Writing Your Way Out of College

One of my most vivid memories at the University of Missouri was of the strange grade that I received on an honors term paper.

The English professor gave me a  “B+ +” for the final paper in my existentialist literature course.  When I saw that grade I was ticked off. What the heck, I wondered, was a B + +? Shouldn’t the professor have given me an A-?

My professor had spotted a couple of typos and I had annotated a footnote incorrectly so it didn’t matter how well I had absorbed a semester of Sartre, Nietzche and Kierkegaard. Nor did it matter that I was writing the lengthy paper on a cranky Royal typewriter with a bottle of Wite-Out.

When I think back on my experience, I can’t help imagining what the typical college kid would get from that demanding English professor today. Evidence, after all,  abounds that many — if not most — college students are atrocious writers. According to a survey commission by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, for instance, only 26% of employers believe that college grads are well-prepared writers.

In a recent blog post in The New York Times, Stanley Fish suggests that even graduate students who teach composition to undergrads are ill prepared. Wow.

Despite the writing deficiencies, companies expect today’s college grads to write proficiently. According to the Business Roundtable, two-thirds of employees in corporation have some writing responsibility. Half of all corporations take writing into account when making promotions.

What can you do to increase the chances that your child will graduate from college with the ability to write complete sentences and acceptable paragraphs? When evaluating colleges, I’d urge you to ask schools if they have writing centers. At college writing centers, a student can receive assistance with individual papers, as well as help overcoming writer’s block. To give you some idea of the sort of help you can receive, here are links to the writing centers at Amherst College and the University of Wisconsin.

Further reading: Writing tips from Hamilton College.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch.com.

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