Finding the Confidence to Write High-Quality College Application Essays

When students sit down to write their college application essays, they're expected to share their inner worlds with distant, anonymous readers who hold a great deal of power over their future.

It’s no surprise, then, that students are reluctant to tell their stories – even if they have really good stories. I see this hesitation all the time in my own students, and my guest – Megan Johnson of Best You Consulting Group – does too. The question is, what do we do with this feeling?

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My students tend to fall into one of three categories:

  1. They think they have nothing interesting to say.

  2. They think that a good essay involves kicking the winning goal or going on a mission trip.

  3. They are hesitant to tell their secrets to strangers.

The students who fall into the first group often feel that because they haven’t encountered tragedy in their life, no one will find them interesting and therefore, they’ll never be admitted. While tragedy can make for a good essay, it’s not your only path to admission. Everyone is different. Your “boring and regular” life may not have seen tragedy, but you still have something to say.

The second group feels like their essay needs to fall into the safe zone. Volunteering and sports are “safe."

To students in the third category, I understand the hesitation. Will a group of strangers judge me for what I’ve done or what I’ve been through? In short, no. They are longing to get to know you. They are not judging and they understand that sharing your story is personal and completely respect that.

When I served on the admissions committee at Fuqua, Duke’s MBA program, I read a lot (I mean A LOT) of applications. My favorite essay at Fuqua asks for “25 random things about you." Those who repeated pieces of information from their resume or only provided surface-level (safe) information about themselves were not memorable when it came time for admissions officers to present at committee meetings. The students who went deeper, were vulnerable, shared a story about something that went wrong, were funny - they were memorable. I felt like I got to know them personally by reading their essays. I bonded with them. As I result, when it came time to make admissions decisions, I fought for them.


I often tell my students that this is where admissions officers are coming from, but it’s great to have some hard proof! And it makes sense: admissions officers aren’t robots - they’re real people who want to feel connected to other real people.

Let me ask a little more about your third category - the students who are wary of sharing their secrets with strangers. You and I both encourage our students to share. In your view, how much should they share? Is there such a thing as over-sharing? Or are these the wrong questions?


I do think there’s such a thing as oversharing. Vulnerable, yes. Vulgar, no. In some ways, I think the students who choose to overshare are afraid that their lives are boring and that they need to shock the reader in order to get attention.

As students begin drafting essays, I think they need to ask themselves why. Why am I sharing this particular story? What does it say about me? Is this how I want to be remembered?

I’m interested in your take, Matt. Does all this talk of oversharing scare students into playing it safe?


I hope not! I’m all for honesty and vulnerability - the more, the better. But as you say, it has to be honesty with the right motivations behind it. Just trying to shock the reader will almost certainly backfire, and for two reasons: one, because admissions readers have seen just about everything before, and two, because telling lurid stories often involves cheapening your own experiences. It’s painful to see students treat the most sensitive moments in their own lives - or in the lives of their loved ones - as currency to be traded in an admissions game. And naturally, doing so doesn’t inspire confidence among admissions readers, either.

Confidence strikes me as central to the whole essay-writing process. Students who have some basic sense of their own dignity - who trust that their own experiences are valuable, and who don’t feel a constant need to compare themselves to others - often end up writing the essays that imprint themselves in readers’ minds. And a big part of my role is reminding students of that truth, and helping them see it for themselves.


I couldn’t agree more on the confidence piece! I think a lack of confidence makes a student fall into one of the three buckets that I described earlier. It takes confidence to feel like your story matters, to not play it safe or to share something that feels personal. Borrowing from Augusten Burroughs, I think it means letting go of other people’s perceptions that are out of your control and granting yourself some basic space to work.

Matt, any closing advice for high school students trying to find confidence in their writing?


I think you said it perfectly! Of course, that kind of confidence can be hard to generate and maintain, and it helps to have support as you go through the process - a family member, a friend, or a professional coach. It’s also important for students to remember that writing well about your own life is hard - it’s a real skill, one that takes time to develop just like any other. If you walk into this process thinking you’re going to sit down and slap together a high-quality essay in a few quick sessions, you’re probably setting yourself up for frustration. But if go into the process humbly, curious to see what you might learn and how you might share your discoveries, you’ll do beautifully.

This College Application Season, Make Dignity Your Strategy

College counselors give students all kinds of advice about ‘strategy.’ Some recommend that students present themselves as ‘well-rounded,’ with a variety of interests across the humanities and sciences and a ‘balanced’ series of activities and projects.

Others prefer the Cal Newport school of thinking. In How to Be a High School Superstar, Newport argues for the “relaxed superstar lifestyle,” in which students permit themselves more free time to explore things they genuinely care about. Out of these explorations, Newport suggests, students are more likely to discover and pursue authentic passions and accomplish truly impressive feats that will stand out on a college application. Do less stuff, but do what you do really well, and colleges will notice you.

The second line of thinking feels slightly healthier than the first, but it still doesn’t sit quite right. Newport names some of the crazy-making aspects of high school life - the intense pressure for standardized test scores, the nonstop resume-building - and parts of his approach are meant to help students be more honest with themselves and live saner lives.

But instead of treating honesty and sanity as ends in and of themselves, Newport sometimes slides into treating them like means - to impressing older people, to getting into fancy colleges, etc. And by doing so, he undermines the value of his own advice. Should students schedule more free time and allow themselves to follow their curiosity because that’s a basically healthy way to live, or because doing so is a clever way of playing the same old competitive high school game? The titles of some of Newport’s other books - How to Become a Straight-A Student, How to Win at College - suggest an answer.

Newport’s model also just won’t work for everybody. Most of his case studies involve students who’ve poured themselves into a project or two, often developing rare expertise or accomplishing something unusual. And if that’s where their interests have taken them, wonderful! But what about the students who don’t discover a passion in high school? What about students who are just getting to know themselves and the world, feeling the intensity of adolescent emotions, and sampling a bit of this and that?

I’m not sure Newport has much to say to these students, because their high school lives don’t yield bursting resumes or obscure accomplishments. They’re just students - curious about some things, less curious about others. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Unfortunately, many of my students think otherwise. They look at their grades and extracurricular activities, and they feel the need to apologize. In fearful voices, they ask whether they’ve fallen short. They struggle with regret, and they ask what they can do to overcome their limitations. When we begin working on their application essays, they often stop themselves in mid-idea and ask, “Is this okay?”

When my students express these doubts and uncertainties, I feel sad. Somewhere along the line, somebody - or many somebodies - implanted the idea that they aren’t good enough, and that going to a good college means becoming someone else.

It doesn’t.

Every year, college admissions offices nearly drown in applications from students who don’t quite exist. Their essays often drip with fake passion and commitment; students seem to think that getting in means convincing admissions officers how much they love ____ (the college, soccer, recycling, their grandmother).

These students often have sparkling resumes and startling accomplishments. To hear them tell it, they know much of what they need to know already, and they’re just heading off to college to get a bit of final training before pursuing their destiny.

These kinds of applications lack some of the very things that colleges want most: self-respect and openness.

Real life is complicated and confusing, and very few 17-year-olds - or 70-year-olds - have it figured out. And colleges don’t need students who’ve figured it out. They’re in the business of education, after all - of helping students see and grapple with the world. More than anything, colleges want students with questions. They want students who find something interesting and care to understand it more fully. They want students who are puzzled by some aspect of their own lives or the world around them - and don’t feel the need to apologize for it.

Getting into college doesn’t require perfect SAT scores, an obsession with nanotechnology, or years managing an NGO in a distant country. It also doesn't mean becoming a more ‘impressive’ version of yourself. It means getting to know yourself better. It means looking around inside, noticing the bumpy, intriguing, scary aspects of your own experience, and then asking some questions. And it means sharing what you find.

Of course, it’s not easy to write essays that reflect your actual life. It's much easier to read 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays and try to copycat. But that won't feel very good, and colleges will smell it a mile away.

So this year, take some of the pressure off yourself. Your goal is not to be ‘impressive’; there are tons of students applying to college with more-or-less the same qualifications you have, and you have no way of knowing which particular mix of grades, SAT scores, and extracurriculars are going to strike the admissions officers’ fancy.


