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How to best prepare your writing skills for university...
August 29, 2011 4:13 AM   Subscribe

How do I learn to write better to prepare myself for university?

We have a STAT (Special tertiary admissions test) test here in Australia that you can take prior to admission into Uni. On a sample test I got 28 out of 38 questions right (73%) on the multiple choice questions but I severely sucked on the written test, I had no idea what to write at all, it completely surprised me I just froze...

One of the questions was "Why is education important to society" and your supposed to write in the form of an argument.

My problem is I'm not creative enough to write down what I think and write it properly (paragraphs and stuff).

I basically failed grade 12 english.

What is the best way to learn to write to prepare yourself for uni?

I'm giving myself one years practice before I take the real STAT test next year.
posted by Bacillus to Education (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
1. Learn how to write an essay. You need an introduction paragraph, at least three body paragraphs, and a conclusion paragraph. Don't try to be fancy. Remember to make your topic sentences (the first sentence of each paragraph) as blunt as you can manage. Stick to the formula. On Google you will find hundreds, if not thousands of examples of "how to write an essay".

2. Know the test. Read everything you can about the test beforehand. Read past tests to get an idea as to what sort of topics you may be required to write about. If you see a pattern, prepare some sample essays in your head beforehand.

3. Practice writing quickly and legibly. With the one-hour time for the Written English component you should be writing at least 4 pages and aiming for 6. Combine this practice with practice of your essay structure, and look up past Year 12 English Exams for ideas.

If you try to be creative in an exam that you are not feeling confident about, you are not going to do well. Preparation, a brutally mechanical method of writing an essay, and a rough idea of what you're already going to write will be a lot more useful.
posted by kithrater at 4:43 AM on August 29, 2011

Do you actually have to sit STAT Written English for your intended course? I think most courses only require Multiple Choice for STAT entry.

UNSW has some of their resources for this type of stuff online, as does La Trobe (represent!) I have "The process of academic writing" from that second link printed out and stuck to my walls, YMMV on usefulness.

I would practise without time limits for a while until I was more confident. Write plans. Lots of plans. It's a lot easier to put random ideas down on a page and then try to turn them into words than it is to stare at a blank page waiting for that perfect sentence. If you've got a detailed plan that is a clear roadmap for where you want to go, the "write it properly" part becomes a lot more straightforward. How you plan best will probably depend on what kind of learner you are.

So for your example question, you might try a brainstorm, just writing down every reason you can think of for why education is important to society. Then look at your reasons. How do they link? What kind of evidence might back up the reasons you wrote down? Where could you find that evidence? Don't worry too much about "creativity" for the time being, you're not being asked to come up with stuff nobody has ever thought of before!

When I am really stuck, I sometimes make a game of setting myself a short time limit and word count and seeing how far I can get. It's the same strategy as NaNoWriMo, really - throw editing to the wind for a time! I find at least that it is much easier to edit crap than it is to write perfectly from the word go.
posted by lwb at 4:46 AM on August 29, 2011

This guide to writing at University produced by Monash Uni seems to be pretty good run through the higher-level aspects of writing at Uni.

Regarding lower level stuff like grammar and sentence construction there are : "The Complete Plain Words" and "The Elements of Style" by Strunk+White. Both of them are open to the criticism of being old fashioned (or worse in the case of S+W) but if you read and understand them you are at least then in a position to be able to dump the stuff which is now considered archaic.
posted by southof40 at 4:48 AM on August 29, 2011

1. For real world writing, you should always proof read, which helps you take mediocre essays to good ones. This isn't possible in a test-situation, and the markers know this.

2. There are skills to learn about good essay writing under time pressure- AKA on an exam. These include: writing essays under time pressure. Our teacher would give us a question, give us a time limit, and tell us to STOP WRITING after that time limit was up. Every week he cut it down by 5 minutes (so, 60 min, 55, 50, 45, 40, 35, 30) so that we were writing decent essays in half an hour. Then we could write really good essays in 40 minutes, which was the recommended time for the English exam we were taking. He would mark our essays and let us know how we could do better, and taught us how to assess our own essays. Try and get your teacher to do this. Learning this skill has also saved my bacon several times at uni when I would procrastinate ridiculously until the last minute for essays, and also when taking essay tests at uni level.

