Skip to content
Contact USI

The Transition from High School to University Writing

To meet the expectations of university writing, you will need to unlearn some of the rules you learned in high school. Those rules may have helped you to plan and write your essays by providing a ready-made structure you could fit your ideas into. But continuing to rely on these rules will limit your freedom and may lead to unnecessary repetition or awkward expression.

Here are some important differences between high school rules and university expectations:



Essay Structure

Essays consist of three main points.

There is no predetermined number of points that your essay must include.

Essays have a five-paragraph structure: an introduction, your three main points, and a conclusion.

Essays have as many paragraphs as needed. You should choose a structure for your essay that serves your ideas and your argument.


Paragraphs are as long or as short as needed to meet the five-paragraph requirement and the page limit.

Paragraphs are usually between one-third and two-thirds of a page and vary in length according to the needs of the paragraph.

Each paragraph must begin with a topic sentence that explicitly echoes the thesis statement.

Paragraphs will be clearer and more coherent if they begin with a topic sentence that sums up the main point of the paragraph.

Each paragraph should end with a conclusion that reiterates the point contained in the topic sentence.

Your paragraphs should end whenever you have provided enough evidence and analysis to support the point in your topic sentence; repeating that point would be redundant.

Thesis Statement

Essays must include a thesis statement.

Not every essay needs a thesis statement.

The opening paragraph must end in a thesis statement.

The opening paragraph often ends in a thesis statement, but a thesis can also occur elsewhere.

The thesis statement must be supported by three main points.

The thesis statement does not have to be supported by any specific number of points.

A thesis statement must be one sentence in length.

A thesis statement can be two or three sentences long, or even longer if the argument is complex.

Introduction and Conclusion

The introduction should begin with a broad and general statement and eventually be narrowed down.

The introduction should raise the essay topic or question as soon as possible in specific and concrete terms.

The conclusion should provide a summary of the main points of the paper.

The conclusion should do more than merely summarize what you have already done in the paper.


You may add narration and description to remind the reader of events or particulars.

You may incorporate narrative or plot elements into your argument as long as you analyze them in sufficient depth.

Argumentative essays can be based on personal experience or opinion.

Argumentative essays should be supported by evidence from your sources. In some disciplines, your professor may invite you to supplement your argument with an account of your personal experience.


Students may receive credit for visual effects.

Professors are concerned with your ideas and your writing and expect you to submit your essays in a plain format with no fancy fonts, colors, title pages, and binders.

Prepared 2009 by Rebecca Vogan and Jerry Plotnick, University College Writing Workshop. A first draft of this handout was developed at Innis College. Over 100 other files offering advice about university writing are available at