And you don’t have to. Instead, just carry yourself with some dignity. Don’t start this process by comparing yourself to a thousand imaginary students. Start by looking at your own life and asking yourself why you’ve spent your high school years the way you have, and how you might like to spend your college years. Better: try to imagine the most interesting conversation you can - the one where you’re coming forward in your chair, ideas and concerns and questions elbowing each other out of the way. The conversation where you feel present. The one where you’re not thinking about impressing anyone anymore.

Book Club: What Exactly Gets 'Lost' in Translation?

David Bellos’ Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything is the most exciting book I've read in months - a profound examination of what language is, and what it means to try to translate from one language to another.

When we think about a translation, Bellos argues, we tend to ask whether it's ‘right.’ Underlying this question is a belief that each language is a vehicle for something deeper - "meaning." In this view, translating involves ensuring that this other, deeper thing is preserved as we move between languages.

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For Bellos, this way of thinking about language is rooted in the idea that words are symbols - that each word stands for something else, and that it’s possible to say that “something else” in just about every other language. But what about words that aren’t symbols? What about “all those human vocal noises - ums, hums, screams, giggles, mumbles, stammers, exclamations and interjections, alongside ellipses, nonsense words, gargles, cooing, baby-talk, pillow-talk and so forth”? What do these mean, exactly? It’s hard to say in words - but that doesn’t meant they’re hard to understand.

Bellos offers much more along these lines. He also offers fascinating insights into the world of professional translation. (Those head-setted folks at the UN do impressive mental jiu-jitsu; some of the news agency folks who translate the foreign articles in your local paper, a little less so.) It’s a thrilling read, and all the more so because Bellos consistently challenges deeply-held ideas in a mild, unobjectionable, friendly-uncle tone.

Pessimism vs. Problem-Solving in Your College Essays

"My essay needs to be better."

Students say versions of this sentence to me all the time. They’ve read lots of successful college essays, and they see a gap between their own work and what they hope to achieve. They don’t know how to bridge the gap, and they feel paralyzed.

What’s going on here?

Usually, the problem is that the student’s concerns are too vague. “My essay doesn’t feel good enough” is a general expression of dissatisfaction, not a specific diagnosis of a writing problem.

Writing takes place word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph. If you read a jarring phrase, you can ask meaningful questions about what’s gone wrong. Are there grammar problems? Is the language hackneyed or unclear? Does this idea follow naturally from what I wrote in the previous sentence?

Zeroing in on the problem is way more than half the battle. If it helps, you can read other writers’ work for inspiration and ideas, but you don’t need to. All you need is to focus on the bit of thought or language you’re trying to improve. Be hyper-precise here: exactly what is the problem? And what would it take to solve it?

If you look at your whole essay all at once, however - from the proverbial 30,000 feet - it's difficult to locate problems. Instead, you tend to drift, calling to mind other, better essays and saying, “I wish mine were more like that.” This kind of anxiety doesn’t help. It leads to complaining and pessimism, not creativity and problem-solving.

The next time you look at your writing and feel a giant shrug inside, try not to fret (and try not to judge yourself). Instead, ask yourself precisely where these feelings are coming from. Which parts of your essay make you feel this way? Why do they make you feel this way? Keep digging until you’ve articulated the problem so clearly that you could explain it to a stranger on the street. And then start experimenting with solutions :)


Real Passion vs. Fake Passion in Your College Essay

A lot of students apply to college out of fear. They’re trying to avoid a bad outcome rather than envisioning and pursuing a good one.

As a result, students often have a tough time saying WHY they want to attend school - much less any particular school. Or, rather, they know why they want to attend a fancy school, but they also know that they can’t be honest about it. Clearly, this won’t work in a college essay:

I want to go to Harvard because it’s super-prestigious. Everyone will respect me, no one will question my decision-making, and I’ll have lots of opportunities after college.

Imagine asking someone out on a date by saying, “If you go out with me, then everyone will think I’m cool, and I’ll get to date better-looking people later.”

A lot of students think they can compensate by showing hyper-enthusiasm about the school. These students use the word “passion” in every paragraph; they seem to think that if they express enough emotional intensity, admissions officers will be overwhelmed and wave them in.

This isn’t a great strategy either, mostly because everyone else is doing it.

Enthusiasm Inflation

Not that long ago, you could apply to Stanford with good grades, solid SAT scores, a few extracurriculars, and a nice essay, and you stood a decent chance of admission. (Forty years ago, Stanford admitted 31% of its applicants. Today, it’s 5%.)

The competition has gotten tougher from every angle. Applicants today have much better SAT scores, more impressive extracurricular accomplishments, and far more sophisticated essays. In other words, the relative value of a perfect SAT score, a county wrestling championship, and a lyrical essay has gone down.

The same is true for passion. Today, Stanford applicants treat passion as a baseline requirement. In many cases, their parents and counselors and friends have convinced them that they’re supposed to feel full-blown commitment to something - and when they look around their lives and don’t find anything that quite measures up, they pretend.

This pretending turns the application essay into a cynical game, and students don’t enjoy playing it. (It doesn’t feel good to lie about who you are.) It also brings an additional concern: What if the admission officers don’t believe me?

This is a legitimate worry. Ask yourself: when you’re speaking to another person, do you generally think you can tell when they’re bullshitting? Does the person’s tone sound different? Can you pick up on little signals, gestures, twitches?

Of course you can. We’re good at these things.

So are admissions officers. They read thousands (and thousands) of essays, and they can tell the difference between a performance of passion and genuine passion. They read the first paragraph of an insincere (or half-sincere) essay, and they know the score. The question is, what do they do next? What would you do?

Now, you might be tempted to say, “Well, I read 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays, and some of those kids sounded like they were laying it on a bit thick. If everyone does it - and if the admissions officers have to let somebody in - why shouldn’t it be me?”

Maybe it will be. After all, Harvard isn’t getting enough totally honest, deeply self-reflective essays to fill its freshman class. There’s some gamesmanship going on, no doubt.

But here’s a slightly different question: where’s your competitive advantage? Even if some tricksters slide in on the strength of a little BS, what are the chances that it’ll be you?

Very low. After all, your overall chances of getting into Harvard are low (because everyone’s are). Why would your chances of out-passioning the very best high school BS artists be much better?

In other words, you don’t have a competitive advantage in fake passion. But you DO have a competitive advantage elsewhere. In fact, in one area, you have a perfect monopoly - and that’s in being yourself.

Now, before you think I’m going all woo-woo on you, please hear this: I’m not suggesting that you just open up and throw a random mashup of secret thoughts and feelings on the page. Clearly, that won’t do either.

I’m talking about going deep into the areas of your own life that most confuse and interest you. I’m talking about putting aside fake passion for other people’s priorities - and finding the areas of your own existence that make you feel genuinely alive. If you can find something - anything - that makes you feel this way, then there’s a chance your reader will too.


How to Write a Common App Essay You Don't Hate

Students often ask if it’s okay to write about this or that topic in their college essays.

The answer to this question is always yes. There are no bad topics - there’s only bad writing.

Consider: an essay is a journey. The hero - you - starts somewhere, faces a challenge, and responds (and hopefully grows) in some way.

Now here's the key - most of us don't choose our challenges. We don't choose the family we're born into, or the amount of money we have, or the illnesses we contract, or the emotions we feel. Life chooses these things for us (at least initially), and we shape our lives through our responses.

University admissions committees aren't going to blame you for what you were born into - nor are they going to give you much credit for it.

A Dramatic Life Isn’t the Same Thing as a Compelling Essay

If you’re from a really poor place, or you’ve had a really difficult upbringing, that’s probably not going to buy you admission all by itself. And perhaps it shouldn’t - after all, lots of students have had challenging experiences. The question is: What did these experiences mean to you? How do you understand your experiences? What thoughts did they provoke? What efforts did they inspire?

A Quiet Life Isn’t an Obstacle to Admission

Some students are in the opposite situation: they’ve had a relatively safe, secure upbringing. They’re supported by loving parents. They haven’t suffered much, physically or otherwise.

These students often think: I have nothing to write about.

This isn’t true.

If you’re a human being, you’ve known an enormous range of feeling - from astonishingly pleasurable highs to shockingly painful lows. Your mind is the world’s biggest workshop and the world’s most capacious warehouse: it’s where everything you’ve ever felt gets produced, stored, and remembered. There’s a hell of a lot in there; you just have to go looking.

And you probably don’t even have to go particularly far - so long as you know what you’re looking for.

What You’re Not Looking For

Savvy students often read books like this and think, Well, this person got into a fancy school, so I better write like she did.

