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College Writing Success 101

  • Allison Haupert The Old Schoolhouse Magazine
  • Updated Dec 01, 2011
College Writing Success 101

There is no shortage of tips, tricks, and resources to help your homeschool student prepare for college writing. Conferences and curricula abound, and in fact, “preparing for college writing” is such a buzz phrase that in .19 seconds 3,710,000 results about this topic can be produced with a simple Google search. Now, the majority of these results can be questionable at best, but the search results demonstrate the question many home educators are asking: “How do I prepare my student for college writing?” 

No single formula can fit every shape and kind of student writer. When it comes to strategies or systems, personal preference often reigns supreme for homeschoolers. In addition to spelling, grammar, mechanics, and other matters of creativity and style, students should dive deep into matters of worldview and argument in order to navigate the daunting waters of college-level writing.

What & Why

In his essay, “The Liberal Arts: What and Why?” Arthur F. Holmes1 suggested the greater purpose of education is not to train for an occupation but to cultivate a lifelong learner. Writing is an integral part of learning, an extension of human interaction, a way to understand ideas and connect with others.

Holmes noted: “To write is to become articulate, to express what I feel and explain why I feel as I do, to expound, to argue, to offer good reasons, to explore relationships, to have a sense of the whole, to see things in total context” (389). Students who are insecure about their writing (or parents who are insecure about teaching writing) may view composition as a means to an end (such as a high GPA or soaring scores on entrance exams or graduate exams) rather than a necessary skill with spiritual purpose.

Expound an Argument

If to write is to expound, as Holmes states, then good writing will provide the reader with enough evidence to effectively support his claim(s). We can apply this truth to academic assignments as easily as we can apply it to evangelistic outreaches. Clear, engaging writing will naturally reflect on the writer, and as believers we are called to reflect the Lord in all we do. In 1 Peter 3:15,2 believers are urged to“sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.”

Being ready to give an answer implies having the information available to give in the first place. A humble student, one who is willing to read and is ready to improve his writing, will better offer good reasons of hope in any situation he encounters.

Reasons & Relationships

Whether sharing the good news of Jesus with an unbelieving friend or tackling a topic in an English assignment, one should be prepared with good reasons. As Holmes noted in his essay, “To write . . . is to offer good reasons.” The verse cited earlier from 1 Peter reinforces this idea as well. Notice “having all the answers” is not noted but rather a genuine seeking for information peppered with humility.

Furthermore, engaging the culture with gentleness and respect is a calling for every Christian, and once a student can consider each assignment or exercise as an opportunity to know God more and to love others better, all of our communication and connection with one other—whether spoken, written, or otherwise—takes on eternal significance.

Sense of the Whole/Total Context

A worldview with the Creator God at the center will naturally link math with science with history with English, and so on. Writing makes room for this interconnectedness by allowing one to think broadly and deeply. After all, as homeschooling mother and classical educator Leigh Bortins aptly noted in her book on classical education, The Core,3 “Writing is thinking on paper.”

Holmes’ purposes of writing echo the larger purpose in everything the Christian does: to know God and make Him known. Holmes recognizes this truth in the conclusion of his essay mentioned earlier: “The human vocation is far larger than the scope of any job a person may hold because we are human persons created in God’s image, to honor and serve God and men in all we do, not just in the way we earn a living” (384).

In a sense, Christians are forever students, ever learning to become more like the Lord. An education that prepares a person for living, not simply for a vocation, should be the goal of any academic pursuit, including writing.

Allison Haupert holds a master’s degree in rhetoric and composition and teaches writing in the online learning program at Bryan College. She and her husband, Tommy, homeschool their kindergarten daughter and corral their 2-year-old son in Chattanooga, Tennessee. For more information about the Bryan College online learning program, visit www.bryan.edu/online.


1. Holmes, Arthur F. “The Liberal Arts.” In the World. Eds. John H. Timmerman and Donald R. Hettinga. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004. 383–400. Print.

2. “1 Peter 3:15.” Bible Gateway. Web (www.BibleGateway.com). 3 June 2011.

3. Bortins, Leigh. The Core. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.

Other Practical Matters

A homeschooled student can be overwhelmed when she takes her first college course, whether it’s on campus or online. Consider the following practical matters:

Schedules.Schedules and syllabi for college courses can be very different than those that home-educated students are accustomed to, and the sheer amount of written work in the form of longer projects can be overwhelming. One student told me: “A homeschool student would have a set amount for each day.  College gives assignments mostly over the week, and you have to have self-discipline to get it all done in time.

Self-discipline coupled with respectful assertion will take your college writer a long way. A student should be able to organize the week’s work, prioritize by deadline and importance, and also confidently and humbly approach the instructor with any questions or concerns. These may seem to be obvious skills, but surprisingly most students struggle with time management and organization.

In The Writing Life Annie Dillard wrote a poignant passage about schedules: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days” (32).

Workload. Most college writing is essay driven, meaning the majority of assignments are in the form of written essays. As early as possible, homeschool students should practice writing longer bodies of work, applying the principles of the rhetorical triangle, because it addresses each part of a piece of writing: audience, message, and rhetor (or speaker). A quick Google search can provide multitudes of resources about the rhetorical triangle.

Keyboarding. Organization is enhanced by good keyboarding skills and good word-processing knowledge and skills. Keyboarding software and programs abound, and one would be wise to invest both time and resources in this training, particularly if the student will be taking online coursework in which all work is produced and submitted in a digital environment.

Expectations. In college, students have multiple teachers who will have multiple sets of expectations (not to mention “pet peeves”). This is where an understanding of the rhetorical concept of “audience” would come in handy for the college student. While a teacher may assign a particular “audience” in a writing assignment, underlying every assignment are the teacher’s own goals and expectations for the work.

Research & Documentation Experience. It seems that more and more high school students have little to no experience writing longer research projects. As early as possible, introduce your student writer to Modern Language Association (MLA) format, because frequently it is used in college English courses and other humanities courses. Some of the different elements of formatting that a student should become familiar with include how to compile and format a Works Cited assignment, placement of punctuation in citations, and how to avoid plagiarism. A word about plagiarism: home educators may not realize how easy it is to plagiarize, particularly from online sources. Colleges and universities typically discipline plagiarism not based on intent but based on blatant copying of work. Research and documentation are probably the least enjoyed aspects of college writing, but through those practices we honor God by telling the truth and not stealing from others.

Academic Protocol. From the first day of class, the college student should feel comfortable enough to humbly and respectfully approach his instructor for clarification or with questions. College instructors expect students to take the initiative and think independently. 

Copyright, 2011. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse®Magazine, Fall 2011. Visit The Old Schoolhouse® at www.TheHomeschoolMagazine.com  to view a full-length sample copy of the magazine especially for homeschoolers. Click the graphic of the moving computer monitor on the left. Email the Publisher at Publisher@TheHomeschoolMagazine.com.