How to Use Tutoring in College

College AdviceTutoring Isn’t Just for Failing Students

Often we associate tutoring as something failing students do in order to scrape by with a pass.  Tutoring, however, is not only for students who are not passing, nor is it advisable to wait for help until you are failing.  Rather, it is beneficial to start taking advantage of tutoring if you are getting “C’s” but want to do better or even if you are earning “B’s” but are hopeful for an “A.”  Waiting until you are failing often means it is too late for you to turn yourself around in a meaningful way; a tutor cannot cover a month or three months of the semester in a one-hour session.  However, if you start early, you can change your course before you get into trouble.  If your college offers free tutoring, you should take advantage of it, even if you do not think you need it.

Tutoring Can Surprise You

It is a truth universally acknowledged that students are not very good about knowing what they do not know.  This is why even students who are accustomed to earning “A’s” sometimes find themselves confused when they start to struggle.  Going to tutoring even when you think you do not need it can reveal knowledge and strategies you did not realize you could use to make your work even stronger.  For instance, maybe you are really, really good at writing a five-paragraph essay–but a writing tutor can explain why you will never earn higher than a “B” in college writing this way.  Or maybe you always were good at math until you got to Professor X’s class.  A tutor may suggest study strategies that will work more effectively for you in a new situation.  Going to tutoring at least once is a worthwhile use of your time.

Preparing for Your Tutoring Sessions

If you are filling out a form online for tutoring, you want to provide: the class, the type of assignment you need help with, and the specific concerns you have.  It is very important that you explain as specifically as possible what kind of help you need.  If you are seeing a math tutor, saying you need help with “math problems” does not give them enough information to prepare their tutoring session with you.  Explain what types of problems, what types of format (worksheet, paper, online assignment, etc.), and what specifically you do not understand.  Likewise, do not tell a writing tutor that you need help with “a paper.”  They already know you’re writing a paper (probably) because they are, after all, a writing tutor.  They need to know if you’ll be brainstorming together, working on an outline, or reviewing a finished draft for structure or for integration of sources or for something else.  They also need to know what genre you are working with: a summary, a literary analysis, a creative fiction piece, etc.  That way they know what materials to have ready and what kinds of strategies to employ.

Why You Should Never Arrive Excessively Early

You may have heard that you should arrive 10-15 minutes early for an appointment.  This makes sense if you are going somewhere like a doctor’s office where there is a reception area for you to wait while you fill out papers.  However, if you are going to tutoring, arriving fifteen minutes early to a half hour session does not make as much sense.  Consider the following scenarios:

  • Your tutor is already working with someone else.  You are going to have to wait 15 minutes for your turn.
  • Your tutor is actually on break.  They are not allowed to tutor you outside their working hours.  You are going to have to wait.
  • Your tutor does not begin work until 9:00.  You showed up at 8:45.  You are going to have to wait.
  • Your tutor did happen to finish up their previous session early, but now they are filling out paperwork and scanning your files to prepare for your session.  You are going to have to wait.

In almost any scenario in which you show up fifteen minutes early, you are going to have to wait.  Many students show up early because they are hoping to get a 45-minute tutoring session instead of a 30-minute session, or an hour and fifteen minutes instead of an hour.  However, this is not how tutoring works.  If you make an agreement with someone that you will show up at a specific time and will stay a specific length of time, you should honor that agreement.  Doing otherwise is suggesting to your tutor that you believe that your time is more important than theirs.  This is not how you want to start off your relationship with your tutor!

At the Session

Always arrive with your assignment and any rubric in hand.  Your tutor will not be as effective if they do not understand exactly what your instructor is looking for.  Some instructors may be assigning summary papers and some may be assigning analytical papers.  Some instructors may want you to reference specific sources or want you to answer specific questions.  Your tutor can’t help you fulfill the assignment if they do not know what the assignment is.