Yes and no. Many of the essays collected in books like these are good - but not because of their fancy vocab, or because they start right in the middle of a story, or because they’re about the author’s obsession with Spanish ham.

They’re good because they capture something unique about the author’s life, and they express that experience creatively and powerfully. The sequence, the vocab, and all of the other ‘writerly’ stuff isn’t just a coat of paint - it’s structural. It’s there because it has to be - because the author needed those specific elements to tell their particular story.

You Can Write About Anything, But Don’t Overdramatize

When I see a melodramatic opening paragraph, I know right away that the author doesn’t trust his material - he doesn't think it's good enough, or rich enough, or deep enough, or that he's reflected enough about it. So he's compensating by adding in a bunch of unearned intensity.

It doesn’t work, and most of my students hate trying. And they should! Faking it in a personal essay feels bad for the same reason that faking it in lots of other situations feels bad: because it’s fundamentally disrespectful to yourself. It means treating your own life as insufficient.

Aren’t We Just Circling Back Around Again? I Don’t Have Anything to Say…

If you think that, then you haven’t reflected much about your life, and you’re living in a world of platitudes.

You are a human being - a bag of flesh that somehow contains a mind that somehow registers pain, pleasure, and a billion other thoughts, feelings, and sensations. You’re conscious! (What?) You were born, and you’ll die one day! (What?!) Two people (maybe) decided to create you! (Double-what?!) You live on this big/little planet spinning through semi-nothingness around a fiery ball of gas, and you only have a couple-dozen go-rounds to understand any of it. (Dude, why are you being depressing?)

I’m not! This is fascinating. The whole freaking setup is fascinating: your relationships with other people, with the thirty-seven cultures interacting around you, with history, with the future, with nature, with desire and hope and fear and loss and ego and yourself. (What the hell is a self?!)

If you aren’t able to find something worth exploring there, then even your disinterest is interesting. (What’s going on there? Am I bored? Could I even be a little depressed? Maybe I’m preoccupied with some other challenges in my life. What are those, anyway…)

So You’re Saying…

If you’re alive, there’s almost certainly something that interests you - even if it’s your own confusion or pain. (Perhaps especially…) Find that thing - the thing that, when you start thinking about it, you feel an urge to keep going. There’s something there, and the only way to find it is by looking. You may well get a college essay out of it, but you’ll also get a lot more.


Killing Clichés in Your College Essays

Students rely on clichés because they’re easy - so easy, in fact, that they write themselves.

You’ve probably had this experience: you’re staring at the screen, unsure what comes next, when up pops a cliché: “I’ll always remember the day that…”

Nice, you think. That sounds like writing!

And that’s the problem: it does sound like writing. In fact, it sounds like a lot of writing. In fact - Oh, crap - it sounds like every young adult novel ever published.

That’s why it came to mind so fast - because you’ve heard it six thousand times.

In other words, clichés are bad writing because they’re impersonal: they borrow and repackage other people’s experience. And not even specific other people - just sorta everybody, summed up and averaged out. It’s boring.

Real writing is much harder. It requires you to slow down and pay attention to your own life - to dig around, to recreate scenes, to remember what things actually felt like. It means making your writing as interesting as your life has been.

Kill These Clichés Like Zombies

If you see these guys lurking in your Word doc, delete them with righteous fury:

Never will I ever...

Melodramatic; sounds like a teen novel

I’ll always remember…

How do you know?

I still remember…

You’re young - no big surprise here!

I saw X, and I knew I had to…

Are you sure? Perhaps you just had a strong feeling. Those are very worth trying to understand, but they’re not necessarily the same as knowledge.

I must admit…

You're not on trial. Share what you wanna share, and keep private what you wanna keep private.

The fire burning inside me…

Oh dear no.

In a College Application Essay, You Can't Just Say You've Grown - You Have to Prove It

You’re staring at Common App Prompt 5 or UC Question 7 and an idea’s bubbling up: you’ll write about that Habitat for Humanity project you helped with last summer.

You’ve read a bunch of essays by people who got into top schools, so you know that you’ve got to show some personal growth. You sit down to write, and pretty soon, you’ve got something that looks like this:

INTRO: Snappy, sorta clever. You tell us about your first encounter with Habitat for Humanity and your desire to participate.

BODY PARAGRAPHS: Descriptions of the actions you took: carrying bricks, putting up drywall, assisting the plumbers and electricians. You also mention the money you raised to support the project, and naturally, the great moment when the house was complete and the family moved in.

CONCLUSION: You figure it’s time to wrap up, so you write a paragraph like this:

"Through my work with my school’s Habitat club, I learned the importance of reaching beyond myself and helping others. I saw myself grow as a leader and as a team member. Participating in community service has helped me become a better person, and I want to do more of it in college."

Done, right? No sir.

This Conclusion Is Pretty Bad - But Why?

There are a couple reasons, but for now, let’s focus on this: it doesn’t sound like you actually learned much. Instead, it sounds like you already knew these things - and that you tacked them onto the end of your essay because you felt like you were supposed to.

Why Does It Feel This Way?

Because it’s not clear how you got here. Your previous paragraphs were about the actions you took (the hours you worked, the nails you pounded, the amount of money you raised). They may have been difficult for you, but that doesn’t make them engaging for your readers.

Why not?

Because fundamentally, you didn’t face a conflict or challenge. You just worked hard.

Wait, What’s the Difference?

Essays are journeys. You start somewhere, encounter something, respond to it, and arrive somewhere else as a result. That’s it - that’s the whole arc.

But in order for your essay to actually function as an arc, the reader has to understand how one step led to the next. Your readers saw you mixing mortar and hefting lumber, but that’s all - they didn’t see what was going on in your heart or mind, because you didn’t show them.

You gotta show them.

This is the only way that your conclusion will make sense. If you grew, show us what stimulated that growth. If you have a bunch of new thoughts and insights, show us what provoked them. If you’re different than you were at the get the idea.

Take another look at the essay outline above. It skips the most important part - not the part where you do something hard, but the part where you reflect on what it means.

Okay, But Wait - I Don’t Want My Essay To Be Messy

If you feel like you’ve got lots of events to narrate, you may worry: how can I fit my reflections in?

Try doing a little of one, and then a little of the other.

Good essays typically move back and forth between action and reflection. In the essay above, you could describe using the power saw or getting to know the other volunteers. Then, offer a thought or a feeling about that experience. Swing back into the physical/practical/logistical stuff - and then into reflection again.

Hemingway can get away with just describing actions, but that’s because he’s incredibly talented at implying the reflections. If you can do that, great. Otherwise, show us a little of what you’re thinking and feeling as you go along. You don’t have to have all your insights at once; it’s okay to give your reader glimpses of the changes that are taking place under the surface.

If You’re Unsure Of Something You’ve Written, Run This Test

Re-read the final paragraph of the outline above. Ask yourself: could someone else tack this paragraph onto the end of their community service essay? (Yes.)

Try this with your own writing. If it sounds like anybody could have written it, then it doesn’t sound like YOU wrote it.

What Do I Do Then?

Delete the offending passage (or at least cut and paste it into another document).

Go back to the moment you’re trying to write about, and look around. What do you notice? It could be anything - eating lunch with the other volunteers, a big realization during the drive home from the construction site, whatever.

Go further into the moment. What do you remember? What did you feel - in your head, in your heart, in the tips of your fingers? I’m not asking what you think, or how you’ve summarized this experience after the fact. I’m asking: what did it feel like right then?

It may take a while to jog your memory and find your way back into the moment. But sooner or later, you may catch a whiff of something - and then you’ve found your start.

Book Club: Bill Bryson's "The Mother Tongue"

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, by Bill Bryson

History is fascinating, and language is fascinating…but the history of a language? Before I read Bill Bryson’s book, this felt like a bridge too far; I imagined page after page of medieval arguments about grammatical trivia.

In Bryson’s hands, though, the story of English becomes the story of England – and of much of the rest of the world. We watch as waves of Romans, Angles, Saxons, Normans, Jutes, and others crash onto English shores and leave their linguistic legacy. Later, it goes the other way, when England colonizes a third of the world and blends its language with a hundred others. The result: the largest, wildest, and perhaps most incorrigibly inconsistent language on Earth.

