Last week I explained how to get started on your paper and write an excellent opening. Here’s a recap of what to do in the opening paragraphs: First, catch your professor’s interest with an intriguing fact relevant to your paper. Next, state clearly the main purpose of your paper. Then, briefly describe the main points related to that purpose that you will be covering in the rest of your paper.
This week I explain how to write an excellent body to your critical paper. Before you begin, you should consider writing an outline to the main arguments or points you plan to make in the paper. Then, develop each paragraph around the argument. Back each argument with very specific facts from the readings that you are analyzing or critiquing. Keep in mind that the more specific you are in providing details that support your arguments, the better your critical paper will be.
Wherever possible tie each argument back to the central point or thesis of your paper (which you already explicitly decribed in one of your opening paragraphs). Then add transitional phrases to the beginning of each paragraph, so that your whole paper reads as one seamless logical flow of ideas that are carefully backed by specifics from the readings.
Now it’s time for your conclusion. Summarize all your key points and leave your professor with a very clear take-home message. Make the professor feel that he or she knows exactly what you were trying to accomplish in the paper and that you did accomplish it. The more vague and general you are in the conclusion, the more your professor will get the impression that you just ran out of gas at the end of the all-nighter you pulled to finish it. Don’t bring up any new material in the conclusion.
As always, please let me know if my advice helps you this term!
…and you haven’t started it yet. I’m going to help you make it great. The next couple of posts will be devoted to how to write exactly the kind of critical paper your professor wants. (Note that the rules are very different for creative papers.)
This week let’s focus on how to get started. Find out exactly what your professor is looking for in the critical paper because each professor is looking for something a bit different. Read the syllabus closely for how long it should be, what kind of style to use for citations, etc. Every semester, I tell students not to put their names on the paper (just ID numbers so that I can grade them blind), but every semester some students still put their names on it.
Typically your professors are looking for some critical analysis of either the class readings or readings that you are supposed get yourself from the library or online. This means that you must read very closely these materials before you start your paper to make sure you really understand what you are analyzing in your paper. One of the most common mistakes I see is when the students present a “straw-person argument”, which means that they have presented a simplistic version of what the reading really said so that they can easily criticize the reading. You’re not going to do that!
So this week, re-read the stuff that you will be analyzing in your paper. Jot down good criticisms that occur to you as you read. Perhaps you noticed some flaws to the authors’ reasoning, some weaknesses in their research design, or some contradictions between their conclusions and the findings of another paper. Start to formulate a central theme to your paper, also called a thesis or position that you are going to advance with your paper.
Then work on your opening paragraph. Start with something provocative and interesting (yet still professional) to catch your professor’s interest. Keep in mind that your professor likely has a huge pile of papers to grade and finds grading to be a grind — so make yours stand out and easy to read.
In those opening paragraphs, make absolutely sure that you very clearly state your purpose or thesis of the paper. Also, give an overview of the arguments that you will be making to support your thesis, so that your professor knows what is coming and can more easily follow your train of thought in the rest of your paper. The easier your paper is to read and grade, the more your overworked professor will be inclined to give you the A you deserve.
Next week we’ll talk about the body and conclusion to your paper. (If you can’t stand the wait or want a step-by-step guide for paper writing, you can grab a copy of my Clever Student paperback at the Notre Dame Bookstore or click on the book link to order it on this blog and read the chapter called “Writing a Great Paper for that Professor.“)
Please post your questions. I’m here to help!
I just got back from a psychology conference in Las Vegas. The most interesting thing about my trip was not my coming back from a $5000 loss at the poker tables to losing only $800. No. It was a great talk by leading psychologist Jennifer Crocker on building self-esteem.
Professor Crocker explained that many college students try to build their self-esteem by showing their peers how great they are. But these attempts to look good don’t work. What she has found that DOES work is being responsive to your peers’ need for self-esteem. You build them up, and then your self-esteem goes up.
Professor Crocker studied college students and found that their responsiveness to their roommates was followed down the road by elevations in their own self-esteem.
So try making your friends feel particularly good about themselves this week and let’s see what happens!
