Why are so many entering college students unprepared for college writing?
The consequences are significant. Unprepared students often are required to take remedial courses that they don’t receive credit for. Many can’t get past their general education requirements because they don’t have the fundamental literacy skills. They can’t proceed to higher level courses, so fall behind schedule for earning their degrees. Too often they grow frustrated and drop out.
Writing is the skill most linked to college success. It’s therefore not surprising that so many students struggle in multiple disciplines when they haven’t first learned to write.
Features of College-Ready Writing
We have a good idea of the competencies needed for college writing success. Three of the most authoritative voices on college writing—the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project—produced a Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing establishing the knowledge, skills, and abilities critical for college writing.
Many other knowledge and skills frameworks have been produced around college readiness in general, including one from ConnectEd, College and Career Readiness: What Do We Mean?, that distills a dozen or so other compilations, and adds the perspectives of economists, educators, researchers, and policy organizations.
Taken together, these frameworks give a clear picture of the competencies required for success in college. They include not only cognitive but also noncogitive and metacognitive competencies. That is, the frameworks recognize that students must have fundamental academic skills but also must demonstrate behaviors that lead to success (such as persistence and a willingness to cooperate with others) and the ability to think critically about their own learning and their relationship to the school and society around them.
We can think of this collection of competencies as 1) writing knowledge and skills; 2) social and personal behaviors; and 3) self and social awareness.
Identifying these competencies provides some guidance for how best to teach writing to college-bound students. We know, for example, that students do best when prior to entering college they have experience composing extended, research-supported essays—since that’s the kind of writing they’ll be asked to do most often in their college courses.
The research also clearly recognizes that students must know how to function within the social environment of college academics and must develop the habit of thinking critically about their own goals and performance, as well as about how they as individuals are situated within the communities in which they learn and work.
Studies show that high school writing instruction generally is lacking in all three of these areas. Students aren’t gaining experience with extended writing, and there is little overt instruction around academic behaviors and awareness. Little wonder then that so many students arrive at college without knowing what is expected of them or how to meet those expectations.
A number of factors contribute to this gap between high school and college. State standards play a major role, as do standardized tests. In addition, the modes of instruction differ, the theories of composition aren’t aligned, and there’s a big difference in the emphasis placed on critical thinking compared with the surface features of writing, such as spelling and punctuation.
This chart shows some of the major differences between high school and college writing instruction.
In my distillation of the research on writing instructional practices, the problems can be grouped into two primary areas:
1) Students do not get enough instruction and practice in authentic academic composition prior to college;
2) Pre-college writing instruction too often is not aligned with college-level expectations.
Not Enough Authentic Composition
The studies of middle and high school writing instruction conducted in recent years are consistent in finding that students do not get sufficient practice at composing. A report issued by the National Commission on Writing in 2003 stressed the importance of increasing the amount of writing students do, but that increase has not happened: the vast majority of classroom assignments require little generation of text and no critical thinking. In contrast, college coursework typically requires extended compositions in which students analyze, interpret, and construct evidence-based explanations and arguments.
An abundance of research thus indicates that most students’ writing experience prior to college is not rigorous enough to prepare them for the demands of college-level academic work. They are not getting enough experience at authentic academic composition and the interpretive reading, analysis, argumentation, and other higher order skills that go with it.
Whatever forces outside the classroom are working against them, this lack of rigorous writing experience is a major disadvantage to students entering college, since, as one study found, “the academic intensity of the student’s high school curriculum still counts more than anything else in precollegiate history in providing momentum toward completing a bachelor’s degree.”
Myriad causes underlie the absence of composition in middle and high school instruction. Classrooms are overcrowded, making it impractical for teachers to assign extended projects that require them to read and respond thoroughly to a large volume of student prose.
Standardized test preparation tends to drive classroom instruction toward short, inauthentic writing assignments, at the expense of writing that requires invention, sustained engagement, research, multiple drafts, and other dimensions of authentic academic work.
Writing, especially argumentative writing, is a difficult skill to teach, even under the best of circumstances. Many composition teachers feel unprepared, and there is a widespread lack of confidence among them that their approach is in synch with how their students will be asked to write in post-secondary classrooms. 
In addition, available instructional resources, despite claims of alignment with college-readiness standards, often do not support the competencies actually required for college success; nor do they conceptualize or contextualize writing in ways that convey to students the important work that writing accomplishes within and beyond academics. 
There is no universal definition of college-ready or college-level writing, in part because there are such wide differences in the academic demands of postsecondary institutions, from open-access community colleges to highly selective universities.
