know all the essay types, here are three of the most common that you should get familiar with:

Compare and contrast essay

A compare and contrast essay asks you to demonstrate what connects or separates two things—often two pieces of literature, two authors, or two characters. It’s ideal for showing what separates and unites related things or concepts.

Analytical essay

The analytical essay requires you to dig deep. In this kind of essay, you’ll meticulously and methodically examine a single topic to draw conclusions or prove theories. Although they are used in many fields, analytical essays are often used to discuss art and literature and to break down works’ creative themes and explore their deeper meanings and symbolism

Argumentative essay

An argumentative essay uses factual evidence and logical support to convince the reader of a certain way of thinking. Although many types of essays aim to persuade the reader to believe a specific point of view, argumentative essays rely heavily on hard evidence, drawing on other studies and sources to prove their argument

Outlining an essay 

As mentioned earlier, writing an essay outline can help you stay organized and ensure all of your points connect to your argument. An outline is a great point of reference to have when you’re in the thick of a long assignment. By outlining, you save time in the long run and often get the hardest parts of the process over with—so don’t skip it!

A stellar essay introduction

Professors read A LOT of papers. Don’t start yours with something they’ve seen a hundred times before. You want your essay introduction to hook your reader and draw them into your topic. This can be the most difficult part of your essay, so it might be something to focus on in prewriting or in your outline.

A thought-provoking essay conclusion 

The conclusion is the last impression readers get of your voice, style, and argument, but it’s often written as a hurried afterthought. Make your essay conclusion one that leaves your reader, likely the professor, with something to really think about or reconsider. You want your conclusion to reemphasize your key points and offer a sense of closure, but you also want it to give something slightly new to keep your reader invested even after they put your paper down. 

Cite your sources

Citations can be boring, but they are crucial. If you don’t cite your sources, you can get in a lot of trouble for plagiarism—something that should be meticulously avoided. Plagiarism is taking ideas that are someone else’s and stating them as if they’re your own, even by accident. To avoid plagiarism, you have to cite any ideas, works, data, or quotes that aren’t coming from your own brain, both in text (meaning in your paper as you’re mentioning the source) and at the end in the form of a bibliography

The most common style guides used in college seminars include:

Additionally, get familiar with primary sources and secondary sources. For most assignments, you’ll be required to include a combination of both. Primary sources are works that provide a firsthand account of an event, while secondary sources are analytical pieces about those events. Having both will help you support your argument with data from various perspectives.

Great writing takes practice

There’s a lot to know when it comes to producing strong writing for your first-year college seminar. But it’s worth remembering that writing is also a skill you get better at the more you do it over time. Even if you don’t nail it on your first assignment, any feedback you get will make you a stronger writer for future assignments. Professors, more than anything, appreciate effort and want to help you grow as a writer. Be engaged, do your best, and keep the writing skills we talked about in mind as you tackle your papers and writing prompts.

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