Like many new grad students, Dominican University MBA student Chelsey Patton thought she had the "write stuff" when she entered the program after working in the science field for a number of years.
That is, until one course required she write several papers. She got comments from the professor saying her grammar and writing mechanics needed work. Later, in another class, her essays were garnering 10 points out of a possible 40.
"I used to think I was a pretty good writer, but I found out that I am not," Patton says. "I write how I speak, I get sidetracked, I like to tell stories."
She now realizes that graduate school writing is more formal and focused. "It's been a challenge to adapt to this. I've had to refocus my brain."
Like many students returning to school, Patton's writing skills were rusty. The type of writing she was used to doing in her undergraduate degree program and in her job weren't applicable.
Fortunately, Patton discovered her school's writing center. There she met Paul Simpson, executive director of Dominican's Academic Enrichment Center, who tutored her. They immediately hit it off.
"He really gets where I'm coming from," Patton says. "It's been nice to have someone really intelligent critique my writing."
Simpson had Patton read her assignments aloud, so she could detect mistakes herself. He asked her questions that helped organize her points and stay on track.
"I feel more prepared," she says. "It makes me look at my own writing more critically than I have in the past."
Because of Patton's efforts to improve her writing, her teacher has even given her a chance to redo some low-scoring essays.
Simpson says Patton's experience is common. In graduate school, "students have to strive for greater authority and rigor in the arguments they are making. Sometimes they are unsure about how to have an argument and counter argument, and find their own original argument in the process. It demands some mechanics that they may have put aside for some time," he says. "Just being able to talk about an idea and think it through is difficult."
Confidence is key to strong writing in graduate school, Simpson says. "In undergrad, you're responding to what's already been put out there. Grad students need their own theses and ideas."
Simpson says students often bring in pages they have written, or maybe just some bullet points. His "read aloud" approach is effective because "often they catch their own errors and find the awkward spots. I can ask them what they meant to say, and they can correct it themselves," he says.
Dr. Nicholas Behm of Elmhurst College's English Department tries to get students' writing skills where they need to be before grad school. He teaches a writing and skills workshop called Grad School 101 to Elmhurst undergraduates. It guides them through the pre-grad school processincluding grad-level writing and preparation skills. He one day hopes to turn the workshop into a credit course open to the public.
"We address the differences in terms of the level of work, engagement with the material, with others, and with the professor," he says. "It's not just about the amount of writing but the quality."
Behm says part of the grad school application process for every student should be inquiring about the writing expectations.
"Go and speak with a faculty member about the expectations," he says. "It is an important part of assessing if it's the right fit for you."
Patton says though grad school is different than she thought, she is adapting. "I didn't expect so much writing, but it's been rewarding," she says. "I will need these skills in my life."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times