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Writing is one of the most important skills needed to succeed in university. Period.

At the same time, it is one of the skills that students struggle with most. Why is this the case?

There are some concerning trends that I have recognized in my work with high school and undergraduate students. If I were a student, I would definitely want to know this information. If I were a parent, I would be even more invested in reading the material below.

While not universal, there is a significant(!) gap in the standards set by high schools and those of undergraduate professors. In many cases, what I have seen pass for an A at the grade 12 high school level would maybe get a C in a first-year course. On more than a few occasions, I have read papers that received a grade in the high 80s in high school that I am quite confident would be in the mid-50s in university (by any professor’s measurement).

What is revealed by these observations is that our two educational systems do a poor job of speaking to one another. Unfortunately, the huge crack between high schools and universities is very easy for you or your child to fall into. Personally, I have seen way too many students gobbled up by this chasm.

Of note are three common ideas that I have heard from students in the midst of the high school to university transition, which ultimately hinder success at the undergraduate level. My “Writing at a University Level” course shows students how to avoid these common mistakes, however, most students and parents only come to me after reality has hit and grades have become permanent fixtures on academic records. Hopefully, a recognition of these widespread obstacles can help you or your child avoid this trap entirely.

An Essay Must Have 5 Paragraphs

This is the most common myth that prevents students from doing well on their university papers, particularly longer-length papers.

It is important for students to know that the five paragraph essay is merely an introduction to writing essays; a tool that primary and secondary school teachers use to show students the most basic components of an argumentative essay.

Can an essay have more than five paragraphs? Yes! In fact, if a paper is longer than three or four pages, it ought to.

On countless occasions, I have read essays that have three or four page paragraphs. To a reader, this is very confusing and it probably does not convey the message that a student wishes to.

What you need to know about writing an essay is that you must have an argument and each paragraph should contain one idea that supports your argument (also known as a thesis). This means that you do not have to limit your paper to only five. Instead, focus on proving your argument with complete paragraphs that each contain one developed idea.

An “Argument” Merely Summarizes the Political, Social, and Economic Aspects of a Topic

You’ll note that I have used quotation marks in this subheading to insinuate a double meaning.

An essay, no matter what the topic, needs to present an argument. It’s what essays do. An argument that describes the political, social, and economic aspects of a topic, which I have seen on countless occasions, is actually not an argument at all.

An argument must present a position. Beyond this, it must analyze, rather than describe, whatever topic you are writing about (for more on the distinction between analysis and description, see my previous post). If your essay road map is simply describing various aspects of your topic, without relating it to your argument, I promise that you or your child will be disappointed with the grade.

“My grammar is bad, but are my ideas good?”

When I have returned papers to undergraduate students with comments highlighting their poor grammar and sentence construction, I have often been asked, “yes, but are my ideas good?”

The importance of good grammar, concise sentence structure, and clear paragraphs cannot be overstated. Keep in mind that when your professor is reading your paper, you will not be hovering behind them with the ability to clarify what you meant to say in each sentence. Your ideas will be conveyed as they are written. Therefore, poor grammar = a poor idea (which is how it will be seen by your professor). To highlight what I mean, let’s consider the following example:

Environmental policies and tendencies need to be heightened in order to effectively transcend current practices that are leading to harmful outcomes that consequently arise from climate change.


Environmental policies need to be stricter in order to prevent harmful outcomes associated with climate change.

Do you see how the expression of an idea changes the clarity of the idea? Both sentences express something important, however, the message is lost in the first scenario because the author makes too many grammatical mistakes.

The key takeaway is that your ideas don’t matter if they are expressed poorly.

If you would like to know more about how to write A-level undergraduate papers, reach out to me for a free consultation about my courses.