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Writing and the College Experience


iStudy would like to acknowledge John Belk for revising the content of this tutorial.



Man and woman in chairs reading. Question marks are above their heads. The college experience involves a lot of writing. For example, you may write essays, research papers, creative fiction, e-mail, response papers to readings, book reviews, and analyses.  Since the only way to get better at writing is to write, a brief autobiography is required in this tutorial so you can begin to develop college-level writing abilities. In this case, you will start off writing as a subject matter "expert" - your life and times are a topic you know quite well. But, it is also necessary for you to know yourself even better. By working on an autobiography, you will not only be writing, but also doing self-assessment and self-reflection. An autobiography is personal and should reflect who you are. Be creative and be yourself. Here is a list of topics your autobiography will most likely include:

This kind of writing is an opportunity for you to develop new ways of seeing, knowing, and creating meaning. Begin thinking about how you would like to tell your story and how the reader of your story might interpret it. Remember, a good writer always considers the audience or reader - writing is a kind of conversation or dialogue between writer and reader. 


Goals and Objectives

The objectives for this tutorial will help you understand what you should expect from yourself. By the time you finish writing a short autobiography, you will have:



 Note: All external links in this tutorial will open in a new window or tab.



Instructor's Guide


Self-Assessment Tools

Complete one or more self-assessment processes. Links to these resources are listed below. You should write a summary of your results after using these tools.

Learning Styles Questionnaire

Study Skills Survey

Learning Styles

Keirsey Temperament Sorter

Holland's Personality Types

Another tool available to you is "Writing Assistance" or OWLS. OWLS stands for Online Writing Lab Sites. These helpful locations provide things like punctuation rules and writing suggestions. Take a look at some or all of the OWLS listed below. If you like the OWLS, use them while you are writing your autobiography. Remember to use them for future writing projects and assignments as well. This list is just a sample of some of the OWLS that are available on the Internet. You can use a search engine, like Google (, to locate additional resources.


Penn State Worthington Scranton Campus


Virtual Student Autobiographies


Read about each of the virtual students.

Heather Freeman

An image of Heather. Hi. My name is Heather. I'm 18 and an entering freshman.

I decided to go to the local Penn State University campus because it's near my home. My folks saved up about $25,000 to help with my college expenses and I want to make it go as far as possible. So, for the first year or two, or as long as I can stand it, I'm going to live at home to cut down on expenses. To earn some spending money, I work between twenty and thirty hours each week at a mall in a clothing store.  

Going to college in my home town has its plusses and minuses. Over the years, I've come here for a lot of things including tennis games and summer art programs. So, I know my way around the campus. One minus is that it's not very exciting. I almost feel like I'm still in high school, except the teachers expect a lot more of us. Well, at least there's not too much stuff to get used to.

I'm carrying sixteen credits right now in the Division of Undergraduate Studies. I have an Intro to Comp Sci class that looks OK. I have to pick three software packages and learn how to use them, but I'm clueless about which ones to choose. I'm also taking the DUS freshman seminar for undeclared majors, English 15, Pre-Calculus, Biology 4, and a one-unit aerobics class. My big problem is I just don't know what I want to do. I like math and science and I've always dreamed about becoming a doctor, but I don't see how I can afford to go to school for that many years.

I guess I've always wanted to go to college. But I thought that it would be different than this. Well, maybe when I'm a junior.

I have good grades and SAT scores. I just don't have enough money. What a drag! If I could get a scholarship or something, I'd go for it. But how can I find out about all this stuff? My high school counselor couldn't come up with anything, so what makes me think that I can?

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Jose Rosa

An image of Jose. Hola! My name is Jose Rosa. I'm a first-year student. I'm from Downingtown, Pennsylvania, a small town about an hour from Philadelphia.

I have a younger brother and sister and we were all born and raised in good old Downingtown. My parents own and operate a small grocery store and have been in business for about twenty-five years.

My parents are from Puerto Rico and don't speak English really well. Growing up, I learned English and Spanish so I'm fluent in both.

Eighteen years ago, when I was born, my parents began a savings plan to fund my college education. When my brother and sister came along three and a half years later (they're twins) my parents increased the amount of their savings. Neither of my parents went to college, but I guess they realized the importance of having a degree.