Also be prepared to work actively.  An effective tutor guides students to find the answers themselves.  They may ask you to write sample theses or to find and correct your patterns of error.  They may give you similar problems to work on.  They are not going to proofread your paper for you or do the math problem while you watch.  (Indeed, many writing tutors do not work with grammar at all because they do not want to be used as proofreaders, so check your tutor’s policies beforehand.)

Before you leave, take notes about what you learned and what next steps you will take.

After the Session

Be prepared to follow through with what you learned.  If your tutor gave you strategies to use, find ways to put them into practice.  If they gave you three steps to do while you continue to revise your work, do the steps.  Then, make a follow up appointment.  Tutoring works best when it’s a consistent effort.


How to Make the Most of Office Hours for an Essay Draft

College Advice

Office hours are a great way to get to know your professor better and to get individualized feedback on your work. Here are some suggestions to get the most out of office hours if you want advice on improving an essay draft.

Come Prepared with Specific Questions

Many instructors agree that the single most unhelpful way a student can approach a meeting about an essay draft is to show up at office hours, hand over a paper, say “How do I make this better?” (or “Will this get me an ‘A?'”), and then stare  fixedly at the instructor.  Some instructors might actually take the paper and read it, ignoring the awkwardness of the student staring them down for ten minutes as they peruse and comment.  Many are going to simply hand the draft back and ask politely, “What specific areas do you want to talk about?  What specific questions do you have?”

Asking “How do I improve this paper?” is, obviously, rather vague.  It doesn’t give the instructor much to work with, and it does give the impression you don’t know much about your own writing, what your own strengths and weaknesses are.  The most helpful approach is to arrive to office hours with prepared questions and specific areas of the paper you want to look at together with your instructor.  You might ask questions, “Does my thesis seem argumentative enough?” or “Do you think I have enough evidence to support my point in the third paragraph?”  instead.  This tells your instructor what you’re trying to achieve with your writing and lets them help determine if it’s working the way you want.

Arriving with these questions written down is useful, as well. The last thing you want to do is sit down, then realize you had questions you wanted to ask, but now you can’t remember a single one.

Write Down Your Professor’s Advice

A surprising number of students do not take notes while meeting one-on-one with professors in office hours, and this can be a waste of good advice.  If the advice you receive is particularly general, then it may be easy enough to remember without notes.  However, if you don’t plan on revising the paper immediately, or if the professor says something that’s a bit complex, or if they drop something really specific like a great way to reword your thesis, you will want to have their suggestions written down.  Don’t assume you’ll be able to memorize everything said in the meeting.  Take detailed notes so you can revisit them later, and don’t be afraid to ask the instructor to repeat something you didn’t quite get jotted down the first time.

Remember that One Meeting Does Not Guarantee an ‘A’

Pedagogical studies for writing suggest that instructors give students about three areas to work on revising their writing at once: anymore that that, and a student can quickly become overwhelmed.  Chances are that when your instructor gives you feedback, he or she is going to mention the most pressing areas to fix–and not everything he or she thinks can be improved in your draft.  If the most pressing problem is particularly large (say, you really need a more focused topic and thesis), the instructor is not going to bother commenting on your transitions or conclusion paragraph at this time because, theoretically, you’ll be writing completely new transitions and a new conclusion to fit your revised topic anyway.  If you are very grade-focused, keep in mind that the professor is not mentioning every possible area of improvement in a single meeting, and that your best bet will be making the suggested revisions and coming back to office hours later with your new draft.  At that point the instructor might say, “Great. I love the new topic.  Now we can talk about the way you incorporate sources.”

Take the Advice Seriously

If a professor gives you advice in a one-on-one meeting, they are most likely going to remember they did so.  If you have the time (I know, everyone has lot of classes and commitments!), try to revise as thoroughly as possible.  If the instructor said, “I think you need to explain concept X more,” that may actually mean “You should write another paragraph addressing this or you should integrate it more thoroughly throughout the entire paper” and not “Add one sentence.”  And, unless you have a compelling reason for ignoring their advice, try to integrate as much of it as possible in your revisions.  If the professor said something like “This topic is too broad for the prompt” or “Your conclusion contradicts the rest of your argument,” he or she will notice if these things are not revised and may be left wondering why you didn’t change them after specifically being told that you should.

