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.

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.

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.



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.

"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!

How to Get Published: An Interview with Editor Abbas Raza

Abbas Raza is the editor of 3 Quarks Daily, one of my favorite places on the Internet. Recently, we talked about how he chooses what to publish.


I'm sure you get a large volume of submissions to 3QD. When you consider whether to publish something, how do you think about it? What do you ask yourself?


Just to make things very clear, let me first say what we do at 3 Quarks Daily: six days a week, we choose what we think are the ten most intellectually interesting articles we can find online in any subject, including science, arts, literature, politics, philosophy, humor, and current affairs, and we publish a short excerpt from those articles with a link to the full piece. But on Mondays, we publish a weekly magazine of original, previously unpublished essays, also on the same variety of subjects.

Now, to answer your question, we get submissions for both, and the way we decide whether to publish something is the same for both: by answering the question, "Did I find that interesting and enjoy reading it?" What makes something interesting or not is not easy to say, but it is easy to tell if something is interesting. It is a bit like Kurt Vonnegut's answer to the question of how to tell a good from a bad painting: "Just look at a million paintings." If you look at a lot of essays and articles, you develop an ability to tell the good from the bad, even if you can't always say exactly what it was in a given article that made you like it. Having said that, there are some obvious things one looks for: Is the author saying something new? Is she saying it clearly? Does she write with verve and style? Does she seem to know a lot about the subject she is writing about? Is she saying something ridiculously and obviously wrong? Etcetera.

Sometimes one reads about something which is interesting in itself but written in a dull or difficult way, and sometimes the opposite: a stylistically beautifully written article which never manages to say anything much. The former can be fixed but the latter cannot, of course. I would say as a rough formulation that the content of an article provides the interest but it is the writer's prose style which can make it either a pleasure or a chore to read.

Lastly, let me mention something that we don't do when choosing an article for publication: we never try to imagine if our audience will like it. We only ask ourselves, "Do I like it?"


That makes sense: you can rely on your own responses. Guessing whether an audience will like something is much trickier.

I like your distinction between content and style, too. Plenty of people would argue that this isn’t a real distinction – that form and content can’t be separated – but that seems wrong to me. At least in nonfiction, an author usually advances a set of ideas or claims, and those ideas can be evaluated. In fact, it’s precisely our ability to test claims that enables us to understand why people like Newton, Einstein, and Crick and Watson were so revolutionary. At a more everyday level, it’s this ability to assess ideas that allows us to distinguish good thinking from bad thinking.

For this reason, I focus most heavily on ideas when I teach essay writing. Does a student have a clear sense of what he’s trying to say? And does what he’s saying make sense? If not, we slow down and dig in.

This takes real effort. By their teens, many of my students have figured out that they can earn good grades in school by writing in a formal style – even if the underlying ideas are weak or ill-considered. In other words, they’ve figured out how to BS.

I don’t blame them, exactly – there’s a lot of gamesmanship in school – but I also know that my students are capable of so much more. I want them understand that exploration and introspection can be thrilling on their own, and far more rewarding than just banging out a paper for the sake of it. (It’s also important for them to understand that they’re probably not going to get away with BS forever. And even if they do, who wants to live like that?)


I agree with everything you say here, Matt, so there isn't much more I can add.

You mention Newton, Einstein, Watson, and Crick in the context of the distinction I drew between content and style, which made me think of this: Newton and Leibniz simultaneously and independently invented the set of mathematical ideas we now know as calculus. But even in as formal a system as mathematics, style matters, and the notation that Leibniz developed to express these ideas was superior to the notation that Newton invented in that it made it easier to understand what is being expressed and work with those expressions. And so to this day we use Leibniz's notation when we do calculus, not Newton's. Two things can be expressed in various ways, but some ways are much more useful, in other words. To give another mathematical example, the number 35 can also be written as XXXV in Roman numerals, but written this way, it is not easy to add or multiply numbers, or do any other simple arithmetic operations, so we no longer write them like that. But perhaps I have now belabored this point too much.

As for students deliberately writing impenetrable and obscure prose to impress their teachers, this is a real problem and a terrible habit which should be harshly beaten out of students at every opportunity! Not literally, of course, but it should be discouraged as much as possible. Jargon of all types should be avoided and clarity prized. They should also be encouraged to be as concise as possible and to always revise their prose by cutting out all unnecessary verbiage. The practice of assigning papers of a minimum length (write a 15-page paper on such and such...) is a bad idea precisely because it encourages going on at length even if the student has something very clever and useful to say in a couple of pages, as if somehow length equals quality. And that reminds me of a droll anecdote about Blaise Pascal who wrote something like this at the end of a long letter to a friend: "I would have written a shorter letter but I didn't have the time."

