College students are expected to demonstrate critical thinking in their compositions, by insightfully analyzing and evaluating information, arguments, and perspectives from other sources, and by contributing ideas, arguments, and solutions of their own.
Much of secondary-school writing instruction, however, emphasizes formulas and surface features over disciplined inquiry and rigorous analysis. Standardized testing in particular tends to focus secondary school writing instruction on form at the expense of content. As a result, many students come to believe that correct form and mechanics, more than substance, constitute good writing.
The Key to College Success
This misconception can be a major impediment to success for new college students. As Marlink and Wahleithner write, “By privileging form over an exploration of ideas and analysis, the formulaic approach to writing stands in direct opposition to the type of writing expected in the post-secondary world.” In higher education, writing is understood as more than a means for demonstrating command of form and language: it is itself a method of learning, an occasion for complex problem-solving, a tool for discovering and refining one’s own thinking, and for contributing meaningfully to conversations within a discourse community. As Dolores Perin notes, “College instructors routinely assign writing not for the purpose of teaching writing skills, but to promote students’ development of knowledge and ideas.” 
Condon and Kelly-Riley identify with some precision the form critical thinking takes in college-level writing:
- Identification of a problem or issue.
- Establishment of a clear perspective on the issue
- Recognition of alternative perspectives
- Location of the issue within an appropriate context
- Identification and evaluation of evidence
- Recognition of fundamental assumptions implicit or stated by the representation of an issue
- Assessment of implications and potential conclusions.
Students benefit from understanding prior to beginning their college careers that academic writing will be a primary means for demonstrating not only their language skills and mastery of form, but also the depth of their knowledge and the quality of their thinking. Pre-college writing instruction, therefore, should equip them with this understanding.
If students are to become critical thinkers, they must be given writing assignments that encourage them to develop and demonstrate those skills. That’s why it’s so important that they get the chance to work on authentic, extended, research-supported academic essays.
For much more information, visit collegereadywriting.com.
William Bryant, PhD is the President and Co-Founder of BetterRhetor Resources, an educational publishing & services company he and his wife operate headquartered in Prescott, Arizona.
Dr. Bryant has created collegereadywriting.com and authored his signature online writing program, College-Ready Writing Essentials, as well as several other free & paid resources designed to target the college-ready writing gap. He has written for Getting Smart, Curmudgication, and Bright Magazine. and worked for a decade at ACT Inc., lastly as Director of Writing Assessments.
In addition to college readiness, Dr. Bryant writes about education, equity, democracy—and how they fit together. Connect with him on LinkedIn.
 Marlink, Jayne, and Juliet Wahleithner. “Improving students’ academic writing: Building a bridge to success.” Berkeley, CA: California Writing Project (2011).
 Perin, Dolores. “Best practices in teaching writing for college and career readiness.” Best practices in writing instruction (2013): 48-72.
Condon, William, and Diane Kelly-Riley. “Assessing and teaching what we value: The relationship between college-level writing and critical thinking abilities.” Assessing Writing 9.1 (2004): 56-75.