The first step to writing a good test essay (I firmly believe) is to get some scrap paper, and spend maximum of 10 minutes (5 is better) sketching out your main points, your
point 1
point 2
point 3
sandwich, and then use that guide to write the real thing. Get a good thesis statement worked out if you have time (this is what to do mentally if you have reading time before you can begin writing.)

3. You didn't fail year 12 English! I assume you're in year 11 VCE (given that you will be taking 1 year until you sit the STAT for real) and remember that you'll learn year 12 English next year! It's really good if you relax and can be calm when test taking, so your brain isn't freaking out but staying present and doing it's absolute best.

4. Basic grammar and sentence structure are really important to drill, so you don't get pinged for seemingly little things (you're versus your, etc) when your essay is being marked.

Too long, didn't read?
Don't stress, practise writing essays, and get help from your teacher.
posted by titanium_geek at 5:15 AM on August 29, 2011

1. Practice, practice, practice. The more you write, the better you will get at putting things down on paper under pressure.

2. Develop a strategy. My personal strategy is 1/10 time brainstorming responses to the prompt, 2/10 time developing outline to structure the response, 5/10 time writing, 2/10 time proofing and revising. Adjust ratios for your own needs.

3. Make sure you have structured paragraphs, which generally following something along the lines of: topic sentence (main idea/argument), example/evidence (cite your sources!), analysis (how the example/evidence supports your main idea/argument). The rookie mistake is to not do a thorough enough analysis of what your example/evidence. You need to connect ALL the dots for your reader, because they might reach a completely different conclusion from your evidence than you.

4. Grammar and mechanics drills. Make sure that you can do a decent job of proofing your own work.

5. Start reading more. If your vocabulary scores need a boost, then read some 18th & 19th century literature. There are plenty of good adventure novels that are fun as well as well-written (Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, etc.). Look up the words you don't know, and practice using them in sentences. Not only will you increase your vocabulary, you will also start absorbing complex sentence structures. Over time, this will improve your writing.

Writing is a skill and CAN be developed with practice. You can do it!
posted by smirkette at 5:15 AM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hahha I'm reading Count of Monte Cristo right now hahah
posted by Bacillus at 5:22 AM on August 29, 2011

The problem is I live with my parents and I'm a self employed web developer helping pay the mortgage off. But my parent's speak Czech at home and I'm basically stuck at home during the weekdays which is draining my English vocabulary completely.
posted by Bacillus at 5:25 AM on August 29, 2011

Is there some kind of university-level English composition class you can take nearby? The way most people learned to write is because their English classes in high school assigned them to write 1 essay per week, every week, and went through some intense critiquing until they got it right.
posted by deanc at 5:45 AM on August 29, 2011

Give someone with experience in academic writing permission to ruthlessly grade your work. Write an essay, have that person edit it. Rewrite your essay. Have that person critique it.

Repeat this process many times.

To become a good writer, you have to do a lot of writing.
posted by John Farrier at 5:47 AM on August 29, 2011

My solution to writing problems was to play a text-based role-playing game which involves a lot of writing and where the community encourages complete sentences with proper punctuation. Not only did this improve my writing ability, it also helped when it came to being someone else while writing. Specifically, someone who has a position on the issue which is easily defensible with facts, who writes quickly and naturally, and who writes an acceptable paper without losing time trying to find the perfect word or idea.

Just, uh, try not to get too addicted, 'k?
posted by anaelith at 7:13 AM on August 29, 2011

I wish I could remember the quote, but there's a famous one to the effect of, 'to be a good writer, you must read the best authors' or something like that.

For prose, read Jane Austen.
posted by resurrexit at 7:24 AM on August 29, 2011

What is the best way to learn to write to prepare yourself for uni?

I don't know if this applies to you, but the most obvious defect I have seen in students is the inability to judge the quality of their own writing: I regularly get to help students writing their thesis, and am constantly amazed at the incoherent, poorly structured stuff they show me as finished work.

