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High School vs. College Writing

A brief overview of how academic (college) writing differs from writing in high school.


High School vs. College Writing

Many first-time college students struggle with transitioning from high school to college writing. It is important to understand that this struggle is normal. College level academic writing has a different set of expectations than writing in high school. Professors expect students to produce writing that is more detailed, well-supported and written in a specific format.

This guide describes some of the differences you will encounter between college and high school writing.


A key change from high school to college writing is the basic structure of the essay. Many high school level assignments focus on the five-paragraph, three key point structure. This type of structure is still used in some cases in college but often doesn't work well for most essays.

High School Writing College Writing
Essays are often based on five-paragraph formats with an introduction, three body paragraphs and a conclusion. Essays still consist of an introductory paragraph, body paragraphs and a conclusion. However, length will vary based on the topic, required analysis and level of detail for the essay.
High school essays tend to focus on three key ideas or points, which are previewed in the introduction of the essay. There is no set standard for how many points should be covered in a college level essay. Generally the number is between two and five.

Many schools use the five-paragraph essay as a training tool for writing. The theory is that it provides training in structure, general writing rules and development of ideas. Such essays are highly structured and generally cover only the surface  level of information. At the college level instructors will want more detail, analysis and information. In this case, a five paragraph essay is often too limited to convey the ideas that are needed. 


thesis statement is a sentence that clearly identifies the topic of a paper. This statement is a key part of the introductory paragraph in most academic essays you will write in college. Much like the structure of the essay outlined above, a thesis statement also changes with college level writing. A few of the differences are highlighted below:

High School Writing College Writing
A thesis statement is the last sentence of the introductory paragraph. A thesis statement is the last sentence of the introductory paragraph.
A thesis statement is a single, concise sentence. A thesis statement may consist of multiple sentences depending on the complexity of the argument.
The thesis is supported by the three key ideas that relate to the topics of paragraphs. The number of points supporting your thesis are more varied to address the complex arguments being presented.


Paragraph structures will evolve from simple structures to more complex structures. 

High School Writing

College Writing

The paragraph may follow a similar structure to the essay using 5 to 6 sentences.

Paragraphs will vary in length and be based on what is required to provide the evidence and support of the topic sentence.

Sentence length is less varied.

Writing will depend on varied sentence structure and will require more complex construction.

Paragraphs will connect back to the thesis but otherwise may stand alone.

Paragraphs are interconnected. While each paragraph focuses on a single idea, together they form a larger narrative that is more cohesive.

sources & citation

In college, an emphasis is placed on academic research. As part of the process citation and the quality of source material are emphasized. How you obtain information and where you obtain information from becomes more important. You must also take greater care in recording information and crediting sources in order to avoid plagiarism.

High School Writing College Writing
Sources such from Google, Yahoo, general newspapers and popular magazines may be used as valid sources. Scholarly sources are required. While newspapers and general sources may be used, you will be asked to also provide higher level source information that has been verified or reviewed.
Citation may have been introduced but may not have been a requirement for successful completion of many assignments. Citation is required. Any outside source, any reference from another person’s work, or even a reference to your previous work must be cited.
Plagiarism was discussed but the consequences were limited to a failing grade. In college, plagiarism can result in failure of a course and dismissal from the school.

General Differences

In high school students are provided clear structures to follow in their writing while at the college level the focus changes to more open ended assignments. In general, a students writing has to be more flexible. Writing needs will change from one class to another as will the level of analysis, style and format of many assignments. In addition to the differences outlined above, students may also encounter additional differences such as:

  • An emphasis will be placed on argument and analysis. In high school papers are often focused on you as a writer demonstrating what you know about a subject. In college the focus tends to be on analysis and argument with you taking what you know and applying it to a larger concept.
  • The level of formality will change. While some courses may still emphasize personal writing and some activities will ask for personal response, most writing will be more formal and academic. You will use third person point-of-view (He, She, They, Them) instead of first person point-of-view (I, We). 
  • Length of assignments will increase and vary. Most essays in college will be longer, require more evidence for support. However, assignment types and lengths will vary greatly. 
  • Less emphasis on visuals and more on writing. In high school, students adding visuals, charts, and pictures may have received more credit for using visuals. In college, most writing assignments and projects focus on the writing with visual elements being secondary.