Writing is a lifelong skill that is critical for success in both high school and the college admissions process, and there are many simple and effective ways for students to boost their writing skills. Our previous blog post addressed habits that students can incorporate into their daily lives that will enrich their written communication, but students can also benefit from increased awareness of digital tools that can help (or hurt) their writing. If you are looking for some online assistance in the writing process, here are three tips to keep in mind:
1. Old methods still work.
Keep a tab with an online thesaurus and dictionary open when writing a longer piece. Choosing the right words and using them properly in a sentence can elevate a solid “B” paper into an “A” worthy piece. For example, if you find yourself using a lot of repetitive word choices, use a thesaurus to find a new word that might better fit the context. That being said, make sure you fully understand the word and its proper context—just because a word is longer doesn’t mean it’s more eloquent or elevates your writing. In fact, just swapping out a more normal word for a “fancy” word you see in the thesaurus can make your writing much worse if you don’t fully understand the new word. This is where using a dictionary or seeing the new word in the context of a sentence can help ensure that you are using a word in a way that is correct and true to your own voice.
2. Use spell check—and understand its limitations.
If you’re writing in most online software such as Word or Google Docs, you’ll have access to free spell check to catch typos. This is very helpful, and students should definitely take its suggestions into mind! At the same time, spell check won’t catch a lot of common mistakes—for instance, if you type “dessert” instead of “desert,” the programs will not flag the word as a typo, even if the word is incorrect in the context. Another common mistake that spell check will not catch is missing a word in a sentence—for example, writing “the cat caught mouse”, when you meant to write a “the” in between “cat” and mouse.” Ultimately, it is important to be aware of its limitations and be meticulous in your own edits rather than trusting the program to edit everything for you.
Google Docs and Word have a lot of other useful (and often underutilized) tools. For example, you can use the comment feature to mark passages you might want to revise later or add notes for yourself. You can search the web or your own documents with the “Explore” feature. The programs can also auto-formulate footnotes, and have pre-made pages with academic formats like MLA, all available for free, so that you can even quickly add full citations directly with Google Docs without other services like Easybib. If you’re looking for more thorough writing software, Grammarly and ProWritingAid are popular choices that help with grammar, word choice, and writing style.
3. Use online tools to identify reliable sources.
A key part of academic and persuasive writing is finding reliable data and sources. One of our mentors’ favorite online resources for published research is Google Scholar. It’s entirely free to use, and helps you search for papers on a topic by date, shows how well-cited each paper is, and provides other useful tools. It works very similarly to a normal Google search, making it much more intuitive for many students compared to most scholarly databases or journals. You can even save articles as you do research to read later. However, even with published research, it’s important to make sure it’s reliable and that you’re using it properly. One common issue is when students will cite a paper as part of an argument, but in reality (often by mistake) the evidence in the paper does not support the argument the student is making! This usually happens when students don’t read or fully understand the conclusions of the paper. In addition, remember that bold, provocative claims require very strong evidence. Resting your entire thesis on just one or two research papers likely will not satisfy skeptics of your argument, especially if the papers you use and less well-known or less often cited. Beyond published research, to avoid issues with the credibility of your argument, rely on reliable news sites, .gov domains, and learn to tell when sources may have biases.
4. Finally, don’t use ChatGPT to write a full essay.
In addition to not actually teaching you how to write properly, it’s very easy to catch, and if caught you’re likely to fail the assignment. In fact, the creators of ChatGPT already released a tool educators can use to flag texts written with AI. Ultimately, the slight time you save is not worth risking your grade in a class.
While you may already be familiar with a lot of the tools mentioned here, the most important thing is to understand how these tools can help your writing, where their limitations lie, and how you can avoid common mistakes while using them. This will hone your writing skills all through high school, help you to write successful admissions essays, and better prepare you to write at a college level. If you are looking for additional assistance on college essays, improving your long-term writing, or navigating the admissions process, reach out to our expert team of mentors! We’d love to help.