Caroline Rycyna graduated from Notre Dame with honors in 2007. Caroline’s story is a touching one because she had 5 interviews for top doctoral programs in clinical psychology in 2007. But she didn’t land any placements that first year. Her story is one of persistence and ultimately of landing a spot in Ohio State’s excellent clinical PhD program. I hope that you will find it inspirational as you apply to graduate school yourself! –Anita
What follows is in Caroline’s own words:
In the beginning of my senior at ND, I applied to approximately 15 programs, most of the clinical psychology programs, and I was invited to interview for 5 of them. I attended all these interviews with eager anticipation, but I quickly discovered that I was not as confident in what I wanted to study for the next few years in school as others. All of my applications, for the most part, had extremely varying research interests, and I quickly realized during the interviews that I was not as passionate about the professors’ research as I should have been. When I found out I did not get accepted, I was naturally upset. Going to graduate school for my clinical Ph.D. had been my plan since I was in 7th grade, and I felt a little lost. I was repeatedly told not to take the rejection personally, that it had become ridiculously hard to be accepted into these programs, especially coming right out of undergraduate, but I could not help but feel a little blow to my self-esteem, since this goal had always been such a personal one.
Following the suggestion of some of my professors, I applied for research jobs. I chose the Boston area because there were a multitude of them available, and I had always liked Boston, and one of my sisters lived less than 2 hours away. I applied on job site websites for research positions at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), McLean Hospital, and Brigham & Women’s. I remember submitting my CV to 10s of them at a time, just hoping for some sort of response. After I submitted once for the position of a research coordinator in the Pediatric Psychopharmacology Research Unit in the Psychiatry Department at MGH, the HR representative emailed me the next day expressing the department’s interest in me. A few days later, I did a phone interview, and then they invited me to interview in person. When I interviewed, I met with the psychologists and other research assistants with whom I would work, and I liked them immediately. I accepted the employment offer and began my job in the beginning of July of 2007.
I worked on a team of 7 other research assistants and two psychologists. For example, I coordinated an individualized CBT treatment study for 18-24 yr olds with bipolar disorder as well as a family neuroimaging study looking at children (6-17 yrs of age) at risk for bipolar disorder. My friend, Marisa, coordinated a longitudinal study investigating the relationship between temperament in 2-5 yr olds and risk for later psychological issues, particularly externalizing disorders (i.e., bipolar disorder, conduct disorder, ADHD, ODD). We also had studies looking at kids at risk for anxiety. Needless to say, I was fortunate to be exposed to a variety of quality of research which helped me to decide what I might want to pursue in graduate school. In addition to our team, several other psychiatrists had their own research projects involving individuals with adult ADHD, OCD, eating disorders, PDD, and others. Some research assistants in the lab conducted cognitive assessments and administered clinical interviews (e.g., SCID-IV and KSADS-E) to both children and parents.
I was lucky enough to both coordinate and also do assessments for the other studies in the department. One of these studies was a family study of children with pediatric bipolar disorder. I found myself particularly drawn to these families and their stories and always was touched by their struggles with acquiring the best treatment for their children while combating the public’s opinion of this controversial diagnosis. I found the same enjoyment in working with the families for my neuroimaging study, as some of the children actually had the BPD diagnosis, while others were partially affected with issues such as depression and/or ADHD. After a year of working with these families, I knew for sure that I wanted to conduct research with this same population.
My mentor there was kind enough to sit down with me and discuss possible programs that might be a good fit. She mentioned Dr. Mary Fristad’s research at The Ohio State University and how it might be a good fit. I immediately did some research about Dr. Fristad’s work and found her psychosocial treatments for families with pediatric bipolar disorder to be a perfect combination of my interests. Ohio State immediately became my #1 graduate school choice. For the next few months, I worked hard on my applications, thankfully with the help of my friends who were also applying at MGH. I ended up applying to 13 schools, which I was a little unsure about because most of my other friends were applying to more. However, this time around I was looking at programs which involved research on childhood mood disorders, especially pediatric bipolar disorder, and there were not that many in areas of the country where I would consider living. I decided earlier on that I would not be applying to anywhere I could not see myself living because it would be a waste of my time, money, and effort. Thus, I submitted 13 applications and crossed my fingers hoping for the best.