When it came time for me to choose a college, my parents told me that there was enough in the college fund for me and my siblings to go anywhere.

The decision was pretty easy for me because I always wanted to attend Penn State. I remember visiting the campus when I was a kid and ever since that time I've been a big fan. I feel very fortunate that my parents are putting me through college.

I've been here several months and I feel very comfortable on campus. I struggled for the first few weeks because the campus is pretty far from home and I didn't know anyone. Plus, I really missed my family.

Once I learned my way around campus and made some friends, I felt much better about being here. I live in a dorm and have a roommate. I'm taking four classes (12 credit hours), and at this point I'm planning to major in business.

A typical day for me begins around 8:30 a.m. when I get up and get ready for my Botany class which is at 10 a.m.

I usually eat three meals a day in the cafeteria. Believe it or not, I actually like the food! I've already put on the "freshman fifteen" from too much cafeteria food and late night pizzas!

Monday through Thursday I'm in classes from 10 a.m. until about 3 p.m. I don't have any classes on Friday, which is great because I can stay up late on Thursday and sleep in on Friday.

When my classes are over, I usually go over to the fitness center to work out with two of my friends.   By the time we finish working out and grab some dinner, it's around 7:00 p.m. The rest of the evening I usually study for a little while, especially before a big test.

Sometimes my friends and I will go play basketball, walk downtown, catch a movie, or just hang out and talk or watch TV. I usually get to bed between midnight and 1 a.m., depending on what's happening.

My weekends begin on Friday since I don't have any classes. I usually hang out with friends, go to parties, go to the football game (if Penn State is playing at home), study a little, and generally just enjoy college life!

Sometimes I worry that I'm spending too much time partying and not enough time studying. Also, I'm a little concerned about my career after college because I really don't have a clear goal in mind.

Oh well, so far my college experience has been great! I've made some really good friends, enjoy my classes (most of them anyway), and love the freedom and flexibility of my schedule. I'm not too worried about the future because I've got plenty of time to think about it.

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Brian Henderson

An image of Brian My name is Brian Henderson and I am 18 years old. I was born in Michigan, grew up in San Diego, California, but then moved to Pittsburgh when my mom remarried. I decided to go to Penn State University because I knew I had to pick a state school, and, financially, I needed the in-state tuition rate, because my step-brother and sister are already in college. They're both at another college, but I wanted to try something different. Plus, I love Penn State football and there are some good games on the schedule this year.

I was pretty disappointed when I found out that I was only accepted to PSU on a provisional basis. I had to take extra English classes before I got into English 15, which didn't make sense to me, because I took honors English all through high school. I guess my SAT scores weren't all that good.

After I graduated from high school, I was pretty bummed when I realized that my summer was shot because I had to start college. Although, I guess that was better than hanging out all summer doing nothing. I was living away from home for the first time, and it was cool to have that independence. I also met a lot of people my age, but it was a major disappointment having to function academically when I wanted to be enjoying the weather after having already spent nine months in a classroom.

A good thing is that I feel like I had a head start on college. My friends at home were still worrying about whether their roommate was bringing the stereo or the microwave, and I was already settled in. I started playing around in the computer lab. A lot of people from home were calling me and giving me their e-mail addresses, so I figured out how to use email. No more long distance phone calls. And, once I started using the Internet, I really loved it. We have a computer at home, but no Internet connection. It makes a big difference in what I use a computer for now. I almost never go to the library. It's just easier to find stuff on the Internet.

Work piled up very quickly. It seemed like I always had a paper due or a test to study for, and there was a big emphasis on attendance. I had so much freedom outside of class it was almost impossible to drag myself to English at 8 a.m. after being up until 3 or 4. My English class was the worst not only because it was early, but because I didn't even think I needed to be there in the first place. I missed a couple classes by accidentally oversleeping, plus I really don't think my teacher liked me so I have to retake the class in the fall. Hopefully I'll have a different teacher. It would be good if I could find a way to place out of English 4, but I don't know how.

I really don't want to take any five hundred student classes with a talking head for a professor. At the same time I would enjoy having a professor who didn't notice when I skipped class.

