Welcome to English 101--sometimes called freshman English or college composition. It's the one course that almost every first-year student in every American college and university is required to take. And it should be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding courses in your college life.
But to succeed in anything, it helps to be prepared. So, speaking as an old college English instructor, I'm going to let you in on seven secrets to success. Drum roll, please.
1. Know Your Writing Handbook--and Use It
Many instructors of freshman English assign two textbooks: a reader (that is, a collection of essays or literary works) and a writing handbook. Early in the term, make friends with the handbook: it can answer most of your questions about planning, drafting, revising, and editing an essay.
Open your handbook to the section titled "How to Use This Book." Find out how to locate information by using menus and checklists (usually printed on the inside covers) along with the book's index and table of contents. Also find the glossary of usage and the guides to documentation (both are usually near the back).
After you have spent 10 to 15 minutes learning how to find information in the handbook, you're ready to put the book to use--not only when you're editing your work but also when you're trying to focus a topic, organize a paragraph, or revise an essay. Your handbook should soon become a dependable reference work, one that you'll want to hold on to after you've passed this composition course.
2. Read Twice: Once for Pleasure, Once for Facts
As for that other textbook, the collection of essays or literary works, above all else get ready to enjoy the readings. Whether the topic is a current controversy or an ancient myth, keep in mind that your instructors want to share with you their love of reading--not punish you (and themselves) with texts that nobody cares about.
Whenever you're assigned an essay or a story, get in the habit of reading it at least twice: the first time through simply for enjoyment; the second time with a pen in hand to take notes that will help you remember what you have read. Then, when it comes time to discuss the work in class, speak up and share your thoughts. After all, sharing ideas is what college is all about.
3. Use Your College Writing Center
For many college students, the most welcoming spot on campus is the writing center (sometimes called a writing lab). It's a place where trained tutors offer individual assistance on all aspects of the composing process.
Never feel embarrassed about visiting the writing center. Believe me, it's not the place where "dummies" go. Just the opposite: it's where highly motivated students go for help in organizing essays, formatting bibliographies, mending run-on sentences, and much more.
If your college doesn't have a writing center or if you're enrolled in an online composition class, you can still take advantage of at least some of the services of a writing center. Check out these Top Four Online Writing Labs.
4. Review the Basic Grammatical Structures and Terms
Instructors of freshman composition expect you to arrive in their classes with some understanding of basic English grammar and usage. However, if your high school English classes focused more on reading literature than on composing essays, your memory of sentence parts may be a bit hazy.
It would be smart then to spend an hour or so at the start of term reviewing the basics of grammar. We've made that job easier for you by preparing two special pages:
5. Prepare to Move Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay
Odds are good that you already know how to compose a five-paragraph essay: introduction, three body paragraphs, conclusion. In fact, you probably composed one or two of these short essays as part of the admissions process at your college or university. (If this doesn't sound familiar, check out Grace Fleming's article on How to Write a Five-Paragraph Essay at About.com Homework & Study Tips.)
Now, be prepared in your college English class to go beyond the simple formula of the five-paragraph essay. Building on familiar principles (regarding thesis statements and topic sentences, for example), you will have opportunities to compose longer essays using a variety of organizational methods. Here are two examples of the kinds of essays you may be asked to write in your freshman composition class:
Don't be intimidated by these longer assignments--and don't feel that you have to toss out all that you already know about composing essays. Build on your experience, and get ready for fresh challenges. Come to think of it, that's also what college is all about!
6. Use Online Resources Wisely
Though your textbooks should keep you pretty busy, at times you may find it helpful to supplement them with online resources. Your first stop should be the website that your instructor or the publisher of your handbook has prepared. There you're likely to find exercises to help you develop particular writing skills along with examples of different writing projects.
In addition, you may want to visit some of the other writing sites on the web. Several of the best sites are reviewed on these pages:
- Top Grammar & Usage Advice Sites
- Sites for Correcting Common Sentence Errors
- English as a Second Language Sites
7. Don't Plagiarize!
Finally, a word of warning. On the web you'll find plenty of sites offering to sell you essays. If you're ever tempted to rely on one of these sites, please resist the urge. Submitting work that's not your own is called plagiarism, a nasty form of cheating. And in most colleges and universities, students face major penalties for cheating--penalties far more serious than receiving a low grade on a hastily written paper.
Please read Ten Reasons Why You Shouldn't Even Think About Buying a Research Paper, prepared by Grace Fleming. In addition, you (and your instructors) will find additional information about plagiarism (and how to detect it) at this plagiarism page prepared by the About.com Guide to Women's History.