The Worst Writing Advice People Received in High School

College Advice
For several semesters I taught a college first-year composition (FYC) course, where the students were required to write a variety of assignments focused on their own literary development.  Write about someone who influenced your writing/reading/language development, for instance. Or write about a problem you encountered with your literary development.  As a result, I’ve seen a lot of student perspectives on what makes a good or bad literary education.  Here are some of the worst things my students’ high school English teachers told them about writing.

Facts Don’t Matter

I am 95% certain this advice is meant primarily for standardized tests like the writing section of the SAT.  I assume the teachers meant to convey something like, “If you want to write about the American Civil War to make a point, don’t agonize over remembering exactly how many people died at Gettysburg. Estimate the number and move on because the test is timed, and you’re not being graded on your knowledge of history.”  Due to the way most standardized tests are graded, I can’t say this is wrong.  However, many high schools teachers were very unclear that they meant this only as a standardized test taking tip, and that it is not actually a good approach to writing or argumentation in general.  A surprising number of my first year college students were convinced that the content of their essays did not matter and that there was no need to be factually accurate, as long as their prose and overall structure were good.  Honestly, I wish high school teachers would skip the “facts don’t matter” line completely.  The harm it does to some students’ writing in the long-term isn’t worth the potential minor SAT score bump.

There Is No Writing Formula

On the surface, this is actually great advice: it’s true there is no single correct way to write a “good” essay.  Unfortunately, a number of high school teachers apparently took this as a cop out to say, “I can’t explain to you why you received the grade you did. There’s nothing particular you can do to get an ‘A.'”  Perhaps there is no exact way that every single person in the class can get an ‘A,’ but surely there is something each particular student can work on to improve his or her own writing.  There’s no formula, but last time I checked, individualized feedback certainly existed.  Acting hand-wavy and implying writing is a mystical art does a huge disservice to students, when generally there are concrete steps they can take to at least get closer to an ‘A.’  Good writing is not an inherited talent; it’s something students can learn from teachers who actually want to teach them.

There Is a Formula: The Five-Paragraph Essay

Five-paragraph essays are the bane of college instructors’ existence.  I admit I see something to teaching students this as a basic structure (though I should acknowledge many professors don’t like it even as a baby step).  Having an introduction, at least three points to support your argument, and a conclusion are all good things in an essay.  However, some high school teachers teach this form as a rigid fill-in-the blank exercise.  Every essay looks the same.  Nothing can deviate.  I got a number of college first years (and even upper division literature students) who were very, very good at five-paragraph essays.  But these students were often the hardest to teach because they struggled to unlearn this one form.  The structure is limiting and often doesn’t fit the type of complex arguments one should be learning to make in college.  Writing a solid five-paragraph essay certainly is better than writing something completely unformed and confusing, but it keeps a lot of students capped at B+ grades at the college level.

Grammar Is Worth Nothing/Everything

The problem with grammar is that everyone thinks it was someone else’s job to teach it.  High school teachers think students ought to have mastered it in middle school.  College instructors think students ought to have mastered it in high school.  No one wants to teach it because they have other material they’re supposed to be teaching .  However, failing to review grammar in high school does a disservice to students who didn’t fully cover it previously or don’t fully understand it.  Poor grammar will negatively affect them in all sorts of places, from standardized tests to college personal statements to actual college classes.  And, yes, most college instructors won’t cover it because it is distinctly not college-level material.  At this point, professors might just say “Go review commas” and expect a confused student to handle it on his or her own.