My parents were really mad at me because of my grades this summer. I'm trying to do better. I have a job now, which is helping me structure my time. I can't seem to get motivated to do work if I only have to go to class. It's too easy to procrastinate. So my roommate helped me find this job detailing cars, but that should slow down when the weather gets colder. I'm not sure what I'll do then. We earn about fifty to sixty dollars detailing a car because we clean everything -- upholstery, carpeting, and the engine. It's better than making minimum wage in a work study position.

I have no clue what I am going to major in and I am tired of people asking me about it. I think Penn State has a major called Leisure Studies, or there is this other funny one, Turf Management. I think I'll just wait two years and decide then. It has to be something practical, because I want to be able to get a good job after I graduate.

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Deena Palmer

An image of Deena My name is Deena Palmer and I'm 32 years old. One Sunday morning in late July I announced to my husband and two children (ages nine and five) that I decided to sign up to go to college. They were all stunned and bewildered, but after a long silence my nine-year-old spoke up with a positive spin on the situation saying, "Wow, Mom! Can we do our homework together?"

I live with my family on a farm. I married very young and settled down to farm life, which can be hard due to poor growing seasons, uncertain market prices, and the daily maintenance of animals, gardens, and field crops.

With all the living things on a farm, there is hardly ever time for holidays or days off from work, let alone leaving farm and household chores behind so I can attend school. With all these ongoing responsibilities, my family, friends, and neighbors' reactions to my plans were surprise, skepticism, and anger, but some were supportive.

I was the first one in my family and my husband's family who desired more than a high school education. Considering the ups and downs of farm finances, I decided that a college education in the area of business would help me find employment to subsidize our farm income. My future income would allow my husband to hire part-time workers during the harvest and perhaps I could realize my dream of establishing a real career for myself.

I decided to enroll at Penn State University, which wasn't too terribly far to travel - about thirty miles each way. My decision meant adding the role of student to my responsibilities as wife, mother, housekeeper, and farm worker. After registering, I discovered I would have to do some creative financing to cover the costs of tuition, books, supplies, child care, and gas (among other things). I decided to get started no matter what, dipped into our meager savings account and borrowed the rest of what I needed for my first semester. I arranged a six credit schedule so I would be on campus three days a week and then headed to classes when they started in the fall.   

I felt awkward when I discovered that I was the oldest person in my class (English 15). All of my classmates, who were staring at me in surprise, were 17 or 18 years old. I was almost old enough to be their mother!

Some of the students had laptop computers or smart phones with them and were prepared to take notes, write papers, and send electronic mail to their high school friends who had enrolled at other colleges. I have seldom used a laptop computer and never used a smart phone. During class, my instructor talked about having to submit papers electronically and mentioned that she could be reached through e-mail. I hoped my old desktop computer at home is up to the task!

Following my first class, I realized that I didn't fit in very well with the other students, I had big financial issues to face if I continued in school, and now had another problem to consider: how, when, and where was I going to submit papers electronically? Plus the words students, faculty, and staff used to describe things were foreign to me; things like GPS, labs, and basic degree requirements. General education, on-line registration, and access to "the World-Wide-Web to schedule classes" were other processes about which I knew little. 

In my second class there was another "old" person already there. I practically ran toward her hoping for some decent advice. As it turned out, Carol had many of the same questions and fears as I did about her ability to endure her new role as student.

We even talked about just going over to the mall, having lunch, and chalking up the experience as a bad idea and calling it quits. Why do this at all? Why take on all the stress? Why should I shirk my family responsibilities, make my family pay for my dreams and aspirations, and give up the extra things I liked to do (and was expected to do) at the same time. I'd have to give up my quilting group, coordinating the Christmas toy collection, and the time I spend supporting my kids' during track season.

At this point I didn't even know where my children were going to stay after school during the afternoon. Would I ever be able to pay back the cost of this adventure or the time I'd "owe" to my family as a result of my time away from home?

Fortunately Carol and I are both stubborn and we didn't quit. We decided that together we would overcome our feelings of inadequacy and being unprepared for college life. I decided that my nine-year-old and I would do our homework together no matter what.

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Sage Optate

An image of Sage. Hello, my name is Sage and I'm from New Jersey.  