Book Club Session Two: How to Make Learning Stick

Today we're covering Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Nhung and I fought over this book for a week. I don't mean we disagreed about it - I mean we stole it from each other because we each wanted to read it so badly.


As the title suggests, all learning strategies aren’t created equal. Over the past few decades, scientists have conducted a great deal of research on how we learn, and some of the results are surprising.


Perhaps the most counterintuitive result is this: the most durable learning occurs once forgetting has begun.

Consider cramming. When we cram for a test, we’re basically jamming as much stuff into our short-term memories as we can. We know we’re going to forget the material later – we just hope it’s after the test.

When we learn material for the long-term, however, we rely on different parts of our brains. In fact, the effort we expend to remember half-forgotten material actually deepens and strengthens connections between these areas of the brain.

Some more surprises: highlighting and rereading can create an “illusion of mastery,” but they’re not effective techniques for long-term learning. Better alternatives: self-testing, deliberately creating certain discomforts and inconveniences while studying, and mixing up topics and skills in your practice sessions.

Questions for Us 

If we’re honest, which of our study and practice strategies are working, and which ones aren’t? I'll go first: I do a lot of re-reading, even though a part of me knows that it isn't very effective. I think I do so because there's a comfort in reviewing semi-familiar material; it's less intimidating than mixing in something that I don't know as well. But that mixing is where the best learning takes place!

Real Clear English Book Club! Session One: Black Box Thinking

Every so often, we’ll post about something we’re reading. We’ll typically offer a summary of the book, some lessons we’ve learned, and a few questions for each of us to explore.

For our inaugural session, we read Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes – But Some Do.

Black Box Thinking.jpg


In commercial aviation, crashes are investigated extensively, and professional bodies work hard to discern lessons and translate them into improved safety procedures.

Healthcare works very differently. Hundreds of thousands of patients die every year from medical error, and there’s little systematic effort to investigate, document, or learn from these tragedies.

Each industry represents a basic attitude toward mistakes: either we can learn from them - and thereby avoid them more successfully in the future - or we can cross our fingers and hope for the best.


The same goes for our own thinking and writing. Our brains are often fooled by logical fallacies, cognitive biases, and shaky “evidence.” We can throw up our hands about it – Oh, what can you do? ­– or we can learn to notice these patterns and begin to grow out of them.

Questions for Each of Us

We all have weaknesses in our writing. Sometimes, it’s language – How do I use the semicolon again? Other times, it’s structural – I know my argument doesn’t quite make sense here, but maybe if I start a new paragraph, my English teacher won’t notice.

It’s tempting to suppress this awareness and paper over our weaknesses. When we do that, though, nothing gets fixed, and we continue to run unnecessary risks.

Some questions, then: what areas of your writing need improvement? And how can you turn toward those weaknesses, name them precisely, and then seek to overcome them?

We’d love to hear your answers to these questions – and to address them here on the blog. Send us a message on Facebook, or email us at englishrealclear AT gmail.com

 Turns out that real black boxes aren't black.

Turns out that real black boxes aren't black.

The Six-Week Personal Essay Challenge: Week Three - Refining the Outline

Hi everyone, Nhung here! Last week, Matt assigned me the task of creating an outline for my essay. By mid-week, I was quite daunted by the blank page in front of me, so I asked for some guidance. Matt emailed me three questions, the answers to which led to the outline below.

Here are Matt’s three questions:

  1. For the purpose of this essay, what is your primary concern as a teacher?

  2. If you don't know how to address that concern yet, it’s probably because you don't know something that you feel you need to know. What is it? What’s your open question?

  3. What are your preliminary answers to that question? How do they address/fail to address your concern?

After reflecting on these questions, (and doing a lot of free-writing) I came up with some answers. Here’s my outline.

Intro Paragraph

Anecdote: in my flipped classroom, students don’t respond to my homemade videos as enthusiastically as they do to their favorite YouTube channels. I can’t compete! More generally, the flipped model frequently fails to motivate students.

Main question for the essay: as a teacher and curriculum designer, how do I use technology to engage students whose native language is the Internet?