Alternatively, some high school teachers seem to value grammar far too much.  Every single mistake is circled or underlined in red.  Or one mistake means you automatically lose ten points on the paper.  This tactic might scare students into learning grammar, but it can be paralyzing.  Students might not experiment with new styles and sentence structures because they don’t want to mess them up.  Additionally, it keeps students focused on minor issues and not global issues like whether their argument is logical and their supporting points are the right order.  Grammar should be reviewed in high school, but it shouldn’t be the focus of composition education.

Did you ever receive horrible writing advice from a teacher? What was it?


How to Communicate with Your Instructor Without Being Accidentally Offensive

College Advice


Communicating with instructors can be a challenge for colleges students, even seniors.  Below we break down some of the common mistakes students make when emailing, and how they can be avoided.

YOu ARe Explaining Why You will MIss All or Part of Class.

Scenario One: The Other COMMITMENT

You write: I scheduled an interview over it.  I double booked myself and have an internship that overlaps with your class.

Your instructor hears: I don’t value your class. I value these other things more.

The solution: You already know you are not free during specific times during the week.  Don’t schedule other commitments over them.

SCENARIO Two: THE “Mandatory” Event

You write: I have a mandatory club event.  I have a mandatory meeting for another class.

Your instructor hears: I don’t value your class. I value these other things more.

The solution: Most club events are not mandatory.  If your sorority or fraternity is requiring you to miss class to stay a member, they are wrong and you should bring this matter to the attention of your school.  Your education comes first.  You go to class before you go to extra-curriculars.  And if another instructor schedules another meeting over your class, the correct course of action is to inform them that you are already in class at that time and need to reschedule.  Almost no instructor will say no.  If they do, tell your other instructor, who will likely write an email asking why someone else is telling their students not to attend class.

Scenario Three: Illness

You write: I am sick.  I have the flu and strep and constant vomiting and diarrhea.  I can barely get out of bed and the amount of bodily fluids I am expelling is astounding, I tell you!  Astounding!

Your instructor hears: You trying too hard.  You don’t have to convince them that you are really sick and they don’t want to know the gory details.  (Privacy laws in the U.S. mean they cannot even ask.)

The solution: Bring a doctor’s note if you need your absences to be excused.  If not, just take they day off and try to recover.  You can email your instructor that you are ill and would like to know what you missed in class, but you aren’t required to provide any more information than that.  They don’t need to be convinced of your physical inability to get out of bed.  They want you to rest and to get better–and to keep the flu to yourself instead of spreading it throughout the class.

Scenario Four: You Have Reasons

You write: It’s my birthday.  I want to go on a date.  The bus arrives late so I will be late every day for class.

Your instructor hears: I don’t value your class and I am not even trying.

The solution: If you have free absences, take them and don’t explain it’s because you’re blowing off class for fun.  If you know the bus arrives too late for you to get to class, take a different bus and arrive earlier on campus.  You knew your schedule for months.  You were expected to work out a valid timeline to make sure you arrived on time for all your classes–and stayed there for the duration.  School is a professional environment.  If you wouldn’t show up ten minutes late to work every day, don’t arrive ten minutes late to class every day.

You Want to Schedule a Meeting.

Scenario One: You need a meeting Right now.

You write: Can I meet with you in 20 minutes?  I’ll be there in five minutes.  Can you come in to campus just for  me?  What about Saturday?  Are you free?

Your instructor hears: You not realizing that they are not always on their email waiting for meeting requests.  You  not realizing they have other commitments and might not be able to squeeze you in last minute.  You not realizing they have a personal life, too, and maybe a family.

The solution: Plan your meetings ahead of time.  Attend office hours if possible.  If not, give your instructor a few days’ notice about wanting to meet at different times.  That way they know to clear their schedule for you.  The nicest instructor in the world is not going to be able to meet in five minutes if they live an hour away or at weird times if they don’t have a babysitter for their children.

Scenario Two: You Need Lots of Help

You write: Can we meet from 1:00-2:00?  Can we meet Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday this week?

