Writing college essays

I teach college. My classes involve a lot of writing; there’s no getting around there. I read and grade a lot of writing. Midterms and finals are often essays, and they’re often in the 4 to 12 page range.

And I often hear from my students, after the fact, comments like this.

  • “I didn’t get the grade I was expecting.”
  • “I usually do much better than this.”
  • “This grade was disappointing.”
  • “For the amount of effort I put into this, I was expecting a higher grade.”

Let’s talk about this. I’ll use my recent round of midterms as a reference point for this discussion.

When I prepare to grade essays, go to back to the things I know that the students have used to prepare the essays. I keep them with me. I do this, to ensure that I have the exact instructions they have. I do this to ensure that I match the exact requirements that I gave to them, to the essays they gave back to me. This is absolutely critical to me. “I told you to do this, and this is what you returned to me.” There has to be a direct collection.

It always begins with the syllabus. I teach my classes online. To get to the course content, the students have to click a button to acknowledge that they have read the syllabus. Have they? They click a button that they have.

In the syllabus for one of my current classes, it has two pieces of information regarding the midterm essay. The first is this.

The first essay will be 4-6 pages and will be due at the conclusion of lesson 3. We will discuss the content of that essay during the first lesson.

There’s another part of the syllabus that says that students need to read the announcements that I publish. Those are, in essence, any updates to the syllabus.

The second piece in the syllabus about the midterm essay is this.

Guidance Concerning Paper Structure:  Your paper will address an issue affecting U.S. intelligence collection and national security.  Approach this paper as if you are developing policy position for your boss to take to the Director for National Intelligence or a congressional hearing. Essays will contain four main sections, labeled as follows:

  1. Description – Briefly describe the issue and provide background information needed for the subsequent sections (who, what, when, where, and how – set the conditions for your argument).
  2. Explanation – Identify the main elements or “drivers” of this issue.  What are the most important aspects, which, if resolved, could lead to a solution? Citations will be important.
  3. Analysis – This is the part of the paper where you examine the drivers and decide which ones are most important.  In many cases, this will involve analytical and value judgments on your part.  Most of the scholarly sources you have used will already have done this, so you should not find yourselves having to do so from scratch.  It is acceptable to say that source A analyzes the issue this way, while source B analyses it another way. Citations will be important. At the end of this section, state your position and justify your reasoning.
  4. Recommendations – Make suggestions for resolving the issue.  Critical thinking and imagination are applied here. These can be solutions you have developed on your own.  They also can be ones you have read in your sources, as long as you reference them. As you develop your recommendation, imagine that you are answering the question for your boss, who is preparing to brief the President on your findings.

That seems pretty straightforward. It’s very prescriptive. Students are going to use a set format.

I wrote and shared an announcement. “Week 3 Essay ‘Mid-Term'” I called it. In it, I actually pulled the exact language from the Lesson 3 Assignment instructions.

You may choose one of two options or propose your own topic.

Prepare a 4-6 page memo to a “policy maker” on an issue related to intelligence collection. Choose a “hot button” intelligence topic of the day or use one of the following options.

A) Something something something. Compare and contract the purpose of this with the its purpose when conducted for (something else). What are the significant moral, ethical and legal differences the two? What changes to policy or procedures do you recommend? What changes to current legislation would you recommend?
B) Something totally different. What are the risks associated with this? Are there X or Y or Z associated with it? What changes do you recommend?
C) Something really, really different. What are the risks associated with this? How can these  be mitigated?

Prepare a 4-6 page memorandum to a “policy maker” on a recent or historical espionage case, that was resolved through American counterintelligence operations. Address the impact on HUMINT and counterintelligence policies and practices.

Essay will be turned in to the professor via the Blackboard Assignment system. Students will not present their essay to their fellow students.

There are a number of key things in here. Or propose your own topic. I will almost always will include this exact language. I am about learning. I want students to have every opportunity to demonstrate that they have learned the material, not that they can answer some question that I have created.

The trick, though, is that for students that proposed their own topic, they were free to write to their own topics. For students that chose to answer one of my proposed questions… I expected them to answer that question. I expected them to answer it fully, and completely. In taking on the task of choosing one of them, a student needs to take on the whole of the topic presented in the question, in order to demonstrate that least that much of an understanding of their knowledge of the topic.

There are also specific instructions that are included, often in a syllabus. Essay length is often specified. Due date and time is often specified. I often include this nugget, “Bibliographic and citation guidelines should adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style 16th Edition. Complete instructions and guidance on this document are available on this web site: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/717/01/” not just because it’s the policy of the school (it is) but because it’s an easy to use guide and using it – especially footnotes – makes for better arguments.

That’s something I don’t specify, but I beat the drum nonstop – cite everything. Citations, citations, citations. How do you know this. A bibliography isn’t enough. Endnotes aren’t as good as footnotes.

It making arguments in an essay, footnotes are key. If you’re going to use ten facts to support your assessment, having ten citations – footnotes – from experts eliminates any opportunity for your reader to questions your facts. Your reader has to accept them, if they accept the validity of the sources you have used. If they accept them, they have to accept your assessment. String together enough of those, and the whole of your paper is perfect. Ten assessments in a paper, each on perfectly supported my perfectly annotated footnotes, makes for a perfectly supported thesis statement and a unquestionable conclusion. Of course it’s true – there’s no room to doubt anything the author has said.

I also beat the drum nonstop about using the school writing center. I have students who are on campus, but I have students who are in many time zones. That’s just a reality. Our writing center doesn’t care. They’re that awesome.

What I can’t do is convince students to take to the writing center these specified requirements (like I laid out above), along with their thesis statement for their essay or product, and just their basic outline. That would be such an amazing place for them to start in getting help in ensuring they are on a solid glidepath for their work. Matching the requirements to their thesis statement and their outline is solid foundational work. After that, they are in a position to return next with an initial draft, and then with a final draft. It’s a great pairing, a great relationship with the writing center.

Also, having an extra set of eyes to review a final is key. I’ve  had students submit papers in which they spelled their own names incorrectly. They’ve submitted papers in which they have typographical errors in the title of their essay – plural, as in more than one such error in the title. Having someone else to help review an initial draft as well as a final draft should be seen as a key or critical task associated with any serious writing effort.

It’s also the kind of relationship any writer should have with others. That, though, is another topic altogether.




3 thoughts on “Writing college essays

  1. Welcome to education. In my experience, students always want to question your judgment. You may eliminate many of these complaints by providing a rubric, or criteria sheet prior to them starting the essay. You could also build a 1-day peer review session into your course, which would enable students to “learn via evaluation” as they read someone else’s essay and grade it with an online rubric. I have found that my students are harsher graders than I am. As far as mistakes and typos, I would think that would be inexcusable at the college level with today’s technology. I return those papers to my high schoolers ungraded and give them two days to fix the mistakes and resubmit. Here are the tools my students use: https://historyrewriter.com/2015/07/03/role-of-robo-readers/
    Stay tough, in the end they will love you for it.

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