Foreshadow my answer: I don’t have a full answer to this question, but I believe that a successful classroom experience starts with cultivating relationships.

Body Paragraph 1

Describe a great student-teacher relationship; suggest that these relationships are essential for successful learning (perhaps especially for motivating students to push further). Draw examples from the classroom and beyond: mentors-mentees, coaches-athletes, and supervisors-interns.

Body Paragraph 2

In my experience, learning usually occurs in a sequence.

Step 1: Student reflects on his/her learning style, dreams, hopes, strengths, and weaknesses.

Step 2: Teacher introduces knowledge.

Step 3: Student applies learning to increasingly complex, real-life problems.

Body Paragraph 3

Technology can clearly assist with Step 2. (Examples of helpful technology: flashcard and quiz-maker apps.)

Steps 1 and 3 pose unique challenges for ed tech design:

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? (Example of unhelpful tech: when students feel a false sense of mastery after passively reviewing video course materials.)


My preliminary answer to the above questions is that technology will continue to play a larger role in both classroom and lifelong learning opportunities. Open questions that I hope to address in my master’s program: How can tech assist teachers to build nurturing relationships with their students? Can ed tech play other roles in the classroom?

Matt’s Comments

Wonderful work, Nhung! You’ve addressed all three of the questions that I asked, and your outline now reflects a fairly clear sequence of ideas. Let me ask a few more questions and push for even more clarity.

  1. How do Body Paragraph 1 and Body Paragraph 2 relate? I agree with your claim in BP 1 - that student-teacher relationships are central to learning - but I’m not sure I see a direct connection between that idea and the learning sequence you lay out in BP 2.

  2. A suggestion. In BP 2, Step 1 of your learning sequence involves students expressing their needs as learners and people. For that to happen, though, students typically need to have some trust in their teachers. Perhaps that’s the connection: great relationships (BP 1) are the foundation upon which successful learning (BP 2) is built.

  3. Issues with the conclusion. In your final paragraph, you write:

My preliminary answer to the above questions is that technology will continue to play a larger role in both classroom and lifelong learning opportunities. Open questions that I hope to address in my master’s program: How can tech assist teachers to build nurturing relationships with their students? Can ed tech play other roles in the classroom?

Your original question was: “How do I use technology to engage students whose native language is the Internet?” I agree that tech will continue to be important, but that doesn’t answer your question. How can technology help you connect with students more effectively?

One way to push further here would be to consider what other teachers/schools have done. Are there tech tools/platforms that educators have used to try to connect with students (Step 1) or allow students to apply themselves to real-world challenges (Step 3)? You don’t have to have a well-developed opinion about the value of these technologies, but it’s important to acknowledge that they’re out there. (After all, you’re applying to a master’s program, and the admissions folks typically want to see “demonstrated interest” in your field. You can show them how serious you are by describing the ways you’ve already begun to pursue your questions.)

What do you think?

If you agree with these suggestions, please integrate them into your outline. When you’ve done so, share it with me - and then we can move toward your first draft.

"I Don't Write Outlines Because I'm Afraid to Be Wrong"

When my student said this, I thought, Yes. Now we’re getting somewhere. 

I often ask students whether they outline before they write. In response, I hear: Sometimes. Kind of. It’s clear: most students don’t outline, and among the few who do, even fewer take it seriously.

Why? They’re a waste of time. I already know what I want to say. It’s all in my head. Why spend time writing it down?

Hundreds of students have told me these things, but they’re almost always wrong – and this becomes clear as soon as they write their essays. The connections between ideas are weak. The third body paragraph repeats the first. It’s not clear what the student wants to accomplish in the conclusion.

Outlines solve these problems.

What is an Outline?

I wrote some of this in the most recent installment of our Personal Essay Challenge, but it bears repeating.

An outline is the skeleton of your essay – the structure that holds everything in place. It’s the sequence of points you want to make, in the order you want to make them, with all of the necessary connections and transitions.

Think of an outline like a blueprint for a house – a way of getting your ideas onto the page and seeing if they really support one another. If they do, great – now you’ve got your building plan. If they don’t – well, that’s okay too; now you can fix them before committing your time and energy to something more substantial.

If you can’t outline effectively, then your writing is likely to be unclear. And if you can’t look at what you’ve written and extract an outline from it, then your writing is unclear.

If you can outline effectively, however, then you’re well on your way to writing clearly and powerfully.