Bryson’s a wonderful storyteller – the kind of guy I’d sit and listen to for hours in a pub. He’s got a pocketful of storyteller’s gems, too:

  • The distinctive British pronunciations of words like “path” (pahth) and “bath” (bahth) are only a couple hundred years old. Back in Shakespeare’s day, Brits pronounced these words like Americans do today.
  • Many words have changed their meanings drastically over time – sometimes coming to signify the opposite of what they meant just a few centuries before. (This is part of what makes it hard to read old literature.) One surprising example: the word nice, which used to mean…well, not so nice.

I’ve read a lot of style guides recently, and most of them have strong views about how English should look and sound. Bill Bryson isn’t worried about most of these debates. Instead, he gets a kick out of the many magnificently weird ways people have put our language to use - and he knows that many more changes are on the way.

Book Club: Roy Peter Clark's "Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer"

Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark

Clark builds each of his chapters around a single idea. Some of these ideas are familiar but easy to forget. (“In short works, don’t waste a syllable.” “Establish a pattern, then give it a twist.”) Others feel fresh and exciting. (“Play with words, even in serious stories.” “Put odd and interesting things next to each other.”) Usually, Clark develops his ideas so that they truly sink in – but not so much that the reader gets bored.

Clark also addresses some key questions about writerly psychology. The popular image of the writer – tortured, alone, feeling alternately blocked and inspired by an ethereal Muse – is both wrong and unhelpful, he says. Most writers depend on a “support group” – people who can provide feedback, encouragement, and (when the time is right) criticism. (“Limit self-criticism in early drafts.”)

For me, Clark’s most bracing advice has to do with purpose. “Build your work around a key question,” he says. “Draft a mission statement for your work.” For a lot of writers, this will feel anathema – like watching bureaucracy murder romance.

It shouldn’t. In fact, for non-fiction writers, it’s often essential. I read a lot of student writing, and when it goes bad, it’s often because the writer hasn’t figured out what he’s trying to say. Instead, he just sorta started writing stuff, kind of realized that it was scattered, and then tried to shovel it into passable shape. There’s nothing romantic about this process; by the end, whatever real inspiration or clarity the student had is usually buried under the mud.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Book Club: Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style"

William Strunk taught writing to Cornell students for 46 years, and he used an early version of Elements as a classroom handbook. One of his students, E.B. White, later edited the volume; it was published in 1959, and it’s still one of the best style guides we have.



The book is divided into several short sections – one on usage, another on principles of composition, and then a few guidelines on form and style. Strunk corrects for common writerly mistakes, but he also explains the consequences of those mistakes. Strunk’s famous admonitions – “Use definite, specific, concrete language” and “Omit needless words” – are the kinds of advice that most writers never stop needing to hear.



Book Club: Janis Bell’s “Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences”

Janis Bell's Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences: A Guide to Avoiding the Most Common Errors in Grammar and Punctuation is a resource for solving writerly problems. It's meant to sit alongside your computer, ready for action.

Sometimes, Bell's book plays this role perfectly. Her explanation of how tenses change in the subjunctive mood, for example, is incredibly useful. She also breaks down the uses of the primary punctuation marks into helpful categories.

Unfortunately, though, Bell’s guidelines sometimes simplify to the point of distortion. She insists on a firm distinction between “if” and “whether,” for example, even though we sometimes use both to mean the same thing (and nobody gets confused). She also declares: “Periods and commas belong inside closing quotation marks, no matter what. Don’t even think of placing them outside – just tuck them in.”

Many of her readers will be curious: why shouldn’t I place periods and commas outside closing quotes, especially if the punctuation isn’t part of the quote? And wait – don’t they write that way in England? And hang on - don't we put other punctuation marks (colons, semicolons, dashes) outside the quotes?

But these are minor complaints from a grammar-obsessed dude. For the most part, the book does just what it says it will do, offering readers a flashlight and a helping hand when they're lost in dark grammatical woods.

Writing Well in a Crazy Language: Steven Pinker's "The Sense of Style"

I've spent the last few weeks burying myself in English style guides. Most of them tell what you have to do, what you can't do, and what’s up to you. This can feel arbitrary: if you’re curious about language, you don’t just want to follow the rules. You want to understand where they come from - and whether they help or hurt the cause of clear communication.

In The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker takes on these questions directly, drawing on his psycho-linguistic expertise to show how some principles of grammar and usage reflect basic facts about how our brains work. (In a list of three or more items, for example, we typically put the most powerful item at the end – because it’s too taxing on our short-term memory to put it anywhere else.)

But Pinker also explains how some of our grammar rules are just the arbitrary pronouncements of snobby grammarians. (The “no split infinitive” rule is one; another is the taboo on placing a preposition at the end of a sentence.) Following these rules proves that you’re familiar with the conventions of the English language, but it doesn't reflect anything deeper – and sometimes, you might need to break them.

Five Tips for Clarity and Power in Academic Writing

This weekend, Real Clear English hosted a workshop for the faculty of Foreign Trade University in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Our presentation was simple.

First, participants read the abstract of Professor Tâm Trần Thanh’s master’s thesis on bid-rigging in Vietnam.

Then, we focused on Professor Tâm’s first sentence, cutting and shaping until his key idea emerged. By the end of the conversation, participants had five new tools at their disposal – techniques for writing with more clarity and punch.

*     *     *

Here is Professor Tâm’s original abstract:

"Bid rigging is an irregularity in the tendering process under public procurement rules which prevents public procurers, either local or central, from obtaining the best value for money. While public procurers are advised to be vigilant as to bid rigging collusion in public markets, administrative practices of public procurement authorities as well as public procurement rules, are integral contributors to the formation and stability of bid rigging. By looking at factors facilitating bid rigging in public procurement, this paper determines the extent to which current regulations and administrative practices of Vietnamese public procurers facilitate bid rigging. The findings reveal that Vietnamese public procurement legislation as well as administrative practices of public procurers do unintentionally facilitate the formation and stability of bid rigging. Of particular concern are unnecessary and excessive selection criteria leading to limited participation of bidders, regulation of joint-bidding, information disclosure and frequent communication between bidders. These findings provide valuable lessons for both Vietnamese and international policy-makers by emphasising the need for assessing the practical impact of public procurement rules and practices on bid rigging practices."

*     *     *

Professor Tâm’s abstract would look right at home in a professional journal. Nonetheless, some of his colleagues – trained scholars themselves – had difficulty understanding what he was trying to say. Each of the following sections names a problem with Professor Tâm’s first sentence and suggests a solution.


Inconsistent Levels of Detail

An abstract should focus on high-level claims. Mixing the general and the specific can interrupt the flow and cause confusion.

Original Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the tendering process under public procurement rules which prevents public procurers, either local or central, from obtaining the best value for money.

“Public procurers” suggests that the problem affects all levels of government. Adding “either local or central" might be appropriate during a detailed discussion later in the paper, but it’s not necessary here.

Revised Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the tendering process under public procurement rules which prevents public procurers from obtaining the best value for money.


Relying Too Much on Modifying Phrases

We’ve shortened Professor Tâm’s sentence, but it’s still wordy. Why? Because it stacks modifying phrases like Jenga blocks: “in the tendering process under public procurement rules which…”

Try turning a prepositional phrase into a single adjective:

Original Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the tendering process under public procurement rules which prevents public procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

Revised Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the public tendering process which prevents public procurers from obtaining the best value for money.



Sound the alarm! The word “public” appears twice in our sentence. Since the sentence tells us that we’re considering “public tendering processes,” we don’t need the second “public.”

Original Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the public tendering process which prevents public procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

Revised Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the public tendering process which prevents procurers from obtaining the best value for money.



Professor Tâm tells us that bid rigging “is an irregularity.” That’s true – but it’s not particularly helpful. What is it, exactly? Is it an accounting error, or is it more like cheating? Is it accidental, or do people do it deliberately?

As we learn later, bid rigging isn’t really one thing – it’s several different things, and some are more troublesome than others. “Irregularity” doesn’t convey any of this detail, so let’s delete it.

Original Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the public tendering process which prevents procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

Revised Sentence: Bid rigging is in the public tendering process which prevents procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

But wait – if we cut “an irregularity,” our sentence no longer makes sense. Bid rigging is… what?

Now, we could try to fill in a word here. (“Bid rigging is a problem”? “Bid rigging is a challenge”?) But there’s a simpler way to improve this sentence, and it requires us to notice the…


Multiple Verbs (Including One Weak Verb)

Right now, our sentence reads:

Bid rigging is [a something] in the public tendering process which prevents procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

More concisely, we have

            Bid rigging is an X which prevents Y.

