Writing College Essays: What Do Professors Want?

English Composition: for many, it is a course that breeds anxiety and procrastination. Students often feel like they are at the mercy of red ink wielding professors. They squiggle notes about unity, clarity, and transitions in the margins of what you thought was a well crafted essay. You may find yourself on the receiving end of a big fat “F” even if your essay has perfect spelling and grammar. How does this happen? What mysterious criteria are at play here? What does your professor want from you anyway?

Rubrics: Unlocking the Mystery

Well, this might surprise you, but your professor is not assigning arbitrary letter grades based on whether or not they like you or your essay. Your professor is actually measuring your essay against a standard set by the college. This standard usually takes the form of a rubric: a tool used to assess the quality of individual components in a college essay. These components include how well you address the purpose and audience of your assignment, how well you organize the content of your essay, how well you develop the logic of you essay, and how effectively you employ language. Of course, those are very broad categories. You can’t exactly meet your professor’s expectations for exemplary college-level writing without knowing more about these standards. So, let’s address them one by one.

Purpose and Audience

First, let’s talk about addressing the purpose and audience of your assignment. At the very least, you need to make sure that your essay fulfills the assignment as established by your professor. If you are assigned a comparative essay and you turn in a narrative essay, you will score very low on this section of the rubric. You need to make sure you are absolutely clear about your professor’s instructions, your audience, and which rhetorical method you need to use. Writing a speech for your High School reunion is not the same as writing a persuasive paper for the scientific community. Knowing your purpose and audience is only the beginning, however. Even if you know who you are writing for and why, there is still a lot of work to do.

Effective Organization of Content

Despite having a complete understanding of the assignment, most of my students have a difficult time organizing the content of their essay and are later mystified by their low essay scores. An exemplary essay must have a clear central idea, and you need to stick to it. Keep your essay focused by using your paragraph structure to consistently and effectively support the content of your essay. Don’t let your sentences wander around like the tendrils of a wild vine. Every sentence, every word should serve the purpose of your essay in an effective way or you need to get rid of it. Demonstrate the clarity of your logic with effective transitions from one point to another. Whenever you make a new claim in your writing, support that claim with evidence. After you have presented the evidence, explain to the reader exactly how that evidence supports your claim. Don’t assume your reader will draw the same conclusions you did even if the connection seems obvious to you. The connections between ideas and evidence are usually the weakest links in student essays.

Effective Development

Of course, mastering the connection between your idea and the evidence will only get you so far. You need to make sure you have an original and powerful idea and evidence that is convincing enough to back it up. Remember when you used to ask your parents ‘why’ and they said, “because I said so!” It was not very convincing evidence was it? You did as you were told because they had authority, not because they had supported their claim with persuasive evidence. In the world of college essays, the ‘because I say so’ defense becomes invalid. Your thesis or purpose needs to be developed logically, coherently, and extensively with specific and convincing supporting details. You need to make sure the evidence you use is accurate and from credible sources. Don’t just parrot what other people have said. Showcase your critical thinking skills. Keep in mind, however, that you want to influence your reader with clear logic and evidence not impress them with your big vocabulary and technical jargon.

Employ Effective Language

Many great ideas have been obscured by ineffective language. This can range from poor, indecipherable grammar to over inflated vocabulary and confusing sentence structures. You want your choice of words to be consistently precise and purposeful. You want to develop your sentence structures accurately. Your thoughts may weave in and out as it unravels ideas and pieces together logic, but your sentences should not! Revise. Revise. Revise. Once you smooth those sentences out, take one more look and make sure your grammar and punctuation seamlessly support your writing. Edit. Edit. Edit. Mistakes at this level are like giant potholes that draw attention to the road and away from your destination. You want your reader to stay focused on your purpose, not your individual sentences.

Writing is a craft that includes a variety of skills. Each of these skills must be practiced and honed just like athletic abilities. Although these skills can be practiced in isolation, eventually you must work on integrating them. An exemplary college essay demonstrates a student’s ability to address an audience and purpose, to effectively organize content, effectively develop ideas, and employ effective language. These are the standards by which your professor will measure your work and assign a grade. It’s not a mystery. It’s a secret formula. Go forth and produce great works.


Thanks, Tricia-I need a different approach about essays for the GED students I tutor who have to compose one in their Language Arts test. JA McKay

My pleasure, I hope it is helpful.


Tricia F.

Language Arts Tutoring (English Reading/Writing)

50+ hours
if (isMyPost) { }