Why Everyone Should Take an English Class in College
March 11, 2021
As students increasingly take Advanced Placement courses and exams in high school, they are often confused when they are still required to take composition courses at the university level. Learn from Noodle Expert Caitlin Holmes about the major differences between AP and college-level composition, and find out why students benefit from studying writing during college.
As a teacher of composition for a decade, there is one refrain, more than any other, that I hear at the start of the semester : “I took AP English, so I already know how to do this. How can I get out of this class?"
Students are understandably frustrated, especially when they successfully earned credit at their new university for taking AP courses and exams in high school. In fact, I asked that very question myself when I started college and ended up in a composition class!
Here are three reasons why studying writing in college can help you throughout your life.
1. There is no substitute for ongoing writing practice.
Writing is a skill that will help you succeed, regardless of your future profession. Many articles have been written about how the most successful job applicants and employees are ones who are able to write well. Lauren Simonds of TIME notes the importance of good writing for getting ahead in a variety of business environments. Kyle Wiens of the Harvard Business Review agrees. “The practice of good, collaborative writing makes the difference between great business and bad business," he writes. And in an essay called Want to Be a Business Leader? Brush Up On Your Writing Skills First, Matt Symonds observes that superior communication skills are a must for anyone who aspires to be a frontrunner in the business world.
In other words, students benefit from more exposure to writing instruction rather than less. Some students in the sciences even add on a writing or English minor to show their potential employers that they are skilled writers. It’s to your benefit, then, to take advantage of your time in writing classes — they’ll probably have some of the greatest impact on your career opportunities!
2. Writing expectations are different in college.
Much of high-school level writing — AP English included — is based on a model called “current-traditional rhetoric." There is a great deal of attention given to the structures of writing (thesis statements, topic sentences, integration of quotations, introductions, conclusions, and grammatical correctness), which are often privileged over the strength of the arguments that you are making. AP exam graders often look for particular structural elements during the scoring process. College composition instructors, by contrast, look for those elements — and they also look for how well you can respond to the particular writing situation you are given.
3. You will have to consider things you may not have thought about before.
There are three key considerations that make college writing different from high school writing — even when you’ve done high school writing (ostensibly) at the college level.
What changes with college writing is that different audiences require different modes of thinking and expression. Specifically, you will be expected to respond to different audiences’ needs by making smart rhetorical choices. The structures that you were taught in high school provide a great foundation for writing throughout your college career, but you will be encouraged to adapt to your reader as you evolve.
Thinking about how best to anticipate your reader’s needs, expectations, and values will help you to make wise decisions about how you approach that reader. Furthermore, your instructor may ask you to write with a particular audience in mind — not just the person giving the grade.
The kinds of sources you use will change. When you make a claim, you will be expected to integrate evidence to support your point. Different audiences have different ideas about what constitutes acceptable evidence. You likely won’t be able to draw (solely or even, in some cases, partially) upon popular news articles or Google search information to support your work any longer; rather, you’ll need to access your university’s research databases and find academic essays. There will likely be a singular emphasis placed on primary sources. You will also need to learn to evaluate sources to determine their suitability for your particular intended audience.
On AP exams, by contrast, the sources are often provided for you (the result of time constraints as well as skills tested). You will also use your sources differently. Students (even AP English alums) often come into college classes without being trained in using sources effectively. Rather than quoting directly, you will often be expected to rely upon paraphrasing or summarizing skills to show that you really understand what you’re reading. You will also be expected to generate citations within the writing system and style that your reader needs — MLA, APA, Chicago … there are many citation systems to learn!
The value of words also becomes much more important in college. Let’s consider the difference between “climate change" and “global warming." “Climate change" suggests that the world’s weather patterns are merely shifting, and the phrase is often associated with the idea that weather conditions are not affected by humans; by contrast, “global warming," a symptom of climate change, indicates that the Earth is heating up and is often associated with the idea that rising temperatures are due to human agency, though some attribute warming to nonhuman processes.
These particular ideas may be aligned with political perspectives, as well, so choosing one term over the other may suggest a particular preference or bias to your reader. Composition classes will teach you that careful word choice is crucial to how we express ourselves — that the use of certain terms will align you with particular world views, even if that isn’t your intention. Language is flexible, and college-level composition courses are where students are taught to be much more specific about what they say so they will accurately and clearly communicate their intended meaning.
Writing isn’t simply a skill that you can check off your list. The point of taking writing courses in college is to help you grow as an author and researcher. Take advantage of the great writing resources — including required composition courses — that your institution has to offer, to help you become the best writer possible!
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