The Six-Week Personal Essay Challenge: Week Two - The Outline

Hi all! Nhung here. Last week, I put my thoughts out in the open, laid bare for all to see. In response, we received messages from readers who appreciate seeing my “backstage” self and my work in progress. You're curious to see how this turns out - and so are we!


A quick refresher on the Personal Essay Challenge: over six weeks, I'm writing an application essay in response to this question: “Why do you hope to attend a graduate program in Learning, Design and Technology at an American graduate school of education?" Each week, Matt will provide comments on my progress.

Last week, Matt suggested that I start by doing some free-writing. He then asked me to read through my free-write and underline any phrases or sentences that jumped out:

What surprises you? What feels important? Are there any questions that you now find yourself asking? Take these underlined phrases and paste them at the top of a new document. Use them as the starting point for a second 15-minute free-write.


Here are the highlights from my first free-write, as well as a second round of free-writing.

I read through my free-write, and wow! I have such a fervent wish to understand what motivates my students. Much of what I wrote was about finding the sweet spot where students’ ears perk up. (“Working with students challenges me every day to figure out what makes it stick.” “Maybe it’s about the need to find out what motivates my students.”)

I realized that I see my mission as a facilitator of students' work, especially in “understanding themselves a little better by recognizing their habits of thought.” I also want to inspire “a sense of hope” that they can achieve their dreams. These are two big parts of the journey of self-discovery.

These next two sentiments, on the other hand, surprise and confuse me in equal measure.

“I can sense my fear of imposing on them ‘yet another lecture’ to cut into their free time.”

I find myself asking - does teaching always involve some form of imposing? It can come in the form of constraint, (structured classroom activities) or in the form of pressure (exams). These are quite normal practices, so why am I so reluctant, and why do I think I am “imposing” in the first place?

"How can technology aid in students’ motivation to get better at a language?"

From my free-write last week, I sense that technology is not really what I am passionate about; it just feels like a trend that I want to ride. I’ve also started wondering whether technology aids learning best when it’s less intrusive - in other words, whether simpler forms of technology deliver the best learning outcomes. (I remember talking with D, a TOEFL student who spent up to an hour each day watching Stanford physics lectures. The site he used was simple: you enter a URL and click the play button - two seconds that lead to an hour-long lecture. Another student, S, likes flashcards apps (Quizlet, etc.). Straight-up flashcards. No nonsense.)

Reflections on My Second Free-Write

Wow, I certainly took more than 15 minutes to type this second free-write, because my mind was watching itself the whole time. (It was an exhilarating feeling!) I also took a day off to read and watch web-based materials that felt related to these questions. (I think my subconscious was trying to tell me what this essay wants to be, and that following my instincts and looking for new resources would be a very good place to start.)

Over the last few days, I’ve also been reading Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. This book is a cool distillation of recent research on learning, including methods and techniques that we can each apply directly in our own lives.

 Feel the intensity!

Feel the intensity!

Notes from My Reading

According to Make It Stick, an 18-month study conducted at a middle school in the US showed that introducing frequent quizzes led to big increases in both student performance AND student enjoyment. This reminds of me of my own language learning back in high school. I loved taking practice exams for the TOEFL and other standardized tests; doing so helped me see what I had already mastered and what I still needed to learn.

Another effective retrieval practice: flashcards. This quote from Make It Stick helped put my teacher’s mind at ease:

For students to be able to evaluate, synthesize, and apply a concept in different settings, they’re going to be much more efficient at getting there when they have the base of knowledge and the retention, so they’re not wasting time trying to go back and figure out what that word might mean or what that concept was about. It allows them to go to a higher level.

Notes from Netflix

In addition to my reading, I also watched an episode of the Netflix show The Art of Design, which features different designers and their approaches to their work.

The interior designer Isle Crawford studies human senses and how they affect our sense of place. Her design process stems from her deep-seated belief that our work is shaped by both constraints and values. She believes in working to increase the wellbeing of the people who experience her design, and in working with clients to understand the pressures they're facing. It’s this interaction between constraints (which she gets through an interrogation of reality) and values (which she gets by empathizing with her clients) that creates results which answer to real needs.

Curriculum designers work in similar ways. By understanding student needs, we're able to design solutions that offer a sense of hope and learning mastery.

We also try to create those solutions with an eye to context. When I sit at a desk, for example, I not only work on my computer; I am also aware of the bed at my back and the bathroom by the door. The smell of the dictionary, the sound of traffic outside the window. A sense of place is integral to the process of learning.