On January 13th, Dr. Fristad called to invite me to interview, and I was ecstatic! For the interview, I read some of her articles and familiarized myself with her research. When I met her and the other faculty, as well as heard more about the program, I had a feeling that OSU was where I belonged. A week later, I received an email with my admissions offer, and I struggled to decide whether or not I should go to my last 3 interviews. (I went to another interview the same weekend as OSU’s, which totals to 5 interview invitations.) I decided to go to 1 more, which I ended up not liking. It was during this third interview that I realized OSU was where I wanted to be. And the rest is history! –Caroline Rycyna
I have invited Sam Stryker, a first-year Notre Dame student and reporter for the Observer, to write a reaction to last week’s post. Here is what he has to say about making the right impression in class:
It’s very easy to say that being smart is “in” at college, and in order to succeed in class one must sit in the front row of class, raise one’s hand at every available opportunity and try to show off to the professor how smart you are in front of the class. I however will argue that in doing so one in fact could be making an incredibly stupid choice. Now why would sitting in the front of the class be such a risky proposition? Because in order to be a truly successful human being, one must achieve both the respect of one’s peers and one’s superiors. Remember, when you get hired down the road by some corporation you are being hired for what you have achieved as a person, not just a student. There will be an interview component and I heartily believe that personality is as valuable a trait as scholastic achievement. Though Dr. Kelly would advise me from saying this, I know for a fact that I am not the smartest person in any of my classes and in fact I am in the bottom half in terms of academic talent for some of the classes (I am in the Honors Program, so I would be surprised if I was). You know what? I am completely fine with that. In fact, I know I can be more successful in life than a lot of the kids in my classes who receive better grades than me. Why is that? It’s two things. One, I know I have the respect of my professors. The brown nosers of the class may have this one down pat, but I do too. When I raise my hand in class, I do so because I have something to contribute to the class that will further the discussion. It may be an idea I have, or outside knowledge I think is important. The key difference between a brown noser and me is that I am not TRYING to look smart. It’s all about appearing effortless. This is how you gain the respect of your peers, something that brown nosers tend to ignore. Your peers will be your friends, your coworkers, and your networking when you graduate from school. It’s very easy to suck up and act all nice to a professor who is older than you and holds a position of power, but one can truly learn something by how one treats their equals. When I see someone brown nosing, I lose respect for them because they are treating the professors like they are stupid and can be easily buttered up. Brown nosing shows little to no true knowledge of the topic being discussed, because in and of itself it is about showing off in the most shameless way possible. In summary, being smart is “in” and college. There is just a very precise way of doing it—don’t look like you’re trying too hard! And remember, you want to gain both the respect of your peers and your professors, because your relationships with both determine how far you go in life, not just one or the other. –Sam Stryker
On separate occasions this week, two students told me almost exactly the same thing: “There are so many students around here way smarter than me.” What’s funny is that it turns out that both these students have really high IQs.
In addition, over the years, many students have told me on the first day of class that they are not particularly interested in studying anything.
So, the question is, “Why would students meeting a professor for the first time shoot themselves in the foot by telling the professor that they are not that smart or motivated?” After all, professors do not grade papers blind and can be heavily influenced by the impressions you give during class. If you tell professors bad things about yourself, they are likely to believe you. And this negative impression has the potential to hurt your grade.
I believe that the answer to this question lies in what you had to do to make friends long before you came to college. You had to look like you weren’t conceited or trying too hard in high school to fit in, because the motivated and brainy kids weren’t the most popular.
But now you are in college. Smart is definitely “in”. It’s time to consider shedding any ”dumb” persona. Instead of sitting in the back and acting barely interested in the class material to fit in with your current friends, you could try sitting in the front and formulating brilliant questions for your professor. Beyond impressing your professors, you might discover that your brilliance is downright attractive to your classmates.
Also, please never, never tell a professor that you did not do well on the SAT. Professors can be total geeks when it comes to standardized testing and may conclude that you are not smart because of that darn test score.
The following question came yesterday from Brittany, a student in my upcoming Personality class:
“What are some good techniques that can be used to avoid procrastinating and to get studying and assignments done more efficiently?”
