Transitioning to the College English Class

Academic Success

So you got all A’s in your high school English courses without even trying.  Now you’re in college, but you’ve been told college will be difficult.  What does your English instructor expect from you?

What Kinds of Comments Should You Make in Class Discussion?

Your instructor may start off with questions like “What did you think of the text?” and let the class express their anger, frustration, or love for awhile with comments like “Ugh!  Why is this character so awful?” and “I thought it was funny!  I stayed up all night to read it!”  This allows the class to get comfortable talking, to get out any strong emotions or reactions they have, and to find ways to relate the text to their own lives.  Eventually, however, the instructor will expect students to move on from gut reactions.  You may find this unfair because you want to make sure that everyone understands  that Character Joe is a terrible person.  However, in the eyes of a professor, derailing a class to talk about Character Joe like this is counterproductive.

Your instructors will have different expectations for the types of comments they would like you to make.  Some may be preoccupied with how a text represents or does not represent its time period.  That is, you might discuss whether a text fits Sidney’s definition of “poesy” or if a text fits the criteria for “natural,” depending on how critics and authors of the time defined “natural.”  Others may want to talk about concepts like “subjectivity,” “the Other,” or “interiority.”  Whatever comments you make, however, should be analysis based on textual evidence.  College courses aren’t about reading comprehension and whether you understood what happened in the plot.  They are about making original arguments based in the text.

How Often Should You Comment?

You should try to offer up at least one thoughtful comment per class period.  A discussion course is only successful if many voices contribute.  You can, of course, offer more than one comment, but try to strike a balance between not talking and taking over the class.  Let others voice their opinions, too.

What if You’re Too Shy to Talk in Class?

You should still try to comment at least once per class, but you can prepare yourself mentally.  Write down a few things you might bring up in class, so you don’t have to make something up on the spot.  Or, if you’re worried you’re not offering good thoughts, you can respond to something someone else says instead of bringing up your own topic.

You should also try to take advantage of alternative ways to participate.  You can offer to read aloud, participate in discussion board or blog posts, or be the spokesperson for your small group.


In high school, you may have learned the five-paragraph model where you wrote an introduction had three paragraphs of evidence, and then wrote a conclusion.  Or maybe you wrote a research paper where you chose a topic to describe or “prove” and then you consulted a bunch of works  that you then paraphrased in your paper to demonstrate that you had researched the topic.  College instructors do not want this type of work from you.

College instructors expect students to make an original argument that they support with textual evidence.  You are not “proving” anything and you are not writing a “for or against” paper (you know, like “Should you vote for X Candidate?” or “Is war bad?”).  You should make an original and specific claim for how you see the text working and then use textual evidence to back it up.  The claim you make should be complex, not something like “Global warming is bad.”  Give your readers something to engage with, not something they’ll agree with or disagree with automatically.

Also remember  you aren’t demonstrating reading comprehension or proving that you read the text.  The instructor assumes you read the text like you were asked to do.  If you aren’t sure what kinds of arguments academics make about texts, consider using your school library’s databases to access and read published journal articles.  You can make it fun by looking for something you are interested in, like work on Harry Potter.


Some instructors may assumed you know what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.  However, there are different scenarios of plagiarism that you might be unaware of.  For example, you cannot copy “just a few” sentences into your paper without citation; this is wrong the same way it is wrong for you to copy a few paragraphs without citation.  And you cannot submit a paper you wrote for another class.  This is called self-plagiarism.  If you aren’t sure if you are plagiarizing or how to cite something properly, consult your instructor before the assignment is due.  You can also check out our post on what constitutes plagiarism.

THE DETAILS of the Paper

Instructors will ask you to use a style like MLA or Chicago when writing your papers.  You should follow the rules of these to the letter.  You don’t want to find out that your paper didn’t meet the page length because you added too many spaces, used too big a font, or made the margins too large.  You also don’t want to accidentally plagiarize by not citing something correctly.  And you should keep in mind that your instructor is also preparing you for a career.  If you can’t follow simple directions like using a certain font, how are they supposed to recommend you for an internship or a job where you might have large responsibilities?

Krysta 64

9 thoughts on “Transitioning to the College English Class

    • Krysta says:

      I think that English courses have a tendency to assume their students are just going to absorb the information they want–what useful literary criticism looks like, what a useful discussion question is, etc. But not everyone has the ability to pick up what the instructor is expecting just from hearing other people make comments. To me, it makes sense to say “This is what we want you to do and how to do it” rather than get frustrated because you asked for students to bring in a discussion question and they arrived with “I didn’t know the definition of this word.”


  1. hermionefowl says:

    This is going to be so helpful for me next year, so thank you! It’s reassuring to know that my high school is already teaching me a couple of these, so hopefully university isn’t going to be super stressful with this sort of thing🙂


    • Krysta says:

      I think universities tend to ease students in a little; a freshman course is going to be a lot easier than your later courses because they know that they have to catch everyone up to speed/ help students unlearn any unhelpful practices their high schools taught. That being said, the humanities often seem not to make their practices entirely transparent. Most likely no one is ever going to say “This is what useful literary criticism looks like”–they’re going to assume that if you sit in class long enough you’ll kind of just figure it out.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. TeacherofYA says:

    I have all English classes, so I can verify everything you wrote in this post is completely true! I can’t imagine being able to go back to the five paragraph model after all this time! It would be so much easier, lol!


    • Krysta says:

      I actually had the advantage of never learning the five-paragraph model. But it can be really hard for people to break out of. I’ve seen people write a five-page paper in five paragraphs because, somehow, they feel they absolutely need to have five paragraphs, even if it doesn’t make sense not to break those paragraphs up.

      Liked by 1 person

      • TeacherofYA says:

        Yup…it was ENGRAINED in us as children. Or me, at least. When I went to college, I was thrilled to break out of it because I was never any good at it. My hardest part is the thesis…sometimes I find it hard to put my argument into words into one sentence for the whole paper. That and transitions, which feel artificial to me.


        • Krysta says:

          When you start writing longer works the one-sentence thesis becomes less relevant. I think that’s largely a tool instructors use to encourage students to start thinking about what their argument really is since many have difficulty articulating what their paper is really about. And, really, for a six-page paper, it’s unlikely your argument is complicated enough to be a paragraph because you just don’t have the space to write something that complex in so small a space.

          I think transitions are a training tool, as well. If you read published works most don’t have these really clear-cut transitions with “thus” and “therefore.” But many students have difficulty connecting their ideas in a clear way, so handing out lists of transition words kind of forces them to think about why paragraph Y is following paragraph X.


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