Do we really need both “is” and “prevents”? How about:

Bid rigging prevents public procurers from obtaining the best value for money.



Here was our original sentence:

Bid rigging is an irregularity in the tendering process under public procurement rules which prevents public procurers, either local or central, from obtaining the best value for money.

And here’s our revised version:

Bid rigging prevents public procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

We’ve reduced our sentence from 28 words to 12!

Now for the real test: is our revised sentence better than the original version?

Professor Tâm agreed that it was. He told us that when he wrote his abstract, he had focused on condensing hundreds of pages of research into a few hundred words. He’d concentrated on including information – not on communicating that information effectively. As we wrapped up our discussion, Professor Tâm was excited to revise his work – to find simpler, clearer ways to share his expertise and help address an important challenge for his country.

Do I Use Singular or Plural Verbs with Collective Nouns?

Recently, one of my students got tripped up on this question (#34) from an SAT practice test: 


He knew that A, B, and D were wrong, because each changes the verb tense for no reason. But he didn't like C, either; he thought there might be a subject-verb agreement error.

My student saw:

"There ARE a number of steps..."

and thought it should be:

"There IS a number of steps..."

After all, "a number" is clearly singular. Shouldn't it take a singular verb?

Not in this case! My student had unwittingly stumbled onto an example of that two-headed beast - the collective noun.

Sesame Street.jpg

Collective nouns (group, faculty, team, staff) can function either as singulars OR plurals, depending on what's being emphasized:

The team has survived the playoffs, but the World Series will be the real test.

Here, "the team" functions as a single unit, so we use a singular verb.

The team members have agreed to treatment after a drug-fueled Las Vegas blowout.

Here, "the team members" are acting individually, so we use a plural verb.

In my student's example above, "steps" are clearly individual elements of a career journey, so we consider them separately and use the plural "are."

American vs. British English

If you read authors from both sides of the Atlantic, you may have noticed that Americans and Brits treat collective nouns somewhat differently. American writers are more likely to use singular verbs for collective nouns; British writers favor plural verbs more often.

American: The staff has agreed to a pay cut. 

British: The staff have agreed to a pay cut.

Want to Know What Real College Life is Like? Read These Novels.

My favorite literary genre is the campus novel.

That feels like a funny thing to say. In fact, it feels strange that the genre exists at all. (There’s no such thing as a “farm novel” or a “firehouse novel” or a “military base novel,” even if plenty of stories take place in those settings.)

On reflection, though, maybe it isn't so strange. After all, universities are often weird worlds unto themselves. They're run by people who've devoted themselves to reading and thinking, and they're attended by younger people who are going through some of the most transformative periods of their lives. There's all kinds of drama at college, even if a lot of it occurs in the library.

Here are a few of my favorite campus novels - as well as one that should be read with a touch of skepticism.

Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis

Kingsley Amis’ first published novel didn’t create the genre, but it might as well have. The main character, Jim Dixon, is a young lecturer at a middling British university. His struggles with women, writer’s block, and academic pretension are hilarious and, like most of Amis’ fiction, touching too.

Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses, David Lodge

Lodge’s first campus novel follows two professors – one British, one American – as they exchange jobs for a semester. Each is fleeing something and seeking something else, and naturally, neither finds exactly what he’s looking for.

CP is satire, and it’s funny as hell. Lodge nails some of the silliness and self-importance of academia – especially the way fancy words and concepts are used to mask confusion – but the book never feels heavy. Toward the end, it gets a little slapstick for my taste, but there’s a whole lot of lovely stuff here.

Stoner, John Williams

John Williams writes the life he knows – that of an English professor at a Midwestern university. His title character, William Stoner, grows up on a farm, attends agricultural college, stumbles into a required course on English literature – and sees his world blown wide open.

From this point on, Stoner devotes his life to teaching and writing. He marries, has a child, lives the joys and frustrations of academic life, and eventually passes away. His dying reflections are gorgeous, understated, and – like some of the final passages in Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing – worth reading all on their own.

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach

Harbach’s debut novel takes place at a fictional Midwestern college, but it doesn’t have much to do with academic life. Instead, the book focuses on Henry Skrimshander, one of the school’s most talented baseball players.

This might be the first great book I’ve read about the beauty and terror of college sports. Harbach shows us what Henry feels when he’s playing well – the loss of self-consciousness, the flow-state concentration, the joy of moving in harmony with teammates toward a common goal.

But Harbach also takes us into the pain that shows up when all of that breaks down – when Henry’s self-consciousness takes over and he tightens up on the field, when his bright athletic future goes dark, when he’s tossed back into the rest of his life. It's moving stuff, and for a bookworm like me, it illuminated a dimension of college life that I'd barely been aware of.

I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe 

The novel’s title character – a poor student from rural North Carolina – arrives at a prestigious college on scholarship, only to discover a world of intellectual posing and social climbing. 

I saw a lot of this at Princeton, and it came as a shock. But there were other, lovelier sides to life there, too. (In a gorgeous setting filled with smart, curious people, how could it be otherwise?) Unfortunately, Wolfe doesn't seem very interested in these things; he's so keen to uncover nastiness that he neglects almost everything nice

Step-By-Step Guide to Writing a Research Proposal (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Edition)

Today's guest is Thibaud Coroller, a graduate student in the Computational Imaging and Bioinformatics Laboratory (CIBL) at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School. Thibaud’s research focuses on radiomics, a field that uses medical imaging (CT, PET, and MRI scans) to learn about tumors and predict their responses to treatment.

Thibaud regularly publishes his research in scientific journals, and he’s generously agreed to share his understanding of the publication process with us. Below, you’ll find Thibaud’s guide to writing a scientific research proposal. This will be especially useful for readers who are considering applying to graduate school.

First, though, a note of thanks. We met Thibaud through The Tiny Pharmacist, a blog dedicated to sharing information and experiences about health, careers in pharmacy, and study abroad. The blog's creator, Hoang Ngoc Bich, has been studying in the US for over 10 years. She’s currently working as a pharmacist and is passionate about sharing her experience with fellow students. 

*     *     *

What is a Research Proposal?

A research proposal explains the need to study a specific scientific problem and presents a concrete plan for carrying out that study.

A research proposal is similar to a scientific publication in structure and intent; the primary difference is that in a research proposal, results are not yet available (or are preliminary and incomplete).

Who Writes Research Proposals?

If you’re applying to a PhD program, you’ll likely write a research proposal. Graduate school is the beginning of the adult learning world, where you can fully design your own curriculum and map out a research path. Your research proposal is your chance to explain how you gained an interest in your topic and why you would like to pursue it.

Once you enroll, you’ll find that your schooling years are quite short (yes, even if you end up doing a PhD that never seems to end). You may not have many chances to try new things or expose yourself to new ideas and fields of research; the research proposals that you write during your graduate career are rare opportunities.

They’re also great introductions to life as a professional researcher, whether that’s in an academic context or elsewhere. And, thankfully, the steps you take in writing your proposal can be reused later in your career (i.e. grants, publications, book chapters).

What Makes a Good Research Proposal?

Quality research proposals reflect several key points: your knowledge of the topic, your aptitude for performing rigorous research, and your enthusiasm for leading a study. 

Before investing time in a research proposal, ask yourself a few questions:

  • What topics interest you most? Is there a specific area of research that you’d like to develop?
  • Is your topic relevant to current research in your field? Does your topic advance important questions in interesting directions?
  • Are you equipped to investigate the topic? (For example, advanced nuclear physics might be difficult for a college freshman.)
  • Do you have the time and attention to devote to this project right now?
  • Is this a one-time project, or could it potentially be continued later in your career?