Maybe I digress. Maybe I am going someplace that scares me - but that also potentially caters to some current needs that have not been met. I still don’t know where I am going with this second free-write. And I feel shy about it.

Matt's Comments

Great stuff, babe! I notice several major themes in your free-writing and reflections so far.

Your Values

You’re keen to help students to

  • Become more self-aware.
  • Use self-awareness as a means of understanding themselves as learners. In terms of skills, this might mean their strengths and weaknesses. In terms of their lives, this could include their hopes, fears, dreams, and uncertainties.
  • Build on their strengths and improve on their weaknesses in ways that reflect their individual learning styles.

I also noticed that you don’t want to be too pushy - but you do want to provide the structure and provocation your students need.

Your Questions About the Role of Technology in Education

You’re interested in understanding how technology can meaningfully improve students’ education, but you’re not sold on the idea that it always does.

Does this sound pretty close to what you're saying? If so, I think you've got the ingredients for an effective essay right here.

Of course, there are lots of different ways to express your ideas. You could start with an anecdote from your teaching experience, and then delve into your evolving views and the questions you hope to explore in grad school. Alternatively, you could start with an idea or question. Or you could bring in other voices - say, research on the role of technology in the classroom - and then respond to it with your own experiences and reflections.

Creating an Outline

The key, though, is arranging your ideas in an order that makes sense. This is where outlines come in. An outline is a structured way of sequencing the points you want to make, in the order you want to make them, with all of the necessary connections and transitions.

Think of an outline like a blueprint for a house – a quick way of getting your ideas out of your head and onto the page and seeing if they really support one another. If they do, great – now you’ve got your building plan. If they don’t – well, that’s okay too; now you can fix them before committing your time and energy to something more substantial.

What Should Your Outline Look Like?

If you were writing an academic essay, you could probably start with the typical five-paragraph structure. But you're not writing a purely academic essay. Instead, you're writing something more personal. So don't worry too much about following a template. Instead, play around with different sequences and see what feels good. Just make sure that every idea flows into the next.

For next week, I'd like to see a completed outline of your essay.

I'd also like to see a list of any remaining questions you have. Which ideas require a bit more thought? Which transitions need to be fleshed out more fully? After you've written and reviewed your outline several times, record every open question - every tiny butterfly in your belly - that you haven't been able to address.

The Six-Week Personal Essay Challenge: Week One - Free-Writing

Usually, Matt writes our blog posts. Today, you’ll hear from Nhung.

Dear Reader,

Once upon a time, I started an essay with the intention of applying to grad school. These kinds of personal essays have a way of grabbing me by the throat and breathing down my neck: Who do you think you are? You think you’ll be able to condense your story into 500 words and convince someone to let you into their grad program? And grant you a scholarship? Are you out of your mind?

It won’t surprise you to learn, then, that the essay I started all those months ago still lies dormant on my Google Drive. Until now…

Over the next six weeks, this essay is getting written. Matt will be my coach from start to finish, (we’re hoping this doesn’t wreck our marriage) and I will write my application essay to a graduate program in education.

The focus here will be on presenting clear ideas. (We’ll have another challenge soon, in which Matt will coach me through my frequent grammatical errors and word choice mistakes.)

The Challenge: I will write a personal essay in response to this question: “Why do you hope to attend a graduate program in Learning, Design and Technology at an American school of education?

The Rules: Each week, I will produce a version of my personal essay, and Matt will provide comments. We will go through this process for six weeks, at which point I will have a completed essay. (Then, I’ll decide whether to submit my application. The point of the Personal Essay Challenge isn’t to apply - it’s to finish an application essay that I can feel proud of.)

The Format: We will post my drafts and Matt’s comments each week until the essay is finished. You’ll see everything that we say to each other - every thought, concern, and edit.

Week One: Free-Writing Can Help You Land on Ideas You Care About

Matt suggested that I start by doing some free-writing. The idea is to pick a time period - say, 15 minutes - and just write down whatever comes to mind. There’s no editing, erasing, or worrying about punctuation; instead, you let your pen (or keyboard) record whatever your mind or heart wants to say.

These are my free-writing pieces written from July 2016 to February 2017. This challenge allows me to dust off these fragments. Scroll down for Matt’s feedback.

I’ve probably worked with 500 students now and I guess the moments of connection occur when I talk about their future travels and life’s possible trajectories. It’s a good reminder of how we share the same dream, that is to see more and do more and while doing that, work on understanding ourselves a little better.

