The Writing Center

Decoding College Writing Assignments

In the Writing Center, I hear students say over and over the following sentence:  “I did everything the professor wanted and I still got a D!”  This handout explains why and what you can do to change that on future assignments.

The Assignment Is the Bare Minimum Expected

Always do much more than the assignment:  the assignment is the bare minimum the professor expects.  You have to do planning to get a great paper.  You can get handouts on planning at the WAC web site

Reporting and Summarizing Information Is High School Level, Not College Level

You will get a "C" or lower if you only report or summarize information.  Synthesizing refers to knitting the information together in your unique way:  what professors really want is YOUR thinking, not what they have already read.  A good writer asks himself or herself one important question all the time:  so what? 

Do not Take the Assignment So Literally

Some students want to do well, and they think that if they follow the assignment exactly in the order it is written, then they will receive a good grade.  Their papers often do not have a focus and have terrible organization.  That is another reason for the poor grade. 

To Get above a "C" You Must Have a Clear Thesis or Focus

No matter what your assignment says, most professors want a clear thesis or focus, which is a one-sentence statement that is the theme or main idea of your paper.  You cannot get one of those instantly—you need to think through all your reading materials, consider your own values and attitudes, and merge them into a clear sentence.  That takes time.  You also have to place this thesis or focus early enough in the paper so that the professor knows it.

Ask Your Professor about the Assignment

Ask your professor about the assignment if you are unsure what to do:  you can call, e-mail, or visit during office hours.  They want you to do well.

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