Nevertheless, the large number of sources seeking to define competencies needed for college writing success agree that postsecondary students, whatever their institution, must be prepared to produce extended pieces of writing that critically engage with source materials and other perspectives, and that conform to academic conventions of style and presentation.
The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing states that college writers should demonstrate rhetorical knowledge, critical thinking, a knowledge of writing processes, and knowledge of conventions, as well as habits of mind such as engagement, persistence, and responsibility.
The competencies needed for successful academic writing are acquired through direct instruction and practice. Students who do not have an opportunity to begin learning and practicing such skills prior to leaving high school consequently are unprepared for college-level work after graduation.
Misalignment between pre-college instruction and college expectations
A general disconnect between high school and college instruction is well documented. According to a six-year national study on college readiness from Stanford University, “coursework between high school and college is not connected; students graduate from high school under one set of standards and, three months later, are required to meet a whole new set of standards in college.”
Efforts by many states to integrate instruction from pre-K through college via collaborative “P-20 Councils” have proven difficult to sustain and have lost momentum in recent years.
High school graduates themselves recognize large gaps in their preparedness: only one in four reports that their high school set high academic expectations, while over 70 percent say that, knowing what they know now about the expectations of college and the work world, they wish they had taken more challenging courses in high school.
Even though writing is the academic skill most essential to college success, rigorous writing is among the fundamental areas of disjuncture between high school and college instruction. Indeed, the majority of college students themselves feel that their writing does not meet expectations for quality.
As one group of writing researchers states, “the distance between high school and college is not just another step up some academic staircase but instead a chasm.”
Not enough authentic composition happens in pre-college classrooms, but when composition is taught, in what ways is it at odds with what students encounter in college? Standards play a role, as does standardized testing. In addition, the way teachers and students interact is different in high school writing classrooms, compared with college.
Attention to noncognitive and metacognitive skills also differs between high school and college.
But one of the most important differences, in my view, is in the theory of writing operative in each venue. How we conceptualize writing determines how we go about teaching it, so if high school teachers and college instructors hold fundamentally different assumptions about what writing is, there’s no surprise if their methods of teaching are misaligned.
Understanding the nature of the misalignment is a necessary step in designing a better approach.
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.
 cf. Achieve, 2014; Attewell, Heil, & Reisel, 2011; Barry & Dannenberg, 2016; Briggs, 2009; Conley, 2007; Conley, et al., 2006; Shapiro, et al, 2017; Shulock & Callan, 2010.
 cf. Applebee & Langer, 2011; Bridge, Compton-Hall, & Cantrell, 1997; Graham, et al, 2014; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; Palincsar & Klenk, 1992; Perin, 2013; Santelises & Dabrowski, 2015; Scherff & Piazza, 2005; Troia, 2007.
 National Commission on Writing, 2003.
 Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009, p. 151.
 Adelman, 2006. Also see Attewell & Domina, 2008; Long, Conger, & Iatarola, 2012
 Applebee & Langer, 2011; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; National Commission on Writing, 2003; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006.
 Applebee & Langer, 2011; Council of Writing PRogram Administrators, et al., 2011; Hassel & Giordano, 2013; Hamp-Lyons, 2002; Venezia & Jaeger, 2013.
 Lunsford, 2002; Prior, 2006
 From their national survey of high schools, Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken (2009) report that “seventy-one percent of all teachers indicated that they received minimal to no preparation to teach writing during college” (p. 148). See also Graham et al, 2014; Kirst & Bracco, 2004; Marlink & Wahleithner, 2011; Read & Landon-Hays, 2013; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006; Troia & Olinghouse, 2013; Venezia & Jaeger, 2013; Venezia & Voloch, 2012.
 Council of Writing Program Administrators, et al., 2011; Hassel & Giordano, 2013; Perin, 2013; Santelises & Dabrowski, 2015; Troia & Olinghouse, 2013.
 Marlink & Wahleithner, 2001; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006
. cf. Condon & Kelly-Riley, 2004; Conley, 2003; Harris, 1996; Sparks, et al., 2014.
 Council of Writing Program Administrators, et al., 2011.
 cf. Association of American Colleges, 2007; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; Shulock & Callan, 2010; Spellings, 2006; Perin, 2013; Venezia & Kirst, 2017.
 Venezia, Kirst, and Antonio, 2003.
 Perna & Armijo, 2014; Rippner, 2017.
 Achieve, 2014.
 Condon & Kelly-Riley, 2004; Conley, 2007; Denecker, 2013; Hoppe, 2014; Scherff & Piazza, 2005; Tsui & Gao, 2006.
 Achieve, 2014.
 Sullivan, Tinberg, & Blau, 2012 (p. 28).