I decided to leave New Jersey because my parents are driving me nuts! Actually, I had other reasons for wanting to start school in a new place. I'm from a small town and I wanted to go to a  huge school, but I also wanted to be close enough to go home whenever I wanted. Since I'm not sure what I want to major in, a school like Penn State University has a wide variety of majors and it seemed like a good choice for me.

My favorite thing about college so far is the computer labs, which really surprises me. I was sure my favorite would be meeting new people and enjoying the freedom college affords. But having unlimited access to many expensive software programs and the Internet has been an unexpected pleasure. I really miss my friends from high school. Shawna, my best friend, goes to another university and she sends me email everyday. So, I go to the lab everyday to send email to her and my other friends. I like that it's free, it's fast, and that I can keep in touch with my friends. Everyone says you make new friends in school, and the ones from home are replaced. I'm making an effort to keep the old ones and make new friends as well.

Now that I am in the computer lab everyday, I wish I had a computer in my room. I know I'm going to run out of my free paper allotment soon printing out all the stuff that I find on the Web.

I want to create my own Web page. I've always been a creative person, but I never could draw or write really well. Actually, I was a frustrated creative person. When I explore the Internet, I get so many ideas about things I'd like to make. I've been writing to people that I meet online and we talk about music and fashion and movies. It's a blast!

I've got five brothers and sisters. I'm number four. I took a Meyers-Briggs personality test and I'm an ENTP. I recommend taking the test, basically because I thought its interpretation of my personality sounded pretty accurate. It said I like to take chances and explore new places. This makes sense considering no one from my high school is at Penn State. As for taking chances, I had my belly button pierced over the summer,  I have a tattoo, and I'm thinking about getting my nose pierced (maybe spring semester). My parents aren't too sure that you should even get your ears pierced, but I think it looks great.

One downer that I have to face soon is that I'm here on a limited scholarship. I won it for the creative art projects that I did in high school. It's only good for this year, and then I have to figure out where to get additional money. I know I can't stay here next year unless I come up with something. Right now, I'm really interested in music and I enjoy seeing live shows. It would be ideal if I could get a job at a music store, because then I would have discounts on music and could get good tickets to concerts. If that doesn't work, maybe I'll get a job at a tattoo parlor!



Activity 1: Families, Photos, etc.

You may recall one or two autobiographies that you have already read, if not you might want to do some reading now. Either way, think about why the author presented the material in certain ways. What does the written presentation say about the author's history, society, or feelings about him/herself at that time in his/her life?

Do some reflecting on your family history - think of your family's background as the recipe for how you came to be you or take a look at some memorabilia you have in your room or in your wallet. A photo, artifact, or your family background can serve as a starting point. So, begin with a single photograph or something you saved in a scrapbook. Follow the thoughts these frameworks create for you and allow those thoughts and associations to guide you. There are many ways to start conceptualizing your story. Think of things to start with that will help connect one part of your life to another and give your autobiography a meaningful context.

For instance, if you select a photograph, think about:

Invite yourself to question the "normal" or habitual ways that you think, so that you can go beyond the obvious in your autobiography. This way of thinking and creating meaning will help you develop strategies for asking different kinds of questions about the writing, reading, and learning you are doing. Remember, different ways of presenting and looking at things help you as a writer and as a learner.

After spending some time thinking, write down a list of your ideas.

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Activity 2: When I Grow Up

Thinking about what will happen when you "grow up" may sound a little childish, but many adults, even middle-aged adults, still contemplate who they are now and what they want to be when they grow up. One of the most common reasons for attending college is to prepare for, or make a change in, a vocation or career. Consequently, another approach to constructing an autobiography stems from thinking about careers and future work, versus thinking solely about the past. This autobiographical writing assignment will serve several purposes.  For example, by writing this autobiography while thinking about the kind of work you want to do after college, you will be able to complete your writing task and be better prepared for the workplace by better understanding the field or profession.

For this activity, look ahead to the future. Use your intended profession or major as a starting point to consider who you will be or want to be in a few years.  As you think about the kind of work you would like to do, you may want to set up an interview with someone already in that field. This could be someone local, someone recommended by your instructor, a business person in the area, or someone you find using an electronic resource. For example, do a Web search and check out the home pages of businesses or personal pages. Then, use the telephone to contact someone whose work matches your interests. You could even use e-mail to electronically interview someone long distance.