Putting enough words on the page and going through all the formal steps of an essay is only half the work. Examining your own work critically, and learning to identify the weak points is an important skill that needs to be learned. In a test-taking situation, you need to make sure you have budgeted enough time for this.
posted by Dr Dracator at 7:31 AM on August 29, 2011

I had no idea what to write at all, it completely surprised me I just froze...

My problem is I'm not creative enough to write down what I think and write it properly (paragraphs and stuff).

I think one of the main things you need to do is get past the freezing up part, and understand something about how standardized essays work.

I had a job once scoring essays for a standardized test. It was in the US, not Australia, and high school level, not university admissions, but I assume the approach to scoring them is pretty similar.

You get cut a lot slack because you don't have time to write a draft, revise and proofread it the way you would an assignment for a class. It just needs to reasonably coherent, mostly spelled correctly, mostly grammatically correct, mostly punctuated well enough that it shows you know how to use punctuation marks. It doesn't have to be perfect, and it doesn't have to be perfectly structured. There's a big difference between writing an essay for a class when you're given the assignment a week or more to do it and trying write something in 40 minutes or however long you get.

The idea is that if you can write something reasonably coherent in a limited amount of time, without knowing what the prompt (question) is going to be ahead of time and without having time to revise and proofread it, you'll probably do OK on real writing assignments when you do actually have time to revise and proofread.

So don't panic. Don't worry too much about trying to be creative or trying to 'write it properly' with the right number of paragraphs and stuff. Come up with an answer to the question and just write something that makes sense. Explain why that's your answer coherently and with a reasonable amount of logic in the time you're allotted and you'll be fine. That's all you have to do.

A lot people get into university who can't write well, just competently. A lot of those people are scientists, engineers, artists, doctors, psychologists ... pretty much anybody who's not an English major. You can obviously write competently.

One other point: Don't try to impress the scorer with your vocabulary. There's probably a vocabulary section on the multiple choice part of the test, but there's no practical way to standardize scoring for this on an essay section. However, you will get points taken off for misspelling things. Use plain, ordinary words you actually know how to spell. You'll get a better score on the essay that way.

Practice writing essays like the other people answering have advised. When it comes to the actual STAT essay, don't panic, write something, keeping in mind that almost nobody can write a perfect essay under the circumstances.
posted by nangar at 1:22 PM on August 29, 2011

Firstly, your profile & history indicates you're in Qld. Is that still correct? Because if you're planning on doing the STAT through QTAC to apply for a Qld uni, it's the multiple-choice test only.

Secondly - and you're not going to like this - 73% on the STAT m.c. is an abysmal score. I did it a few years back & after getting 1 ~ 2 wrong on the practice tests, I got 1 wrong on the real thing. In 2010 I tutored a few adults* preparing for the STAT, & imo it's much easier now than it was when I did it in 2006. If you really want to get into uni, you've got a lot of work to do just to reach an acceptable score. Since it's a scaled score around a mean of 150, and the questions are weighted differently, it's difficult to estimate what your 28/38 equates to - but, at a guess based on my previous experience, the top score is usually 185 ~ 195, so you'd be sitting ~140, for an ER of … damn, they've taken the booklet off the QTAC site … low-mid 60's?

Thirdly, very rarely is the STAT score alone enough to satisfy entrance requirements - usually some prior trade / professional / post-secondary certification, a Personal Competency Assessment (PCA), or employment experience (min 5 years, IIRC) is needed in addition to the STAT. Also, IIRC the best ER you can get from the STAT alone is 84**. Your previous AskMe's indicate you'd like to do medicine. The STAT score alone isn't going to be enough to get you into one of the medicine / pre-med degrees; additionally, most universities specifically exclude STAT score entry from medical-related degrees. It may be enough - if you do well on the STAT, and depending on the uni & course - to get you into one of the med-tech degrees*** and, if you achieve good results there over 1 or 2 years**** you may be able to transfer. That's very dependent on the particular university, though, so if you were planning on that you'd really have to check it out beforehand.

