Writing Requirement

To encourage excellence in writing, across disciplines, the university requires all undergraduates to take a number of writing-intensive courses. Complete information is found in the academic catalog.

Defining a “W” Course

A writing-intensive (W) course is one in which students complete at least 20 pages of finished writing, distributed over multiple assignments, usually 3 or 4 papers, throughout the semester.

  • Finished writing: “Finished writing” describes papers written outside of class and submitted for a grade. Ungraded pre-draft writing assignments or drafts, in-class writing, journals, and exams do not fulfill this criterion.
  • Usually three or four papers: Expertise in writing is gained through the guided practice of writing, as the writer gradually takes on greater challenges. A typical writing-intensive course will therefore assign three or four papers, starting with shorter assignments and building to longer ones. In writing, as in other complex practices, expertise builds with repetition over time. It’s logical, then, that lower-level W courses (100 and 200) designed to introduce students to writing in a discipline would follow this pattern of assigning three to four papers. On the other hand, upper-level W courses (300 and 400) designed for majors in the discipline may require only two longer papers; and, in some cases, a course may be designed to teach students how to produce a single research essay or article in the discipline. Juniors and seniors, for instance, taking an independent study or writing a senior essay in the major may work on one 30-page paper for the entire semester.
  • Instructors respond to students’ work in written comments or in conference, or both: The teaching and learning of writing requires that instructors respond to students’ writing, providing an explanation of both strengths and weaknesses. This responding to students’ writing can take the form of notes written on papers or posted on a course website, of in-person discussions in conference, or of some combination of these.
  • At least one opportunity to revise: The opportunity to receive the instructor’s response on a draft and then revise is a key criterion of a writing-intensive course. The instructor’s response to a student’s draft and the student’s revision of the draft, in response, comprise the dialogue of writing instruction. A strong writing-intensive course will offer more than one opportunity to engage in this indispensable dialogue.

Fulfilling the “W” Requirement

Students in the School of Arts and Sciences and candidates for a BA in engineering are required to complete 12 credits (four courses) in writing-intensive courses in order to graduate; students pursuing a BS in biology or physics must also complete 12 credits in W courses. Candidates for a BS in engineering are required to complete 6 credits in W courses. All courses taken in fulfillment of the university writing requirement—expository writing courses and all W courses in the disciplines—must have a grade of C- or higher.

Whatever your major, you should think strategically about your writing requirement. You might, for instance, plan to begin your undergraduate career with a writing-intensive course that introduces you to academic writing and then plan, as a senior, to take an upper-level W course in your major or, if that’s not possible, in a related field of interest. In between those two markers, the path you set for yourself will be determined in large part by your major. If you major in English, history, or philosophy, for instance, you will have many opportunities for W courses as a regular part of your course work. If you major in biology, chemistry, or mathematics, you will have to seek out writing-intensive courses.  Here, too, you should be strategic, whether selecting W courses to fulfill other distribution requirements, to serve your own interests, or to advance your post-graduation ambitions—or all of these.

If you expect to receive writing-intensive credit for a course, you must make sure that the course is designated with a (W) in the course catalog and on SIS. To find a listing of all W courses each semester, you can log in to SIS and, under the Registration menu, click on “Search for Classes/Registration.” Select the “Advanced Search” option, identify the “Academic Period” you want to search (e.g., Spring 2017), and then at the bottom of the screen, check the box for “Writing Intensive Only” (it says “AS/EN Undergraduates Only”). Finally, click on the “Search” button, and a list of all W courses will appear. You may also narrow your search by specifying a particular department.

Transferring “W” Credit

Students who transfer to Johns Hopkins from another college or university, and Hopkins students who study abroad, may transfer writing-intensive credit for a maximum of two courses, under these conditions:

  • The course(s) in question must meet all of the criteria defined above for a writing-intensive course.
  • Students must have taken the course(s) during the regular academic year, either fall or spring semester. The university does not transfer W credit for summer courses taken at other schools.
  • Students must have earned a B or higher in the course(s).

How to Transfer “W” Credit

If you wish to transfer “W” credit for a course that meets the above conditions, please contact your Academic Advising Office.

Study Abroad

If you’re planning a semester abroad through the Johns Hopkins Study Abroad Program and expect to take a writing course as part of your studies, you should keep in mind the writing-intensive criteria defined above as you select your courses. The transfer of W credit will not be approved before you take a course. But save your course materials, including papers with the instructor’s responses, and upon your return, make an appointment with Matthew Pavesich, Director of the University Writing Program, to review your course materials.