My love for teaching also derives from my love for learning the English language. I majored in English in highschool and it’s quite fun to practice something and get better at it everyday. Just like a marathon, you complete the race by putting one foot in front of the other. Yes, there are certain strategies in learning that “helped” me compete in different contests, but what is important is that whatever I learned stays with me, and that the love of learning a language still stays.

After a while though, it’s not enough anymore to love a language, be good at it and inspire students to do the same. Working with students challenges me everyday in figuring out what makes it stick. What makes it stick for some students does not mean it will stick for other students. It’s like going off on a tangent about something for some students but to the core for some others. We talk a lot, as teachers, about diversification, and other stuffs to cater to the needs of different students in our classroom. How do we do it? With limited number of time in class and with certain variety in student body and a fixed curriculum at that.

This question got asked a lot at [the company I used to work with, let's call it NPE (Nhung's Previous Employer)]. How do make learning adaptive for each students? I am a part of the movement at this initiative. And my project under this umbrella comes in the form of a blended learning classroom. Right now the approach is to encourage self-study through a series of videos I have made about the joy and the discomfort of self-study.

The thing about my classrooms both in Vietnam and here is that there is a certain glass ceiling incurred, I would risk saying, by my own cultural background. It feels like I and students, both Thai and Vietnamese, enter a certain dance with each other. The dance is that of the teacher as a sage, not inviting disagreement, but distilling wisdom top down. Students better follow my advice or they will risk disobedience, a misbehavior in our shared culture.

It’s quite different from my husband’s class, whose class works to elicit students’ what is the word for where they stand and then build up from there. In my classroom, I ask for reverence. In his, he asks for sharing. In mine, obedience, control, and impressionability. In his, building up from what you already know, and you already know a lot. The difference between is probably  healthy, it reflects our teaching styles as disparate and us as disparate individuals with our unique dynamics with our students. And students probably benefits from this diversity.

However, sometimes I am gripped with certain questions: Am I doing enough for to empower my students? Am I acquitting them of their belief in their own ability to improve by recognizing their habits of thoughts rather than imposing some other people’s supposedly more efficient habits of thoughts? Am I responding to fear more than responding to a deeper, much more needed sense of hope from within? That’s important to me. Because of my specific background, growing up and going to schools that imposed a sense that yes, your parents know better than you do, yes, your teachers and your government know better than you do. And it feels oppressive now. It has cost me emotionally. Being in Australia and albeit paying a lot for the system to get a degree, I was always afraid of the “local” students. I felt like an impostor, that “they know better than I do.” Despite evidences on the contrary, I happily granted “local”, white students a sense of authority that they haven’t earned, that I think for myself I need to repeatedly prove to myself that I am enough. And who knows what else, financially or professionally, this veneration for the person in power has cost me over the years.

It feels like what I am doing here at NPE is to enhance the way students self-study at home. I don’t know whether I see technology as part of that really. I don’t know. But there is so much about the English language that is about self-study. And how do we assist that so that what the students are motivated to do at home will translate into higher performance in class? Somehow, these activities lose a bit of meaning. It’s a bit lacklustred. How do we fix this? Article club? Is it something to be fixed even?

I have come back to these questions for a long time and it still bugs me because I don’t know where to start. I feel like a bit intruding with all this tech-wish! I feel shy, anxious, reluctant. I feel like I’m imposing. It feels like I haven’t justified the need for it. It being one more project students have to do under the name of self-study.  But maybe it’s about the need to find out what motivates my students.

NPE’s partner said: We will move half of our classroom contents using the Flipped classroom. Instructors will only need to be there for an hour, for the first hour students will either watch the pre-recorded content at home using their laptop or borrowing the school’s desktop should the student not have internet access.

My heart sank. A lot has been said about the merits of technology in education (“the Internet is their mother tongue, after all!”). And it’s convenient for schools and educational companies developing educational products to cut cost based on this merit, too. Yet, there seems to be a gap between the promise technology-aided classrooms seem to make and the reality of students.

Yet checking into students’ reality requires that we are so very specific about what makes each tick. My students already have found out channels to dig deeper into their fields of interest, whether into super advanced college lecture sites for more physics lectures or applications to learn more vocabulary. Here I can sense my fear of imposing on them ‘yet another lecture’ to cut into their pastimes again. And then, I have a fear, as a curriculum developer, to develop audio-visual materials against what is already out there on Youtube. How do I motivate my students to watch my powerpoint and screenomatic vid where they can watch someone else with a budget and expertise to produce much more exciting stuffs.