Your instructor hears: You not realizing they have other commitments and other students.

The solution: Ask for a 20-minute meeting.  Don’t ask the instructor to keep adding office hours several times  a week to accommodate only you.  Give them time to meet with and help their other students.  If you have other resources such as a TA, classmate, tutor, or Writing Center, use those options, too, so you can allow other classmates access to the instructor.  If the instructor offers additional help, that’s different and you may accept their very generous offer.  Remember they don’t typically get paid for mentoring/tutoring and they don’t typically receive professional acknowledgment or advancement for it, either.

You Need Details About the Assignment

Scenario One: You Don’t KNow what the Work Should Look Like

You write: When is the assignment due?  How many words should it be?  Did you want it in MLA or APA?

The instructor hears: You didn’t read the assignment prompt or the syllabus and you weren’t paying attention in class.

The solution: Read the syllabus and the assignment prompt.  Email a classmate with your question. Then email the instructor as a last resort if you still can’t find the answer.  One of the most important things you can learn in a professional environment is always to initially assume that YOU made the mistake, instead of someone else.  That way, you won’t accidentally write an email saying that the instructor didn’t do what they were supposed to, when in fact they did.

Scenario Two: You Are Struggling with the Work

You write: I am having trouble with the assignment so can I not do it at all/provide a shorter essay than my peers/ forget the research?

Your instructor hears: I do not like hard work and so I give up.

The solution: Frame your email as a question.  As in, “I am having trouble finding research for X reasons.  How can I change my methods so I can complete the assignment?” Or, “I am having trouble meeting the word count.  Do you have any strategies I can try to add content to my paper?”  Present yourself as trying to find a solution rather than trying to get out of the work. Again, school is a professional environment.  If you wouldn’t tell your boss you don’t feel like completing an assignment, don’t tell your instructor that, either.

You are Trying to Use Your Rhetoric Effectively in Your Email.

Scenario One: It’s urgent.

You write: URGENT in the subject line of the email.

Your instructor hears: You being overly dramatic about the assignment–it’s actually not urgent for you to know if assignment 2 is due in one week or two.  “Urgent” implies some sort of personal emergency.

The solution: Just title your email what it’s about.  Don’t add adjectives.

Scenario Two: You Need an Answer Now

You write: Please respond ASAP.  I hope to hear from you soon/promptly/quickly.

Your instructor hears: You being rude and demanding about how and when they should respond.

The solution: Sign off with a polite thank you or a wish for a good day/weekend/whatever.  Your instructor will answer your email when they have time.  They are busy with professional and personal commitments, too.  If they don’t answer after a few days, it is then appropriate to send a polite reminder email.  However, most instructors understand that professional email etiquette requires a response the same day or the next, so in most cases you won’t be waiting long.

Scenario Three: You Know You Asked for Something that Goes Against Course Policy

You write: Thanks for being understanding.

The instructor hears: You trying to convince them that they are a warm-hearted individual who will bend the rules for you because you were very polite about it and told them how to respond emotionally.

The solution: Don’t try to ask for special exemptions.  If you have an emergency or personal crisis, that’s one thing and almost all instructors will work with you to make sure you complete the work.  If you are trying to get out of the attendance policy because you just prefer to do other things that day, it’s best not to bother.  Your instructor fields these requests all the time and, unfortunately, your desire to get a Shamrock Shake on the last possible day it’s available isn’t likely to melt their heart with understanding.  In fact, in that case, you should, if you must, quietly take one of your free absences and let your instructor assume it was a mental health day/for an illness/something else.


I write these examples somewhat playfully.  However, it is true that many students do not quite realize how they may be coming across when they write.  So just keep some key concepts in mind.  Be polite.  Don’t expect your instructor to treat you as the special exemption–all their students are busy and struggling but they have to be fair and try apply the same rules to all.  And remember that your instructor is only human and has other commitments.  It’s that simple.