After you’ve answered these questions, here are some additional issues you’ll want to think about. A research proposal is a big undertaking, and it requires a lot of you, including:

  • A scientifically curious mindset. You won’t just be sitting in class anymore – instead, you’ll actually be doing scientific research and communicating with other professionals. Your motivation should be apparent in the proposal. If you are excited by your work, the reader will be as well.
  • Conducting a literature review. You’ll need to ensure that your research hasn’t been done yet; you’ll also need to explain why your approach is feasible and how it differs from that of previous researchers. It doesn’t always have to be drastically different; after all, consistent results will add to your field’s body of knowledge. Still, new ideas are usually preferable.
  • Learning how to conduct comprehensive research, manage a bibliography, and plan a scientific experiment.
  • Demonstrating your problem-solving and critical thinking skills - especially the ability to break complex issues into smaller, more manageable ones.
  • Focusing on your writing. Let’s face it: scientists usually aren’t the best stylists. Improve your writing and communications skills through courses, assignments, and coaching.
  • Formatting carefully. Writing a research proposal means following your organization’s submission guidelines (number of pages and figures, reference format, and so on). Stick to these rules; otherwise, your proposal may be rejected outright.

What Does a High-Quality Research Proposal Include?

In this section, we will describe the structure of a research proposal and explain how to write one efficiently. We’ll use common section titles. (Your organization's specific guidelines may differ.)


Short text (150-300 words) that allows the reader to quickly identify key points.


Clearly describes the purpose of the study and how it differs from previous work in your field. (If no work has been done on your topic, explain why.)

The introduction should also include an extensive bibliography, and every statement should be supported by citations. Infographics (charts, graphs) can also help reviewers understand your research (and provide a nice break from blocks of text). 

Key Points About the Introduction

  1. Context: Introduce a general idea in your field. Cite landmark studies and pertinent research. Describe how previous researchers approached the problem - and how your approach differs.
  2. Competent: Present a clear idea of how to make progress in your field and the potential applications of your results. Avoid over-optimistic claims.
  3. Coherent: Organization is key. Paragraphs should be connected, and the progression of ideas should feel clear and logical.
  4. Concise: Long introductions are a quick way to lose your reviewer’s attention. Avoid trivia; focus only on important details.
  5. Compelling: Your reviewer receives hundreds of proposals. How can you ensure that she'll want to read yours? Consistent, clear, and reader-friendly formatting can have a big impact on a reviewer’s mood. Format a proposal that you would enjoy reading.

Methods / Materials

This is the backbone of your proposal – your opportunity to describe your overall research design. To do so, you’ll draw on your literature review; you'll evaluate methods used by other researchers, as well as methods that haven’t been used - but could be.

Precision is critical here. You’ll describe your specific methodological approaches, your techniques for analyzing data, and any tests of external validity you’re willing to use.

Like the introduction, this section must be well-written and logically organized. (Ideally, the order of the paragraphs should match the Results section. For example, if you describe your univariate analysis techniques before your multivariate analysis techniques in the Methods / Materials section, you should present them in the same order in the Results section.) In general, you want to show that you've planned your study carefully, using the best information available.

Your design and methods should also reflect the specific aims of your study. Your methodology should anticipate possible pitfalls, suggest potential controls, and ensure that you have the cleanest, most unbiased data possible.

Example of details worth mentioning in the Methods / Materials section:

  • Statistical methods used.
  • Software used (including version).
  • Hardware used (e.g., microscope, LASER).
  • Biological organisms used (e.g., information about cell lines).
  • Chemicals used, including concentrations and references.
  • If you include photographs, list the brand, model, and parameters of your camera.

Key Points About Methods / Materials

Do not give general or trivial information. Be specific about each experiment and its corresponding measure/test.

  1. What makes this data unique? (Are you investigating rare plants? Are patients undergoing a specific treatment?)
  2. How is the data investigated? (Are you conducting retrospective or prospective analysis? How many samples will you take? What controls will be in place?)
  3. How are the data analyzed? (Qualitative interpretation? Statistical tests? Data transformation?)
  4. What are the endpoints of this study?


Since you're writing a research proposal, you may not have results to share. (Perhaps you haven't begun your study. Or, if your study is underway, your results may not be available yet.) 

If you do have preliminary results, however, this is the place to share them. Doing so can strengthen your proposal.

You can also describe anticipated results. This involves risk, however; your reviewer might disagree with your line of thinking. You’ll want to weigh the potential upsides and downsides of anticipating results on a case-by-case basis.

Key Points About Results

  1. Present results objectively.
  2. Clearly explain all acronyms.
  3. Use graphical elements (plots, tables) to efficiently represent your findings. Figures should be labeled (titles, legends, axis names, and defined scales).
  4. Discuss anticipated results carefully.
  5. To the extent you can, exclude speculation and personal opinion.


The conclusion is the “take home” message – a final summary of your proposal. It should be 1-2 paragraphs in length.

Key Points About the Conclusion

  1. Briefly summarize your proposal: reiterate the purpose of the study and the research questions it attempts to answer.
  2. Mention potential applications of your findings. (How does your work fit into the broader scientific picture?)

References / Bibliography

You must cite your sources via references and a bibliography.

  1. A reference is a link to a specific paper, website, or article that supports a claim. 
  2. A bibliography lists all of your references. It usually appears at the end of the manuscript (after the conclusion).

Together, your references and bibliography allow readers to delve deeper into the state of research on your topic. They also allow readers to understand your research methods more fully.

Your references should mostly include recent papers - less than 5-10 years old, depending on the field. (In the biomedical world, things move quickly, and studies over five years old might not reflect the current state of research. In physics or astronomy, by contrast, studies take much longer to complete, so research progresses more slowly.)

Nonetheless, citing older papers can still be important – both to acknowledge the impact of pioneering work and to highlight innovations in scientific method (e.g., the impact of DNA sequencing).

Using Software to Construct Your Bibliography

Free applications such as Zotero or Paperpile allow you to efficiently store PDF documents, keep track of papers you've cited, and automatically adapt citation indexes and formats (and avoid painful manual editing!).

Additional Feature: Figures

Figures are an important part of scientific papers because they visually summarize complex ideas, experimental designs, and important results. The easiest tool for creating figures is PowerPoint; if you're skilled in vectorized images, GIMP and Adobe Illustrator are also useful.

Key Points About Figures

Follow the “nothing less, nothing more” rule:

  1. The figure should be self-explanatory.
  2. Captions and values should be clear.
  3. Scales should be adapted to highlight key results without misleading the reader.
  4. No superfluous data or extravagant color.
    These figures display the same data, but the figure on the right is much more useful. It provides a legend, clearly labeled axes, and helpful explanatory notes. (See Rougier et al. PLoS Computational Biology, 2014.) You can also check out the Public Library of Science Computational Biology website for more  important guidelines .


These figures display the same data, but the figure on the right is much more useful. It provides a legend, clearly labeled axes, and helpful explanatory notes. (See Rougier et al. PLoS Computational Biology, 2014.) You can also check out the Public Library of Science Computational Biology website for more important guidelines.

I’ve Written and Submitted My Proposal. What Happens Next?

As a frequent peer-reviewer for scientific journals, I can share some important insights from the other side of the process.

First, keep in mind that reviewers are humans. They generally review proposals and journal articles for free in their personal time. (Reviewing a proposal or article takes anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.) Rushed or sloppy proposals can put a reviewer in an unfriendly mood – and might lead him to spend less to spend time discovering the positive aspects of your proposal. 

It’s in your best interest to offer a clear and catchy Abstract to keep the reviewer focused. Remember: you’ve been working on your proposal for weeks (or even months); concepts that are trivial to you might be unfamiliar to the reviewer.

Key Points About the Review Process

  1. If possible, provide a figure in the Introduction. Doing so engages the reader and offers a clear vision of the experiment/study you hope to conduct.
  2. Avoid weak links. If all of your ideas are great except one, the reviewer will likely focus on the bad one and lose sight of the rest.
  3. Explain your methods fully and clearly, but include only the important details. (I know – it’s a tricky balance.)
  4. Back up all of your claims, but don’t overstate them. Include an exhaustive bibliography (including landmark and recent studies).
  5. Don’t be evasive. Say what you know, say what you don’t know, and say what you’re going to do.
  6. Don’t plagiarize. It’s unethical, and it’s easy to detect.
  7. Make your submission aesthetically pleasing. Create section breaks, align your text consistently, and select easy-to-read fonts.

I hope this outline has provided a helpful overview of the research proposal process. Good luck on your future endeavors!

"Is This Really Good Enough?" A Conversation About Dangerous Thinking and Dangerous Writing

Mike Bybee has been teaching critical thinking and writing for 40 years. Since 1996, he's been a tutor at St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 


My students face a lot of unhealthy pressure in school, on standardized tests, and on college application essays. Much of the time, they feel they're being asked to look and sound a certain way, regardless of whether their writing is honest or true. (I think you'd call this sophistry - trying to look good without thinking clearly.)

