The transition from a New York City public high school to a competitive liberal arts college caused imposter syndrome to kick into full gear for me, especially in the classroom. As an aspiring English major, I prided myself in the writing skills that got me to Barnard and allowed me to graduate top of my class in high school. However, as I was constantly reminded, college is not high school, in any way, shape, or form.
My first wake-up call came while taking First-Year Writing during my first semester at Barnard. I submitted my first essay, thinking that I would do a pretty good job and I didn’t need to waste my time going to office hours or the Writing Center. I submitted my first draft, just as I always had in high school. However, to my surprise, I didn’t do well at all on the essay. I was very upset and discouraged by the grade I received, and I automatically came to the conclusion that I couldn’t make it as an English major if I couldn’t even get a decent grade on an essay for FYW. How would I be able to handle higher-level English courses? But I was not the only one who felt this way. Other students in the class voiced similar concerns after grades were released. I remember just wanting to accept defeat and give up on the class. I glanced over the comments and rubric and immediately came to the conclusion the professor had it out for me.
Now, I look back and laugh at how wrong I was and how far I’ve come since then. I’m writing this blog now to give you all the tips I’ve picked up since then and show you the results. I would like to preface this by saying that I am still an English major and I ended up doing well in the class. The doubts that overcame me after that first essay diminished by the end of the semester and allowed me to learn a lot of lessons that I would carry with me throughout my higher level English classes.
Using the Writing Center: In my opinion, the Writing Center should be the first place you go once you receive any type of writing assignment. I have made it a priority of mine to immediately schedule a Writing Fellow meeting after receiving an essay prompt no matter how far along the deadline is. Doing this has helped me so much with my time management. Scheduling a meeting with the Writing Center, no matter how early in the writing process, can be a great help because it allows you to brainstorm ideas about the assignment so you are more motivated to actually start and finish earlier. Whenever I schedule these initial Writing Fellow meetings, I tell the Writing Fellow that my goal after finishing the meeting is to at least have a coherent thesis and something of an outline for the essay. This step has saved me so much time and has prevented me from procrastinating because knowing what I want to write about gets me excited to start. With my ideas still fresh in my mind, I am even more motivated to have a rough draft following the Writing Fellow meeting.
Professor Office Hours: I mention office hours in just about every blog I write, no matter what the topic is. Office hours are honestly a treasure of the academic college experience. Going to office hours for my English classes is a game-changer; you get the benefits of a Writing Fellow session, but from the person who will be reading your paper. My next step after going to the Writing Center is to write out a full draft. This rough draft is basically just a brain dump of any ideas or textual evidence that I think fits in and is relevant. After writing this rough draft, I make an effort to meet with the professor about my ideas, what needs to be fleshed out, and what could probably get taken out. Even if the professor is not looking at your exact draft word for word, getting these comments helps speed the writing process along, especially if you’ve hit a block. Getting input about what the professor thinks can level up your essay is an important step that is often overlooked because of the anxiety associated with talking one-on-one to your professor. However, once you make this a routine, the nerves will eventually diminish. This is also something that can benefit you overall, because it leaves an impression on the professor that you tried really hard in their class. This may boost your grade in the class overall by the end of the semester.
Writing Multiple Drafts: If you told me to do this back in high school, I would’ve laughed in your face. Especially as a stressed-out college student, when I tell my peers that I write at least two to three drafts of an essay before submitting it, they look at me like I’m crazy. However, had I learned to do this during my first semester and for that very first essay, I probably would have done a lot better. Having someone look at your essay and making their revisions as you go improves your writing skills and allows you to get used to taking criticism on your writing. Once I started doing multiple drafts of an essay, I saw a drastic improvement in my writing and in my thinking as well. Professors will constantly try to push you to take your thinking further and look beyond the words of the text to understand what a specific portion of the reading is indicating. This step is crucial for that level of thinking. If your final draft is your first draft, you are limiting your thinking, and this shows in your writing. In my experience, while it may seem time-consuming to write multiple drafts of the same essay, the hardest part is writing that initial draft. Everything after that is revising what you’ve already typed out and seeing what you can improve.
Breaking a bigger task into smaller, low stakes tasks: I’d like to shoutout Professor Aaron Ritzenberg for constantly emphasizing this very line in my American Literature and Corporate Culture class. This phrase is nothing groundbreaking and something a lot of us have probably already heard: Just take it one step at a time. But it was not until I truly started making this my mantra that I began to actually enjoy writing essays, no matter what the topic was. Oftentimes, after receiving an essay prompt, I would dread writing it. Even if I had an idea of what I wanted to write about, sitting down and getting myself to actually write that essay was something I didn’t want to do. That was usually when my procrastination hit. This was especially the case for classes that only had one or two essays in the semester that would account for a large portion of my final grade. However, once you break that essay into smaller tasks, ie. having a thesis statement, outlining your essay, and writing just one paragraph a day, it becomes so much more manageable and in my opinion, more exciting.
I hope these tips were helpful to anyone reading this. If you end up not receiving the grade you were hoping for, never be afraid to talk to your professor. Reading through the comments your professor leaves on your paper can help you write the next essay and understand what the professor wants to see. I wish I had this advice when I was starting out and when I got that first essay, but I’m glad I was able to experience what worked for me. Writing is a process and college is no different. But I assure you, you’ve got this. Good luck!