One final note:  College is hard.  Instructors really do understand that and sympathize!  Hence why many give out free absences or don’t require documentation for absences.  If you really need a day off for some reason and don’t want to tell them why because it’s personal or embarrassing or you just don’t feel comfortable talking to that particular instructor, you can!  A helpful hint, though: It is hard for instructors to work with you if they don’t know that you have an ongoing issue.  In this case, one or two absences may not be enough.  You may need repeated extensions because you are secretly pregnant, are struggling with a mental health issue, or just feel sad because of a family or personal situation.  Even if you are just feeling blue because you had a fight with your best friend, you might want to bring this up and see what your instructor can do to help.

How To Use Office Hours in College

College Advice

In college, instructors schedule office hours each week to meet with students about any questions or concerns they have about the course.  These hours are generally listed on the syllabus or on the instructor’s office door.  You do not have have to schedule a meeting in advance if you plan to attend office hours, though during busy times of the semester you may find it useful to claim a time slot.  You should do this by emailing in advance.

Some instructors also have an “open door” policy, which means that if you walk by and their door is open, you can ask to meet with them.  You should do this mostly if you have a quick question since they are probably busy doing their own work and would prefer to schedule in any long interruptions.  If you walk by outside normal office hours and their door is closed, you should not knock, even if you can hear them typing inside.

Also be sensitive to the fact that not all instructors, especially TA’s, have an open door policy.  If you show up to your TA’s office on Monday when their office hours are on Thursday, they are probably busy working on preparing for the class they teach or for the classes they are taking.   The door may be open, but it’s possible this is because their office mates are holding office hours.  If you want to meet outside office hours, your best option is to email in advance requesting a meeting

Emailing Your Instructor to Request a Meeting

Your email to your instructor should include:

  • a relevant subject line that also includes the course title
  • a professional greeting (“Dear X” or “Hi X”)
  • the reason you would like to meet (question about grade, go over the feedback on a paper, etc.)
  • suggested meeting times
  • a formal sign-off that includes your name.

You should expect to meet for about 20 minutes, so don’t ask for a 45-minute meeting or an hour meeting.  This ensures that your instructor has time available to meet with other students as well.

At the Meeting

You should arrive prepared with specific questions.  If you have concerns about your grade, bring the graded assignment.  If you want help with an essay you are writing, bring the essay.  Be prepared to ask specific questions about your concern.  You may, for instance, come with a thesis statement and ask if it specific and complex.  Or you can explain the structure of your essay and ask questions about it.  Your instructor will likely not (re)read the entire paper, so you want to maximize your time by getting to the relevant points.  You should be focusing on global issues rather than minor ones such as grammar usage or if that one sentence makes sense on page two.  Your instructor wants to guide you as you explore your topic, not make you feel like you need approval for every sentence you write.

Other Office Etiquette

Leave the door open when  you attend office hours.  This protects both the instructor and you.  If you are discussing a sensitive topic such as your grade or your accommodations due to personal issues, your instructor may close the door slightly for more privacy but they will probably still leave it ajar.  If you walk into the room and close the door for them, they will most likely ask you to reopen it or get up to open it themselves.

If you arrive at office hours and see another student already talking to the instructor, or if you hear the instructor discussing a matter with a colleague, you may politely indicate to them that you are there, but you should then remove yourself to give the others privacy.  Your classmate doesn’t want you to hear about how they’re failing!  You can position yourself in a place where you can see when the other student has left if you so desire, but most likely the instructor will come find you when they are ready.

Krysta 64

College English: Choosing an Essay Topic

College Advice

In college you may often find that assignment prompts seem incredibly vague when you compare them to your high school assignment prompts.  Some instructors may not give out assignment prompt sheets at all, but simply list something on the syllabus such as “Short Paper 1, 5 pages.”  Any other instructions will come verbally in class (and you may have to remind the instructor to do this) and may likely be something to the effect of “Write about one of the texts we’ve studied.”