In short:All that said: I've demo'd and tutored first-year science students. I've marked their assignments, prac reports, and exams. If you were totally unable to construct a coherent, flowing, narrative essay account from an outline and set of prompts given to you - let alone adding your own creative / interpretive account - you wouldn't be Robinson Crusoe. If you were to learn to simply structure an essay - line up your points, then place them in a simple "intro / body / conclusion" without any creative interpretation whatsoever - you'd be way ahead of most science students…

(* v. informally; friends of friends who knew I'd started uni as a mature age student & wanted help/pointers.
** by way of contrast, my 20+ years of specialised technical trade experience ending as a senior technician got me an ER of 82.
*** e.g. bio/medical science.
**** usually something like minimum D/HD e.g. > 75%.
***** handy hint: if you grab all the example test questions from ACER & the various Tertiary Entrance Centre websites in Australia, as well as buying the prep materials from QTAC / ACER, you've pretty much got all the potential exam questions covered…)

posted by Pinback at 1:34 PM on August 29, 2011

I was in your shoes about a thousand years ago, as a high school student in flyover country, USA. After bombing my "practice" SAT (US STAT equivalent), I asked my english teacher how to improve my score. He suggested to get in the habit of reading the book review section of the sunday New York Times. I followed his advice every week for a year, and eventually got a perfect score on the verbal section of the SAT. More importantly, I became a better reader and was more prepared for some aspects of the college experience. Also I became much more culturally and politically aware. (Turns out the book review section of the NYT is just as if not more political than the news and opinion sections).

Anyway, I don't know of a good Australian equivalent to the NYT Book Review. Maybe this.
posted by L'oeuvre Child at 4:26 PM on August 29, 2011

I did the STAT (and aced it - better than 99% of cohort). To get a solid mark, you need to present something:

- with an introduction and a conclusion;
- that presents a thesis or claim; and
- that supports that claim with a number of statements or arguments.

To get higher marks, you need to:

- present some sort of analysis on the fly (the easiest way to do this is to compare and contrast different perspectives: 'on the one hand, x, but on the other hand, y; on balance, z'); and

- link the supporting statements or arguments into a logical and persuasive 'flow'. So it's not Fact 1, Fact 2, Fact 3; it's Fact 1, with a clever link into Fact 2; reflecting on Facts 1 and 2, we see that Fact 3 must also be considered.

To practice, start writing five para essays using the pyramid approach. Just get the basics right (the first dot points above), don't worry too much about the others for now. (MeFiMail me your address and I'll send you a scanned chapter about how to do this). Letters to the editor are a good source for topics. Should we X or Y? Why is Z important?

A basic five para essay looks like this:

- An intro paragraph. First sentence sets out what you will do in the essay (as distinct from what you'll argue) ('I discuss competing views about...', 'I consider arguments for and against...', 'I reflect on the importance of...'). Next sentence or two provides very succinct overview of your areas of focus (the next three paras) (eg 'Briefly, I consider / discuss / assess [topic of para 1], [topic of para 2...]). Last sentence presents your claims: I conclude / determine that [the main thrust of your argument].

- Three paragraphs, one each for your main claims. Each claim (one sentence) should be supported by either three supporting observations or arguments (one sentence each), or the same number of sentences presenting a single thread of coherent analysis (eg a statement, a bit of personal reflection or an observation about that statement, and a concluding sentence about what those two things together mean for this paragraph's claim. Conclude with a sentence relating this to your overall thesis, and once you've had some practice, linking to the next para.

- A concluding paragraph. You need to draw everything together in a few sentences. This is hard - at least, it's the hardest bit. Look at the final sentences of the middle three paras, and see what comes to mind. The final sentence should be some sort of pithy personal reflection on the whole thing, or an open question that arises from your analysis, or a pointer to an area for further study or reflection (or a couple of sentences doing two of these).

It's important to remember that you're learning to write under particular circumstances: a time-limited exam, an unknown question, no sources. You want to develop a formula or an empty framework into which you can just drop your thoughts and link them together using tried and tested phrases. To meet your time limit, you want to get good at putting the pyramid together very quickly:

- What do I think about this issue? What would my answer be if it were phrased as a statement?
- What are three reasons I think that way?
- For each of these three reasons, what are a couple of observations or fact that will back me up?