Re-reading my free-writing the past few days, I want to focus on how about this as the main theme of my personal essay: How can technology aid in students’ motivation to get better at a language?

Matt’s Comments

Great, sweetheart! Next steps: read through your free-write and underline any phrases or sentences that jump out. What surprises you? What feels important? Are there any questions that you now find yourself asking?

Next, take these underlined phrases and paste them at the top of a new document. Use them as the starting point for a second free-write.

Thinking Clearly = Thinking Mindfully

Nick Mosca is a personalized mindfulness coach for schools and companies nationwide. He also teaches English and public speaking at The George Jackson Academy in New York City. Perhaps most importantly, he’s a kind and funny guy; I was lucky enough to share a classroom with him in grad school.

Nick Mosca.png


Nick, you’re working to introduce mindfulness into classrooms across the US. What does that involve, exactly?


First off, thank you so much for inviting me to guest blog with you. It is such a pleasure to hear about the success of Real Clear English and catch up!

Mindfulness involves easing into the present moment and choosing to respond to whatever arises with as much compassion as possible. It’s important to remember that mindfulness is a process -- and it takes practice. But it’s worth it. The more tuned into the present we are, the richer our lives become. This is because the moment at hand is really all we have.

The first step of introducing mindfulness to an organization or school involves helping the leaders/teachers cultivate a regular practice. Once that’s established (which is no small task!) mindfulness will be embodied for everyone else and taught from a place of authenticity.


At your school - and in the other schools where you consult - how does mindfulness coaching relate to the rest of the curriculum? Is it a standalone activity? Or is it integrated into classes and “regular” instruction as well?

The reason I ask is that in my own classes on critical thinking, I’m starting to see a relationship between mindfulness and clear thinking. When our thinking goes awry - say, when we commit logical fallacies or succumb to cognitive biases - it’s usually because we’re not aware of what’s going on in our own minds. Instead of recognizing our thoughts as thoughts - just stuff that our mind is generating, and that will eventually pass away - we identify with those thoughts. Sometimes, we do so very deeply - fusing with them, becoming emotionally invested in them, and confusing them with reality itself.

This makes it very hard to imagine alternatives, much less consider them.


Yes, it is often easy to forget that we are far more than the thoughts we experience - let alone that we get to choose which thoughts we act upon.

That’s why I encourage project managers and teachers to begin every meeting and class with a 3-5 minute mindfulness exercise.

When mindfulness is not part of an organization’s culture, people will find a thousand excuses not to practice. And don’t get me wrong, I completely understand why they feel that way. We're often snowed under by the endless needs of our jobs and families. But we truly can’t afford not to practice. Mindfulness is the foundation of all learning. It empowers employees and students to engage with complex material, and enables leaders to keep their cool under pressure.


I want to press this last point a little further: when I work with students, I see a direct relationship between mindfulness and the quality of my students' thinking and writing.

Some of what I discuss with my students is technical stuff - grammar, syntax, etc. But many of our conversations are ultimately about students’ motivations, beliefs, and underlying psychology. I often find myself saying things like, "You're arguing X. Why do you believe that?" or "It sounds like you want to convince your reader that Y, but I get the feeling that you don't entirely believe that…”

In other words, guiding my students means helping them pay more attention to all the stuff that's swirling around inside them. It’s hard to write a good persuasive essay if you don’t know what you think - and it’s hard to figure out what you think until you spend some time watching the complicated workings of your own mind.


Ah, the good old complicated workings of our minds; believing those thoughts swirling around it as if they were all equally true! Mindfulness creates some much-needed space between our mind and these wacky, fluid thoughts that come and go. When we regularly practice mindfulness, we are less likely to buy into these thoughts at face value and thereby gain more perspective on them.

But here's the rub: people need to genuinely want to practice. If it's seen as just another chore they need to shoehorn into their already-crammed day, they'll be less likely to do it - even though its benefits range from insomnia relief to enhanced executive functioning!

That's why I've spent the last few years developing a personalized approach to mindfulness practices. This methodology harnesses each person’s unique skills and interests to help them craft practices they genuinely want to undertake. There's no right way to practice. Once you've got the fundamentals down (process, awareness, compassion), the manifestations are limitless.