When people talk about college writing readiness, they usually characterize the main difference between high school and college writing by saying that college writing is heavily based in analysis. But too often, the conversation proceeds without defining a key term. What does “analysis” mean in this context? And how can parents and tutors help high school writers build analytical skills for college writing readiness?
When I consider the sort of analytical writing that happens in college classrooms, I am reminded of the definition offered by David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen in the first chapter of their book Writing Analytically. “To analyze something is to ask what that something means,” they write. “It is to ask how something does what it does or why it is as it is. Analysis is, then, a form of detective work that pursues something puzzling, something you are seeking to understand rather than something you believe you already have the answers to.” While high school teachers spend a great deal of time teaching critical thinking and analysis techniques, high school writers tend to deploy those skills by performing the acts of analysis and writing as separate steps — by figuring out and planning all of their ideas, then recording them. High school writers would likely be surprised, and perhaps intimidated, by the notion of “thinking on the page” in this way. Accordingly, a key aspect of facilitating college writing readiness is helping students become comfortable with this concept, and comfortable trying new writing and learning approaches overall.
Parents and tutors can help their high schoolers develop a number of writing techniques that make it easier to engage in college-level analytical writing. For instance, they can introduce brief, low-pressure exercises that make it easy to perform thinking on the page, to generate material that can become part of a more formal composition, and to conceptualize the writing process as a series of small, manageable steps. They can strengthen high school writers’ executive functioning skills by showing them how to set — and meet — deadlines for each distinct step of a writing project. They can help high school writers identify sources of support at their institution, such as writing centers. They can help to remediate weaknesses in reading that inhibit students from fully understanding and engaging with the texts they write about. They can find exemplar essays and help writers examine and learn from them. They can help writers move from perceiving revision as a one-time activity to perceiving it as a process of rethinking and rethinking again, of crafting several drafts, of revisiting a piece of writing and re-engaging with its ideas and its object of analysis until the writer feels that they are saying what they truly want to say.
These techniques pay off beyond the matter of college writing readiness; they help with college readiness overall. Students can employ low-pressure writing exercises to reflect on course readings and to prepare for class discussions, for example, and they can use their strengthened reading skills to navigate challenging technical documents. Stronger planning and time management skills are helpful in countless situations.
More importantly, these approaches bring about shifts in thinking that prepare them for the challenges of adult life. Dividing big tasks into manageable pieces prepares students for a range of professional situations. Visiting a writing center or a peer tutor helps a student realize that asking for help is a sign of initiative, not weakness, and that they don’t have to struggle alone. Moving from a rigid revision process into a more recursive and rewarding one teaches writers the importance of flexibility and perseverance. After all, in life, it often takes us more than two tries to get something right. It is not lost on me that when it comes to the Common Application personal statement — often the highest-stakes essay that they have composed up to that point in their lives — high school writers generally go through six to twelve drafts before the piece is ready to share with colleges.
“Analysis is, then, more than just a set of skills: it is a frame of mind, an attitude toward experience,” Graff and Birkenstein conclude. By helping high school writers cultivate both this set of skills and this attitude, parents and tutors are helping them not only to develop college writing readiness but to prepare for the world beyond.
By Elizabeth Walters, Private Tutor and Writing Coach