There's your pyramid:

Overall opinion

Argument / area for reflection 1
- observation
- obvervation
- observation

Argument / area for reflection 2
- observation
- observation
- observation

Argument / area for reflection 3
- observation
- observation
- observation

And so now you have your essay:

INTRODUCTION - approach, overview of topics of arguments / areas for reflection, overall opinion

PARAS 1, 2 and 3 - statement of argument / identification of area for reflection, sentence for each observation (or three sentences of comparison / discussion / reflection), sentence wrapping all that up / relating to overall opinion / linking to next para

CONCLUSION - Having considered / reflected on / discussed (arguments), I conclude that (last sentences from each para). In turn / accordingly / I conclude overall / argue / find that (overall opinion). Sentence why this is relevant to you. Sentence suggesting area for further investigation.

I just remembered I already covered this someplace else, though for a longer three part essay (several paras for each part) rather than a five para quicky. But it's the same thing, really.

I'd be happy to read whatever you write - just e-mail me (we can swap details when I send you the scanned article), and I can give you some quick feedback and make some suggestions for things to try for your next practice run. After a few tries you'll start to build a repertoire of stock phrases. It's not art, but it'll get you through the exam.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:33 PM on August 29, 2011

Writing is thinking and this is your problem. You froze because you had nothing to write because you do not think. The best way to stimulate thinking is to read challenging material. Fiction is perfectly fine, if not just the thing, for this.

Most of the advice here will do nothing but make your writing forgettable pablum. Something out of the way (bear with me) which will help is getting into arguments (and I mean real arguments, not virtual shouting matches) on messageboards. Locating an hospitable forum will be the first difficulty. (I do not recommend Metafilter. Perhaps others can chime in with some options.) Identifying suitable topics is the second difficulty. What works best is to respond only when a statement appears so obviously wrong that you feel something literally astir within you. Your job, then, is to figure out why the statement elicited such a reaction, whether your reaction is justified by the facts, and, if so, to present a rebuttal. The final difficulty in this process is to receive criticism of your response in a constructive manner. Be willing to reflect upon it and weigh its merits; if you can do so, you will sometimes find that the engagement has led you to change your position. When you have experienced this final step is when you are truly beginning to think well. Writing well will come as a natural consequence.
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 9:24 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Most of the advice here will do nothing but make your writing forgettable pablum

The OP's priority is not learning style and developing a compelling "voice." The OP's priority is learning how to handle the writing requirements expected in a classroom/exam setting of the English-speaking world, and he is getting advice to serve those needs. The people posting here are giving him advice about how to catch up on the material that didn't sink in for him when he was in high school. You can argue that these skills are not the "life skills" he needs, but that's besides the point: they're the skills he needs right now.
posted by deanc at 8:18 AM on August 30, 2011

And not only that, but this is one of those cases where the question the OP is asking is not the one he needs answered.

The question asked is "What is the best way to learn to write to prepare yourself for uni?", but is couched all around in terms of the STAT test - so the actual question is much more like "What is the best way to learn to write to prepare yourself for the STAT Written English test?"

Well… So, the chances are very very strong that the OP does not require the STAT Written English test at all. He will, however, need to do something about his STAT multiple choice results. He also needs to know exactly how high an Entry Rank the STAT could potentially get him (IIRC, in Qld the best ER he can get from the STAT is 84 if he gets 0 or only 1 question wrong!*), and what that entry rank will get him into (varies from provider to provider & year to year). Without knowing what course he's planning to do, we can't help any further.

(* I got 1 wrong; still got in the top band that year. I also know which one it was - one of the English prose interpretation questions - because the exact question was in the practice material, I got it wrong there, there was no way in hell I could see how their 'correct' answer was in any way correct under any possible interpretation of the piece [except maybe in the spasming fevered mind of some rabid post-modernist], so even in the exam I stubbornly checked the answer that I could at least construct a valid argument for ;-)
posted by Pinback at 3:58 PM on August 30, 2011

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