Since choosing their own topic is often new to incoming students, a prompt like this can be scary.  Even a more specific one that might as you something like “Choose one of the texts we’ve studied and analyze it in light of Text Y” may seem overly vague.  What exactly does the instructor want you to say about Text X in light of Text Y?  What is the answer?

Strictly speaking, there is no answer, or at least not one correct answer.  Your instructor wants you to make a specific and original claim, but what that claim is, is up to you.  You’ll want to make this claim as narrow as possible.  It is true that a topic can be too narrow for you to get any mileage out of it when writing.  For instance, if you ask a “yes” or “no” question or a question that has a specific answer such as “How many states went blue in the last election?” you can’t really write five to eight pages in response.  However, most students struggle by writing too broad a statement, not too narrow, so you’ll want to focus on gaining more specificity, not less.

Start out by thinking about the specific text you are working with.  Make a claim about that text and what it does, and why what it does is interesting or important.  You don’t, for example, want to write about “feminism throughout history” or “how technology has changed the world” or “how attitudes towards sin and guilt have changed since medieval times.”  You don’t have space in your essay to provide evidence for a claim that covers all of history or even a few centuries of history.  If you want to write about feminism or technology or guilt, write about it in the context of how it’s presented in the texts you have studied in your course.

An easy way to help direct your essay as you try to narrow it is to eliminate all opening phrases such as “From the beginning mankind has…” or “Throughout history…” or “From the dawn of time…”  It’s true that writing models ask you to begin an introduction with a broad claim and then narrow it, but broad is in relative terms.  If, for example, you’re talking about an Elizabethan play, you could begin broadly by talking about Elizabethan drama in general.  But you wouldn’t talk about drama from the dawn of time.

Once you’ve narrowed your topic to your specific text and made a specific claim about what that text is doing, you want to add to your thesis statement by telling your readers why it is important to look at this.  For example, you may have narrowed your topic from gender roles throughout European history to gender roles in the short story you read in class.  However, it’s not enough to say something like “Short Story X suggests traditional gender roles are outdated.”  You should continue on to say how it does this in an interesting or provocative way, how the text plays on other texts or positions itself against them, or why it’s important to look at this story doing this thing.  You may find your thesis is more than one sentence.  That’s okay.  You want to make it complex and specific, and taking more room to do that will only benefit your argument.

If you’re still not sure what a good essay topic is, go speak to your instructor.  Go prepared with specific questions, not just “What do you want from me?” or “I don’t understand the assignment.”  If you do, you risk them repeating the assignment prompt to you in different words because it’s difficult for them to say more than “Write about this text” without telling you exactly what to write.  And they don’t want to do that.  They want to give you space to write about something you care about.  They want you to feel you are able to be creative and bring something new to the table.  So instead, bring a proposed topic or abstract for them to critique.  They can then give you specific feedback on that and help you think of ways to make your claim more specific and more complex.

If you do all this and your draft is returned with feedback that says something like, “I think this is your main argument here,” or “You should focus your paper on this part or this claim,” take the feedback seriously.  Rewrite your paper around that claim.  This is your instructor helping to reveal to you the really interesting argument currently hidden in your paper.  If you keep going with the claim you currently have your paper centered around, you will likely get a lower grade than if you work with the claim your instructor sees as more interesting or more relevant to the assignment prompt.

Remember, the vagueness of college assignment prompts is meant to give you room to explore ideas you find exciting.  Your instructor wants you to take risks and be creative.  There’s no secret topic the instructor really wants you to write about, a secret topic you must read their mind to discern.  Try to find the vagueness freeing, and see what you can do with it.

Krysta 64

So You Want to Be an English Major?

College Advice


A new school year approaches, but how does the college English classroom differ from the high school classroom?  Below we reveal what instructors expect from students at the university level.

