What Do Professors Look for in College Writing?

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Life is about motivation and ambition. We live day in and day out in a world where people aren't great at telling us what they want. To get ahead on this planet, we need to use our intelligence and creativity to wade through the masses of average people in an effort to stand out. Imagine Steve Jobs or Bill Gates waiting for instructions on how to do something. If that was the case, there would be no Apple or Microsoft today. Both of these gentlemen took the initiative to see a challenge for what it was and to conquer it the best way they knew how. They didn't wait for someone to give them an order or two. They just went out and did it. And they did well and then they failed. But they kept going and they finally succeeded. That's the way you need to approach college writing.

A college professor isn't going to hold your hand. By the time you get to college, you'll be an adult. Accordingly, you'll be treated like one. Adults don't have their hands held. When you receive a writing assignment in your Strategic Business class that calls for an analysis of a local improvement district in a nearby town, no one is going to tell you where to begin. It's expected that you articulate a plan and a strategy and get the paper done. And to be the best. It's this initiative that professors look for most. Yes, your research has to be spot on and your writing needs to be outstanding, but it's the go get em' attitude that will win the day.

Back when I was in college, I took a History of AIDS class. In this class, we were handed a writing assignment. We could write whatever we wanted because the class was very laid back. Did I push the assignment into the recesses of my mind and try to type something up the night before or the morning it was due? No, I didn't. The reason for this is because I was chomping at the bit from the very beginning. Before we were ever given the writing assignment, I assumed we'd eventually be asked to write a paper. Every day as I sat in class, I asked, "Why?" Why does this disease affect so many people around the globe? Why does it cross national borders so easily? Why wasn't more being done to beat it or cure it? I knew we'd be given a paper eventually and I knew the instructions for it would be vague. That didn't bother me because by the time we had received the assignment, I had already written it in my head. I had the motivation, ambition, and the curiosity that the professor was looking for and I earned an A on that paper and in the class. Professors want to see students launch towards things. They want to see careful analysis. It may seem like your professors don't give explicit instructions and that's because they don't. And they don't on purpose. The reason for this is because they want to see what you can do. If they spoon fed each student overwhelmingly clear step by step directions for writing every paper they wanted, there would be no reason for you to write it at all. Papers would be boring and there would be no method for gauging a student's intellect. Plus, many papers would be nearly identical due to those instructions. What professors want is to be thrilled and shocked and blown away by their students' success. They want to go home and tell their husbands or wives about you. Give them that opportunity.

If you remember nothing else, remember this. Your college experience is meant to separate you from the pack. Your campus will be full of bright intelligent people. You are the brightest and the most intelligent. It's your job to find a way to exhibit those traits.

The truth is, professors won't give you the answers they seek. The challenging part of researching and writing any college level paper is to anticipate those answers and to go out and find them. In addition, there may be no answers. Or, there may be only one or many. Or, the professor may not know the answers. It's up to you to teach the professor something they didn't already know. College papers are challenging to write by design. Writing assignments are crafted this way. The whole thing is no accident.

Okay, I know I just painted the college writing experience as if it's some willy-nilly endeavor. It really isn't. While your instructor may have a desire for you to go out on a limb to add some excitement to his or her life, there are quite a few generally accepted grading conventions out there. If you're interested in seeing a bird's eye view of what college professors look for and some of what they base their grading on, take a look at this. It's from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. As it pertains to writing, these are the things you want to look for. From the list:

- Inquiry and analysis
- Critical and creative thinking
- Written and oral communication
- Quantitative literacy
- Information literacy
- Teamwork and problem solving

Of course, there will be a bit of variation between courses and professors, but if you focus on mastering the qualities laid out in the list above, you'll be well on your way to doing some very good things.

Now, let's go a step further. Let's look at what goes through the average professor's mind as they're grading the paper you just handed them. They ask themselves, "Does this student have a..."

- thorough understanding of context, audience, and purpose,
- mastery of the subject,
- detailed attention” to writing conventions,
- skillful use of high-quality, credible, relevant sources, and a
- graceful language.

If you can ask these questions of yourself and answer all of them in the affirmative before you hand the paper to your professor, you'll be in good shape. Basically, in a university level course, it's expected that you've thought an issue through and have taken the time and made the effort to explain your thought process in a precise and understandable way. Professors love that.

In later posts, I'll be writing a lot more on these topics. I'll be discussing how to discover the real purpose of an assignment and thesis, how to best devise an organizational strategy, and then how to master sentence-level expression. Keep reading, keep writing, and keep your chin up!