No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on writing skills, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it—no matter how or when it was acquired—knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance. 1
Good writing involves more than just grammar and spelling. It requires mastering tone, style, rhetoric and a range of analytic skills. Together, these give students the ability to organize information, communicate ideas, and engage an audience. They also put students at an advantage at university and beyond. Written communication is a necessity regardless of what profession one chooses to follow. From blog posts and websites to grant proposals and job applications, how you present your message matters.
Students in secondary school have an opportunity to practice and improve their writing skills early on. Still, the Literacy Program of the Carnegie Corporation claims that “American students today are not meeting even basic writing standards,” 2 and this seems true of their global counterparts. There is a need, explains Cambridge University professor David Abulafia, “to recover an art that has been lost and has to be instilled in first-year undergraduates even at Oxford and Cambridge: the ability to write continuous prose, clearly, elegantly, concisely, setting out an argument.” 3 Even amongst the most prestigious universities, weak writing skills stand out from first-year students to those at the graduate level. As Verlyn Klinkenbord, author and lecturer in English at Yale, recalls:
In the past few years, I’ve taught nonfiction writing to undergraduates and graduate students at Harvard, Yale, Bard, Pomona, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Each semester I hope, and fear, that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester I discover, again, that they don’t 4
Of course, some students will be strong writers by the time they reach university. International schools in particular place a strong emphasis on developing students’ interdisciplinary toolkit, and universities rightly value their skillset. Nevertheless, even international school students can feel challenged by the steep increase in writing demands that they face in higher education.
As a private educator of university and university-bound students, I regularly come across students requesting academic support. The distribution of my students’ overall requests is telling. Amongst secondary school students, roughly 80% request tutoring for course content in precise subjects such as maths, sciences, or languages. The other 20% request support for writing tasks, from research essays to English or history assignments. Amongst university students, the figures are reversed: 80% request support for essays and dissertations, while only 20% request tutoring for coursework in subjects such as economics and physics. And amongst post-graduate university students, the requests are exclusively for writing support. What this reveals is that there is a mismatch in the skills that students choose to focus on in school compared to the ones that they would most benefit from at university. Hesitant writing hinders students in expressing the depth of their thoughts—while university should be the place where their thoughts are freed to delve deeper than ever.
When I ask my university students if they had considered getting writing support in secondary school, typical answers include:
- “There is no specific examination for writing so I didn’t prioritize it”
- “I didn’t think my course would require so many essays”
- “I wrote an extended essay for my IB and I thought that would be enough practice”
The latter quote comes from a student whose first assignment at university was a manageable 1,500-word essay. She wrote the essay without support and did well, though not as well as she had expected. Her second assignment was a 4,000-word essay—a more daunting task that prompted her to seek assistance. At our introductory meeting, one of the first things she said was: “My IB extended essay was 4,000 words, but it took me weeks to do the research and more weeks to write it. This essay is 4,000 words and we’ve only been given 10 days to do the readings and write the essay!” This particular student now regularly writes 2,000 to 4,000 word essays. She has learned how to manage and annotate reading lists, write thesis statements, outline essay structures, write focused, analytic paragraphs and synthesize conclusions—all while sticking to a precise timeline. With these core skills now ingrained, our lessons focus either on the refinements of editing for grammar, or on techniques for delving deeper into her essays’ analysis. By the end of this academic year, she’ll be “flying solo” with solid results, allowing her to allocate more time on engaging with her course.
And therein lies our message: academic writing is a learnable skill, and one that helps students get more out of their university experience. There is no such thing as a good or bad writer; every student can reach a level that will help them to communicate the full scope of their ideas. Naturally, mastery requires structured and consistent practice. Secondary education with its broad mix of subjects and assignments offers the perfect opportunity for students to start their training. A deliberate decision to invest time in improving written communication will have short-term and long-term benefits. Soliciting guidance from school teachers with academic experience can be one of many steps towards transforming writing from a burden into an asset that facilitates the expression of complex thoughts.
So my top tip to students is this: start practicing now, do so regularly, seek feedback from your teachers, push your boundaries, and the art of writing will be yours.
 Klinkenbord, Verlyn (2013). “The decline and fall of the English major.” 22 June 2013. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/opinion/sunday/the-decline-and-fall-of-the-english-major.html?_r=3
 Graham, S. and Perin, D. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools –A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, D.C.: Alliance for Excellent Education.
 Michael Skapinker (2013) “Does it matter if students can’t write?” 26 June 2013. Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/670a5802-d9b7-11e2-98fa-00144feab7de
 Klinkenbord, Verlyn (2013).
Submitted by Ursula Durand.
Ursula Durand is Director of Academic Programs at Scientia Education. She holds a B.A. in Economics and Government from Cornell University, an M.Phil. from the University of Oxford, and Ph.D. from the London School of Economics. Ursula is a professional writing instructor, academic advisor and SAT and ACT tutor. She has taught a range of courses at the University of Texas at San Antonio and the London School of Economics. She has worked as managing editor at a renowned London international relations think tank, has researched and written for the World Bank and Oxfam and helped establish and develop Peru’s first undergraduate political science department.