Some newfound freedom: the shift from high school to university writing

Friday, May 26, 2017
by Abigail Tait

All throughout high school, you have learned countless techniques, rules and tricks for academic writing. In high school, there is predictability, reliability, and structure, which often carries over into the writing process. One of the biggest worries for students entering their first year of university is the transition from high school to university writing. Whether it’s assignments, papers, presentations, reports and the like, writing seems to change in university – or at least the expectations do. In high school you probably got in the habit of constructing that reliable 5-paragraph essay, where the thesis was the last sentence of the introduction and everything followed a kind of hourglass outline. It was easy; it was familiar; and it was comfortable. When you enter university, suddenly there are no more molds, guidelines or rules to force yourself into. What do you do with all this freedom?

The typical high school essay structure consists of three main arguments with a common 5-paragraph structure. You construct each paragraph in similar ways: a topic sentence that relates to the thesis, a point, a piece of evidence, and a conclusion sentence (Vogan, & Plotnick, 2017). However, the length of the paragraph is largely contingent on the page or word limit. In university writing, there is no mandatory number of arguments or paragraphs. Rather, the essay will consist of as many paragraphs that will serve your argument best. Each paragraph may vary in length, because they end when you have provided sufficient evidence and analysis (Vogan, & Plotnick, 2017). In regards to thesis statements, high school writing requires the thesis statement to be one sentence and found at the end of the opening paragraph. In university, not every essay needs a thesis statement, but if there is one, it can occur elsewhere and can be two, three or more sentences long (Vogan, & Plotnick, 2017). Although it seems difficult to be creative when it comes to simple things like paragraphs or thesis statements, these small parts to your paper are spaces for your creativity to shine. Every part of a paper represents an opportunity for uniqueness and high school-rule breaking. Not every paper you write in university will be creative pieces per say, but there are multiple ways to make your paper represent you and your voice.

In high school, teachers provide you with formulas and formats to fit your work into, rather than giving you room to choose the structure of your work. In university, you have the ability to decide how you want to structure your argument and what kind of format you want to use. University doesn’t want you to fit into a formula. In high school, there is one generic model for an essay that you are able to use in all of your classes. This differs greatly from university where you will have changing expectations and guidelines depending on the discipline and course. Unlike high school, university expects and encourages you to think outside of the existing rules. One of the best things about university is that they reward you for trying new things and for going outside the box, differing from high school that rewards you for demonstrating your knowledge of the content.

All this newfound writing freedom means that students often have a hard time figuring out what they can or should do with this freedom. The beauty of university writing is that you have time to figure it out and try new things. Everything depends on what you want to say. Think about what your message is and how best to communicate that message. With this freedom, you now have the power and agency to choose how to convey your knowledge. If you are having trouble getting started, there are multiple resources to help you in your writing journey. The Writing and Communication Centre and its resources can be found on their website, and are always happy to help.

Vogan, B., & Plotnick, J. (2017). The Transition from High School to University WritingWriting Advice. Retrieved 11 May 2017, from