As you think through your plans for the future, consider these plans as a part of your autobiography, the "you" of the future is as important to include as the "you" of the present and past. Your anticipated occupation will help shape how you experience college, how you maximize the benefits of college, and who you expect to be. In a sense, you are projecting your autobiography into the future and giving symmetry to the autobiography and experiences you already have.

Use a word processing program to write a description of your career plans, your major, and people you have talked with who do the kind of work you plan to do. Think about why you want to be in this field or profession. How do people who actually do this kind of work feel about it?

Outline Information

This tutorial requires you to produce an outline for your autobiography. This does not have to be a formal outline with the proper letters, numbers, Roman numerals, and so on. It is simply a tool to help you organize your writing task and think about how you want to put your autobiography together.

As you know, creating an outline helps you write a paper faster and more efficiently. It is simply an organizational tool, or a plan to follow as you do your writing. The outline is a means for structuring information and seeing relationships among ideas. Think of it as a map that shows where you have been and where you are going. Generally, you do not need many details for your outline; the details come later when you actually begin to write.

Outlines develop from thought. Once you have done some brainstorming and have a few rudimentary ideas, you create the outline to give those ideas form and shape. You should work through the two activities, Families, Photos, etc. and When I Grow Up before you do your outline, because what you discover will significantly influence how you structure your autobiography.

Without an outline, it is easy to write either too much, or, not enough. Sentences and paragraphs can become disconnected and the whole piece may appear disorganized instead of reflecting the thoughtful, imaginative, and engaging author you really are! Some writers love to outline and others don't, but either way, a composition without good planning makes it difficult to have an effective and meaningful conversation between you, the author, and your reading public.

Look at the outline examples that have been provided below for you and decide which type will work best for you.

Style 1

I. Topic

A. Subordinate topic

1. Item

2. Item

3. Item

B. Subordinate topic

1. Item

2. Item

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Style 2

The second style of outline is organized by topic.

My name.

My background. 

Why I am in college.

What I want to accomplish in college.

My goals in life.

My strengths.

My weaknesses.

My interests.

A summary of the self-assessment forms I completed.

What are my future goals? How might my future evolve?

What are my financial constraints?

How can I graduate with the skills I need?

How can I obtain the finances I need in a way that enhances my education and life goals?

How can I use my time most efficiently?

How can I experience the social aspects of college in a way that most benefits my life goals?

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Style 3

Outline by Major Point / Supporting Information

Major Point:

Supporting Information:

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Style 4

Free Form Outline

A free form outline can be anything you like. It can be a combination of all three of the previous suggestions, or a format that you have thought of on your own that works for you.

Write Your Autobiography

Using a word processor and all of the information you have collected and generated from the previous steps, write your autobiography. After you have finished writing your first draft, re-read it paying special attention to grammar, spelling, wording, content, and organization. Ask yourself the following questions:

Next, re-write your autobiography and include the improvements you have made to the original draft.

When you are satisfied with your work, print a final copy and ask someone else to read it and tell you what they think. Finally, you may want to re-write your paper again and include some or all of their suggestions and ideas. When you are finished, you should have a clearer idea of what your strengths and weaknesses are and where you are headed with your college career.





Instructor's Guide

Assessment Criteria

The following assessment criteria was used in developing this tutorial and may be useful to instructors in evaluating student performance.


Assessment Criteria





In-class and independently


The student can write an autobiography by using proper punctuation marks, choice of appropriate words, logical flow of sentence contexts, etc.


In-class and independently



The student can prepare for an autobiography by doing/creating the following:

1) self-assessment to determine his/her learning style and personality type

2) transmission and reception of information in electronic form

3) well-developed outline

4) autobiography


Assignment in Tutorial


The student can address all areas indicated below in his/her autobiography:

· name

· background (geographical, etc.)

· reason for being at PSU

· desired accomplishments

· strengths

· weaknesses

· interests

· a summary of the completed self-assessment forms

· future goals

· financial constraints

· How can I graduate with the skills I need?

· How can I obtain the finances I need in a way that enhances my education and life goals?

· How can I utilize my time most efficiently?

· How can I experience the social aspects of college in a way that most benefits my life goals?