The Typical High School English Class

A Focus on Comprehension Skills

Many instructors focus on ensuring that their students have understood what they have read.  Thus, they will ask “What did the ghost say to Hamlet?” or “Can you paraphrase Macbeth’s speech in your own words?”  College instructors generally assume you have read and understood the text, and looked up any words with which you were unfamiliar.  Unless the text is particularly convoluted, they’re not going to spend time explaining the literal sense of the text, nor will they have you read the text together aloud, unless they are going to have the class analyze a specific passage.

Discussions of Personal Reactions

Many discussion questions ask students to identify with the characters and react to the story.  This method is supposed to engage students, the theory being that if they relate to the characters, they’ll be more likely to enjoy the text and want to discuss it.  Some college instructors open class by asking for personal reactions, but this is because they are hoping students will then set aside their personal hatred or love of the characters so the course can focus on other issues.  Ultimately, it’s not very interesting from an academic standpoint if you think Petruchio is an awful human being.

Discussion of Themes and Symbolism

English majors don’t discuss themes or symbolism.  All that time you spent discussing what the color red means in a text?  Think of it as training wheels.  The instructor was teaching  you how to look for details in a text and close read it.  However, there’s not much you can do with an observation that “the red means violence” or “the grey sky reflects the sadness of the characters.”  English majors make arguments about how the texts work and what that means in the larger context of the time period, genre, etc.  It’s difficult to write a six-page paper about the fact that an author mentions wings or boats a lot.

Research Papers

Many instructors assign research papers so students can begin to learn how to find scholarly articles and incorporate them into their own work.  Generally this means students make an argument and then use their sources to “prove” it.  In college, you’ll be expected to  make an original argument (not one your secondary sources already made) and respond to your secondary sources–whether that  means you take their work and extend it into a new area or challenge their work.

The College English Class

Assumption of Knowledge

Unless you’re enrolled in a writing course, many instructors will assume you know the conventions of writing.  Some English departments have embraced composition and rhetoric as a way to make themselves seem useful to the school and ensure they receive funding, but other English departments see themselves as teaching just that–English literature.  After all, you have to write in the sciences and in history and in plenty of other fields, but no one asks the history department to teach composition.  This means that you’re largely on your own in figuring out how to use proper grammar, how to structure an essay, how to write concisely and clearly, etc. unless your instructor is interested in teaching writing.

You’ll also largely be expected to figure out the conventions of the field without anyone telling you.  That is, simply by going to class and reading criticism, you are assumed to be learning what kinds of comments and arguments are considered useful and valuable, and which are not.  Few instructors will explain directly what they are expecting as far as this goes.  Even essay prompts may look something like “Write an eight-page paper about Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.”  You’re supposed to figured out what is interesting to write about, what kind of topic is appropriate for a paper of this length, etc.

Original Arguments

In college courses, when you write a response to a text, you’ll want to make a claim about how you see that text working and why it is important.  That is, you might have noticed that a poet uses a lot of dark imagery, but so what?  Why does it matter?  What does it tell you about the larger context of the poem?  How does it help you read the poem in a new way?

You’ll want to try to place your argument into a larger context.  That is, is the dark imagery of this poem typical for the genre or the time period?  What does the poem do differently?  Is the poem perhaps responding to another work or to some sort of trend?  Imagine the poem is playing with Petrarchan imagery at a time when Petrarchan imagery was all the rage.  Why does the poem do this?  What is the effect?

It’s not enough simply to notice something is occurring.  You have to discuss why this occurrence means something and place its meaning within a larger framework.

Political Implications

A lot of scholarly work being performed currently is political, meaning humanities scholars might be discussing how we view and talk about race and gender, how we respond to refugees, how discourse shapes policies, etc.  Other work engages with the academy itself and suggests ways the academy can challenge and influence public perception and policies, or attempts to re-envision what kind of work the academy or the humanities performs.  As English departments face budget and staff cuts in favor of more lucrative STEM programs, many scholars try to assert their relevance and usefulness by writing politically.  You may be encouraged or expected to do the same.

Krysta 64