How Much Writing Will You Do As A College Undergrad?

One element considered by the National Survey of Student Engagement, an annual survey done at 1,300 4-year colleges every year, looks at the type of work that college freshmen and seniors do.

The recent survey found that first-year students, on average, wrote 92 pages during the academic year, while seniors wrote 146 pages. For freshmen, the majority of these papers were around 5 to 10 pages, with some first-year students writing papers 20 pages or more. When considering majors, students in the social sciences, arts, and humanities wrote much more than other students, such as those majoring in physical or biological sciences.

The upside of all this writing? Students who wrote more were more achieved higher levels of deep learning, student-faculty interaction, and were otherwise more “engaged” in their own learning process. Student “engagement” is associated with higher levels of satisfaction as a student, and therefore increases a student’s odds of continuing his or her education.

From working with students directly for many years at large and small colleges, as well as public and private ones, I can give you a better idea of what to expect beyond the report.


College Writing is a universally required course at colleges in the U.S. Whether they call it Writing and Rhetoric, Freshman Writing, or College Composition, it’s all the same course. Some colleges require only a first level of college writing for all students, but some actually require two levels. You won’t make it through college in the U.S. without taking at least one college level writing course. Expect to write several smaller essays, 4 to 5 pages, or even one longer paper depending on how the Professor structures the course. Other English classes usually have writing, even literature classes, so expect to write analyses, critiques, responses, and in other formats.

Biology And Other Sciences

Biology, Chemistry, and other natural sciences typically have a lot of reading, homework, lab work, and problem sets yet very little writing. However, if you are taking a lab with the lecture, you may have to write lab reports or pre-lab/post-lab reports. This kind of writing is very concrete and specific, and usually will include writing about the methods or procedures used for an experiment, the results of various levels of lab testing, as well as to state the results of a lab experiment. Some lab reports may actually be in a lab notebook, so rather than typing them on the computer, you may need to hand write them if they are a worksheet.

Psychology And Behavioral Sciences

Formats for Psychology, Anthropology, Sociology, and other behavioral sciences classes are usually straight forward. Readings, lecture, multiple choice exams, or even quizzes are the standard, but also common are research papers. Some Professors assign a classic “term paper,” which is due at the end of the term, that requires a student to delve deeply in to a subject. On average, expect these papers to be 10 to 15 pages, with 7-12 references needed, and due either near finals or during that week. The trick with these kinds of research papers is to ask about the details early since choosing a topic and finding academic journal references can take much longer than most think.

History, Philosophy, And Humanities Courses

In contrast to the science-based writing that natural and behavioral sciences may require, writing for the humanities may be somewhat “softer” in that they may require a more subtle interpretation of the material. Identifying themes, describing historical events, examining different theorists, or other tasks are common in writing for History, Philosophy, and similar classes. Expect to write compare and contrast essays, position papers, reaction papers, and in other formats for such classes.

Art History

Art History classes are usually wonderful, enjoyable classes to take, but they often surprise students by the huge volumes of information that come with them. What fits perfectly with such a class is a term paper, in which students delve deeply in to a topic (only in this case a non-science one). The architecture of the pyramids, Greek and Roman style use, or a timeline of the works of Picasso are all probable topics for a paper in Art History. Again, expect 10 to 15 pages long, with 5 to 10 references needed, and due at the end of the term.

Courses Without Writing

Thankfully, for those who do not like writing, there are courses that by design have no writing. Mathematics courses such as College Algebra, classes like Microeconomics or Macroeconomics, and Computer Science usually mean no writing. Unfortunately, Professors make up for this by assigning tons of homework, usually in the form of problem sets. Some of these classes may have end of term projects (vs. papers), especially Computer Science, so you won’t quite escape those end of term deadlines even though there is no writing.

Writing Intensive Requirements

Some colleges have a subset of their overall graduation requirements or curriculum that requires a number of writing intensive courses. While it is not universal for schools across the U.S., some will specify that the student must take two to four writing intensive classes before they can graduate. These need not be all English classes, and classes in humanities, behavioral science, or other areas may be designated as writing intensive. The school’s website or your Advisor can provide you with a list of these classes that are designated as writing intensive, and they are often indicated as such when you register for classes.


For students in the U.S. it’s hard to get away from doing writing if you want to go to college. The amount and types of writing can vary by class, and some majors should expect to do more writing than others. If you are an English, History, or Philosophy major, expect writing to be the core of what you do for classes, but certainly not if you choose Computer Science, Mathematics, or Economics. If you don’t like writing be thankful that you’re going to school in the U.S., since Canadian and European systems can have so much writing that they say they “wrote” their midterms and finals. Some students would rather take a good old fashioned quiz or test any day over that.

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