To make things more challenging, many of my students have few alternatives at their disposal. They've been encouraged to echo their teachers' or parents' views, and they haven’t received training in critical thinking (what you'd call dialectic, I believe). 

I'm curious: how do you introduce the study of dialectic? Why do you start where you start, and not somewhere else?


You recognize that students are encouraged to regurgitate thoughts. You then asked, “How do you introduce the study of dialectic?” 

Well, it depends. 

If I have a rather older, more sophisticated group, then I can ask them to read a story and ask, “Do you believe this?” But that rarely works (for some reason) with younger people, so here’s what I do instead: On the very first day, after we learn one another’s names, I have a “canned” story that I tell. Then I ask a question that can be answered five or six different ways. [That prevents the students from regurgitating an “accepted” answer.] “How many of you think that the answer is this?” I ask. And some people “vote” for that one. And some people “vote” for another, and so on. 

If I’m clever enough to sit on my hands and keep my mouth shut, a conversation starts with people defending their points of view against points made by other people. 

Then I can say something like this: “Okay. Well, write an essay giving your answer to this question and the reasons you think your answer is the best answer.” 

Since these students are just starting out, they write generally coherent (albeit unsophisticated) papers. If I have the budget, then I get photocopies of all the papers to all the students, and we have a chance to read and respond to them. (If we can’t physically duplicate them, then I ask students to read their essays aloud to the rest of the class.) 

After we have all had a chance to read all the essays, I then ask the class as a whole (not the author, who only gets to listen), “Does this essay have a question at issue? If so, what is it?” You can see that for these early papers, of course they have a question at issue—I gave it to them! So this early on, it’s hard to go wrong. 

I then ask, “Does this essay have an answer to that question? If so, what is it?” Sometimes the author tries to butt into the conversation, and I have to say, “You already gave us your BEST attempt to do this, so your job is to sit and listen and determine to what extent you properly addressed your audience. If you listen to your audience respond to you, you can see how well you’ve done and what you can do better next time.” 

I then ask, “Does this essay have evidence for that answer?” For early papers, this is only sometimes not the case, but occasionally someone tries to “get by” without presenting evidence for their position. This gives me a chance to emphasize Plato’s Meno: True belief is not enough. We need true JUSTIFIED belief. Writing is not expressing a bunch of THOUGHTS. Writing is expressing THINKING, and expressing it on a page so you can tinker with it.  

And THEN I ask the killer question: “Does the evidence provide the structure for this essay?” 

For earlier essays, the answer is almost always, “No.” Their evidence (if and when presented) is just a confused mélange of goofy expressions, usually each of which demands evidence itself. 



That’s how I begin. . . .  And that’s how I proceed. Every time we read an “outside” essay, those are the questions I ask. (If we read Rousseau’s “prize-winning essay," [Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts] we see why he’s hugely embarrassed by it. It’s terrible! If we read Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, we get to see all those points in action.) 

Every time we read one another’s papers, those are the questions I ask. 

Sometimes I get to say, “See how this author used her thinking to structure her writing?” And sometimes the students get it—and more frequently, towards the end of the course, the students get it. 

But it’s a slow process, developing a habit, a habit of thinking of writing as thinking, and thinking of evaluating writing as evaluating thinking. 

And that’s what I would call “dialectic,” if someone pressed me. 


At the beginning of this process, what kinds of stories do you have your students read? And if you don't mind sharing, what's the "canned" story you tell, and what question do you ask afterward?

I also like the sequence of questions you ask. My students can usually see whether an essay includes a question, an answer, and evidence for that answer. 

Where they struggle, however, is in figuring out how to structure their thinking. There are lots of compelling ways to write an essay - you can think clearly and still be uncertain about how to sequence your thoughts for rhetorical effect. 

I don't offer comprehensive responses to these concerns. Instead, I suggest some models, and we read lots of essays and talk about the strengths and weaknesses of each. This works - the students get exposed to a wider and wider range of approaches to writing - but I'm wondering whether you have something more direct and powerful up your sleeve.


The “canned” story I tell is Alligator River from a book on values clarification. It narrates these events about five people, and at the end of it, I ask, “Who’s the least moral person in this story?” It’s like “Lifeboat,” a more famous story in the same vein. 

From there we get increasingly more sophisticated things to read. In a college (or advanced high school) setting, I use the anthology A World of Ideas. We read. We discuss. In discussions I try to focus on places where the students disagree. And then I have students write essays that each other would read about those disagreements. (That way everyone had a horse in the race, so to speak.) 

Yes, you’ve put your finger on it. The most difficult thing for a student to recognize (or to produce) is a well-structured essay. Often that’s because students (and we teachers, too) have little idea about how evidence itself is structured. Just because we can think (and some of us can think well), that doesn’t (necessarily) mean that we can think well about thinking well. 

Moreover, it almost always requires writers to rethink an essay after they’ve written it, and having rethought it, they then have to rewrite it. That process is not without significant effort, and it requires some time, too—and both these are at a premium in today’s world. 


Most students - most people, I think - resist that re-thinking and re-writing process. They've built half a building, and they feel disheartened at the idea that they have to tear part of it down. When your students express those feelings - or when they don't express them, but you know they're feeling them - how do you respond? And how do you structure your classes so that students have the time, space, and motivation to do that rebuilding?


Here is one of the exercises I use to emphasize the importance of structure or order in an essay. 

With shopping lists and sentences, we can easily identify which is the best structured—and we can also identify pretty easily the principle of organization for each. (At least, so far all of my classes have been able to see which is the better structured shopping list and why, and they’ve also been able to see which is the better structured sentence and why—although a few students here and there individually are puzzled.) 

The problem is, what’s the principle of organization for an essay? How do you know when the paragraphs are in the “right” order? What makes for a well-structured essay? Is the “principle of organization” for an essay just “whatever I think of next?” Here classes have a great deal more trouble—which is, of course, the point of a composition course. 

You ask, “What do you do when students don’t want to rewrite or revise or rethink their essays?” 

Well, you’ve put your finger on a difficult problem, one that has a couple different layers. 


Some students don’t see the need to revise. They think their writing is pellucid and, in fact, obviously-well-expressed. 

That’s one reason I circulate students’ papers to one another and then have the OTHER students in the class give the writer feedback. I ask the whole class these questions: What’s the question at issue, do you think? If you think this essay has a question at issue, what do you think is the answer it provides? If you think this essay has an answer to its question-at-issue (a thesis), what is the evidence this essay provides for that thesis? If you think this essay provides evidence for its thesis, does the evidence provide the essay’s structure? 

This is obviously a grading template. If there’s no question at issue, the paper is an F. If there’s a question at issue but no answer / thesis, the paper is a D. If there’s a thesis but no evidence, the paper is a C. . . .  Of course, often the answer is not very easily found to any of these questions. It takes thinking to evaluate thinking. Thus, sometimes the class disagrees about whether the essay has evidence (and if so, what it is). Sometimes the class disagrees even about whether the essay has a question at issue. 

During this discussion, the essay writer just sits there and listens to the answers—and often realizes he or she has not written carefully enough. They’re almost always incensed. “Look! See! I wrote this right here!” But I always say to the author, “Just listen to them discuss your essay. This essay was your BEST attempt to express all this. And yet, see how confused your audience is? You can write better than this. Honest.” 

So feedback from peers is important. 


Some students just don’t want to take the time or put in the effort. They get good grades on their writing in their other classes. That’s “good enough,” they think. 

This is a more intractable problem. For the most part, the best you can do is raise the question. You get to ask, “Is this really good enough?” Composition (in the sense we’ve been discussing it) is an exercise in examining one’s own thinking clearly and carefully. It’s a way to pin one’s own thinking to a picnic table with a thumb tack and hold it still long enough to evaluate it yourself. You cannot do composition (in the sense we’ve been discussing) without that “last” step. And doing that last step often discloses that one’s thinking is NOT “good enough.” 

That’s where your response to their writing is important—and “dangerous.” It’s important because your comments to them should raise questions in their minds about their own thinking. You’re not challenging their thoughts. You’re challenging their thinking. In the margins of their papers, you’re writing questions, question like, “What evidence do you have for this?” and so on. 

