MULVIHILL: Reform the First Writing Requirement

As it stands, the writing requirement fails to achieve its intended goal

As students finish settling in at the University this semester, many first-years are likely dedicating their first semester to complete general requirements. For students in the College of Arts and Sciences, the requirements include completing specific math, science, history and social sciences credits, among other courses. Additionally, unless deemed exempt, first year students must complete the first writing requirement, a course intended to help students develop their writing skills. However, the first writing requirement is an umbrella course offered to students of varying skill levels which could be improved by splitting students into more specialized classes, based on either their SAT reading and writing subscore or pre-submitted portfolios.

The first writing requirement (or ENWR, as it is often abbreviated) could be improved through several strategies. First and foremost, ENWR classes should be split into more distinct levels based on incoming students’ standardized test scores. Currently, any student who scores between a 570 and a 730 on the SAT reading and writing exam section is required to sign up for ENWR 1510, a semester-long writing course. However, the span of written and grammatical knowledge between students with the minimum and maximum scores for course enrollment is likely large. For this reason, the University should split students into different ENWR sections based on their test scores. This change would allow professors to better address the needs of their students based on their incoming knowledge. Furthermore, this system would allow professors to challenge students who scored higher on their exams, while ensuring that lower scoring students avoid falling behind. Although the ENWR course sections are small, it is still easy for students to fall behind if they are struggling with writing skills.

The University could also improve the ENWR format by requiring all students — other than those deemed exempt — to submit a written portfolio when they pay their deposit. The University already offers students the option to submit a portfolio to exempt from the first writing requirement. However, mandatory portfolio submissions would be another simple way to separate students into writing courses based on their skill levels. Portfolio submission would showcase the skills of all students and allow professors to better gauge the writing skills of the first-year student body.

Critics will likely state that the evaluation of the portfolios would be a waste of time and energy for University staff. The portfolios would be useful, though, for determining the areas students require the most improvement. The first writing requirement courses strive “to give students practice in sustained written inquiry, and to help students become more articulate about their own knowledge of writing.” Portfolio submissions would allow professors and graduate assistants to evaluate student strengths and weaknesses prior to the course beginning, to create a course plan tailored to student success. 

Detractors will likely be skeptical of the extra time and effort required to execute one or both of these changes. Nevertheless, the positive effects — increased attention to students’ baseline skills and personalized writing curricula — would set the University apart from its opponents. Written communication ability is one of the most sought after skills for employers. For University students to remain competitive in the post-secondary job market, they must have the best written education possible. Advanced notice of students’ skills would only assist professors with the challenge of molding their students into talented writers. Furthermore, success in college often rests on students’ written communication abilities and the ENWR serves as a foundation for those skills. The writing skills which students learn and perfect during ENWR classes carry them through their years at the University, so we should strive to make them as effective as possible. By providing specialized ENWR classes based on test scores or portfolio submissions, the College of Arts and Sciences could ensure that every student who completes the first writing requirement walks away with an increased knowledge of writing skills to be used at the University and after graduation.

Carly Mulvihill is the Senior Associate Editor for the Opinion section. She can be reached at

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