And this is dangerous because you have to expose YOUR thinking when you challenge their thinking. You’re reading their thinking—and they’re reading your thinking and evaluating it! They wrote an essay you read, and you’re (in effect) writing them back an essay that they’re reading. And your thinking is addressing their thinking. Whoa! That feels pretty naked there. Their thinking might be BETTER than your thinking. In fact, if you’re doing your job correctly, you’re hoping for that outcome.  


Some students mistake the whole project. They think they’ve managed to get a full and complete essay written when actually they have only the rough draft—or, more often, only a zero-th draft. 

What’s that like? It’s like framing a house and not putting up interior drywall and exterior siding and roofing. Doing the next drafts of an essay is a finishing project, not a demolition project. Yes, yes, yes, I know that this FEELS as though we’re tearing stuff up, but it’s really going on to the next part of the project that would have been impossible without having done this first part, the rough draft. Without revision, the rough draft is, well, “unfinished.” 

Thus, seeing a difference in their own writing between the rough draft and their finished product is important. If they can’t see a difference, and see what the difference is, then yeah, what the hell. Why bother?    

Well. . . .         

I’ve been over-long again. Sorry. 

Good luck with this! There’s nothing more frustrating than teaching Aristotelian-like rhetoric and Plato-like dialectic in a society of sophistry—in a society that thinks that “composition” is nothing more than eloquence and style. Sigh. 

And in the end, when you do a “good” job, the students all think, “I’ve done this all by myself!” And that’s true, too. You didn’t do their weightlifting for them. 

One last thing. I tried a new tactic this year for the first time. This may also address the last concern you expressed. 

I had my composition students rewrite an essay that they had written and submitted to another class. And I asked them to submit to me both the essay that they had already submitted (and gotten a grade on and an oral) AND the rewrite. 

On the essay that they had submitted, I asked them to write between each paragraph a word like “thus,” or “because,” or “and” or “but” and so on, to indicate how each paragraph related to the preceding paragraph. (You’ll recognize this as right out of Aristotle and his emphasis on the enthymeme and the use in classical Greek of such words in each and every sentence.) 

And then I asked them to do the same thing for their rewrite. 

This exercise was remarkably successful for many students. They were able to see clearly and concretely, “Oops. I didn’t write nearly as clearly as I thought I did when you made me do this concrete exercise. And that’s because I didn’t think nearly as clearly as I had to think in performing this exercise.” 

Are You Interested in Your Own Thoughts?

The central fact of your education is this:    

You’ve been taught to believe that what you discover                                                                

by thinking,                                                                                                                                  

By examining your own thoughts and perceptions,    

Is unimportant and unauthorized.      

As a result, you fear thinking,      

And you don’t believe your thoughts are interesting,

Because you haven’t learned to be interested in them.


There’s another possibility:  

You may be interested in your thoughts,            

But they don’t have much do to with anything you’ve

ever been asked to write.


The same is true of what you notice.            

You don’t even notice what you notice,            

Because nothing in your education has taught you that            

what you notice is important.


And if you do notice something that interests you,            

It doesn’t have much to do with anything you’ve ever

been asked to write.


But everything you notice is important.            

Let me say that a different way:            

If you notice something, it’s because it’s important.      

But what you notice depends on what you allow your-            

self to notice,    

And that depends on what you feel authorized, per-      

mitted to notice            

In a world where we’re trained to disregard our perceptions.


Who’s going to give you the authority to feel that what            

you notice is important?            

It will have to be you.            

The authority you feel has a great deal to do with how            

you write, and what you write,            

With your ability to pay attention to the shape and            

meaning of your own thoughts            

And the value of your own perceptions.


Being a writer is an act of perpetual self-authorization.            

No matter who you are.            

Only you can authorize yourself.            

You can do that by writing well, by constant discovery.            

No one else can authorize you.            

No one.          

This doesn’t happen overnight.            

It’s as gradual as the improvement in your writing.


-- from Verlyn Klinkenborg's Several Short Sentences About Writing

The Six-Week Personal Essay Challenge: Week Four - The First Draft

Hi Readers,

It’s Nhung here. The outline last week posed many welcome challenges for the spaghetti noodles that are my thoughts - and I found lots of gaps and loose strings in my argument. Matt urged me to tie these strings together with some important suggestions, which I was so glad to take up. (Honey, I love you! You clear-thinking you!)

I decided to simplify my outline and focus on a single question I would like to pursue in grad school: “How do teachers keep up with the ever-changing ed tech landscape while delivering learning moments and motivating students?”

Here’s the first draft of my essay:

My first flipped classroom fell flat.

Early last year, school management wanted to try the flipped classroom. Meetings were filled with hope: we would cut overhead costs (especially hefty teaching salaries) while delivering our stellar materials to more students - even those who live in different provinces. This new model would free us up to devote most of our classroom time to practicing for mastery.

We devoted a great deal of energy to planning our take-home materials. Each tightly-scripted video formed part of (what we considered) an exciting storyline. A model teacher and camera woman spent an entire afternoon filming just two 15-minute clips, recording and re-recording after each blunder. An intern took a day off from her other duties to edit the videos (using pirated Camtasia software that kept causing her laptop to crash). When the team had finished the videos, I gave them a final check and uploaded them to the Internet. To ensure that students watched and learned from our content, we created Google Form quizzes for students to complete after each video.

However, I soon learned that students weren’t watching our homemade videos, citing busy workloads at their day schools. Frustrated, I surveyed my students’ lnternet learning habits. My findings humbled me: these students followed TEDx, had favorite blogs in their fields of academic interest, and used multiple vocabulary apps on their mobile phones. These were expensive, high-quality programs, and they clearly outshone our homemade videos. In fact, rather than being a fun diversion from “normal” schoolwork, our videos had become yet another piece of drudgery that students had to “get through” before they could watch the videos they preferred on YouTube.

In our case, the flipped model failed to motivate students. My experience left me wondering: as a teacher and curriculum designer, how do I use technology to engage students whose native language is the Internet (especially given that my native language is traditional, face-to-face classroom interaction)? I don’t have a full answer to this question, but I believe that a successful classroom experience, with or without technology, must prioritize measurable learning.

In my experience, learning usually occurs in a sequence. First, the student reflects on his/her learning style, hopes, dreams, strengths, and weaknesses. Secondly, the teacher introduces knowledge. And finally, the student applies his/her learning to increasingly complex, real-life problems.

Technology can clearly assist with Step 2. In just the last few years, we’ve seen Labster provide students access to lab equipment and experiments they could otherwise only dream of. Kahoot turns learning into a quiz game. Sugata Mitra’s internet-based “School in the Cloud” experiments pose open-ended questions for students, who then propose answers.

But what about Steps 1 and 3? Can ed tech assist teacher-student relationships in Step 1? And how does ed tech help with Step 3, the practice of which is necessary for students to move toward self-study and lifelong learning? (When my students feel a false sense of mastery after passively reviewing video course materials “just because the syllabus asks them to,” a few more hours have been lost forever - time that would be better spent with students exploring topics they hold dear.)

Technology will continue to play a larger role in both classroom and lifelong learning opportunities. Because technology changes so quickly, how do I train myself to handle whatever tools I may encounter in the future? How can institutions best prepare educators for a profession that is undergoing so much change? How can teachers be trained to support all students equally in a tech-focused world? My preliminary answer to these questions is that educators need multidisciplinary collaboration, including deep-rooted support from the IT team as well as school management. I would love to use my opportunities at [name of master’s program in learning, design and technology] to explore how school systems are grappling with these problems, and how educators can use technology to motivate students and facilitate real learning.

Matt’s Comments

This is really, really high-quality stuff, Nhung. You do a great job of sharing your story - you’re humble, reflective, and clearly motivated to learn. You’re also very clear about the specific questions that you’d like to explore in grad school. Lovely job!

A couple of thoughts for you. Over the years, lots of folks have proposed theories of learning (Montessori, Vygotsky, Piaget, Bloom, Gardner, etc.). If you’re going to propose your own theory - or even just mention it - I think it would make sense to acknowledge these other folks. I don’t get the sense that you think of your theory as a replacement for theirs - rather, it’s just your shorthand way of describing your experience. Is that right? If so, make sure that comes across :)

It would also be good to say a bit more about the relationship between Steps 1 and 2. What’s the connection between a student sharing hopes and dreams and a teacher introducing knowledge? Can’t you just start at Step 2? If not, why not?

Try to address these questions for next week. We're getting close!