Well, Brittany, let me start by noting that procrastination is extremely common among college students. You have so many assignments and activities competing for your time. Plus, you are young, and thus need more sleep than you will later in life. This combination means you are frequently tired and feeling guilty about not getting more things done. I myself was a huge procrastinator in college, but now my husband calls me “the non-procrastinator.”
Some experts on procrastination say that the key to organizing your time and getting things done on time is to make a list of all the things you must do. You can make the to-do list for the next day before you go to bed. Then, when you wake up you can begin to tackle the items on the list. You keep reviewing the list and checking off items as you complete them. It’s a simple trick that might work.
But perhaps you don’t want to make lists and force yourself to organize your time. If that’s the case, you can decide right now that you know you a procrastinator and plan your procrastination. You can say at the beginning of the semester that you are only going to give yourself 2 nights to write any paper and 2 nights to study for any major exam. Through planning your procrastination, at least this way you won’t always feel guilty about not getting to your assignments (because it’s part of your plan for the semester). Do give yourself at least 2 nights for a big paper, though, because you will get insights on the paper in between the times you work on it.
If you think that these recommendations are too simplistic for your personal form of procrastination, then you could try reading the book Awaken Your Stronger Self: Break Free of Stress, Inner Conflict, and Self-Sabotage by Neil Fiore, PhD. It is well-reviewed and can be ordered at http://www.amazon.com/Awaken-Your-Strongest-Self-Self-Sabotage/dp/0071470263/ref=sr_1_11?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1262968117&sr=1-11
If you try any of these recommendations, please let us all know how it works for you!
The new semester is right around the corner. What can you possibly do to increase your performance in your courses that you haven’t tried already?
Well, have you considered the following?
Professors grade your in-class participation and your papers subjectively. And they can be influenced by the seemingly small things you do in class. So, this semester, I suggest you try the following:
I know this sounds manipulative. But you’ll find that when you act this way, you will genuinely become that conscientious, dream student that professors love. Try this for one whole semester, and let me know how it works out for you. Sticking to it may take as much resolve as your toughest New Year’s resolution, but you may be amazed at the results.
I received this question from a student right before Christmas:
“Hi Professor Kelly! I have a question. I want to do undergraduate research this summer with a particular professor in the Theology department. I had a class with him in the fall that I really loved, but because it was a lecture course, he only really knows my name and just a little bit about my writing style. I feel a little strange asking him since he hardly knows me (also I know he is very busy and intimidatingly important), and beyond that, I really just don’t even know how to approach him. What can/should I say? How is this conversation supposed to go?”
Dear Anonymous Student,
My advice about getting a professor to agree to take you on as an undergraduate research assistant is similar to my advice to students who want a professor to take them on as a graduate advisee. The key is to express your knowledge of his research when you meet with him. Explain why working with him matches your own research interests so well. Thus, you will need to have read at least a couple of his recent or major papers.
If you can demonstrate your knowledge of his research and how you could fit into his research program, these efforts are likely to increase your chances of his accepting you as a research assistant. This is because professors love students who share their research interests. And they love students who have done their homework.
Don’t be shy about approaching this professor. Your interest will be flattering, and he might be very happy to find someone like you who is willing to work in the summer. Please let us know how your meeting goes!
This week Sarah wrote:
“I have a question for you about the appropriateness of thanking your professors at the end of a semester. Every once in a while, I feel so strongly about a professor that I want to thank them in an email or letter. I have had a few professors who have really gone out of their way to help me out. When this happens, and the end of the semester comes, it feels so unnatural not to send them a thank you letter. At the same time, it feels slightly unethical to me to send a professor a thank you note or email whenever my grade is not yet determined. I fear that they will feel pressured to give me a grade higher than I deserve. I also fear my professor will perceive my gratitude as an attempt to get a better grade. Do you think that thank you letters are appropriate, and if so, how can I write one in a way that my professor won’t perceive it to be an attempt to obtain a higher grade?”
A solution is to send the thank-you letter after your grade has been submitted. But don’t worry if you send it a little early. We professors very much appreciate the sweet letters that students sometimes send us at the end of the term. We don’t see it as ingratiation. You can be as extreme as you want in your appreciation, which goes a long way to make your professor feel good and want to help students even more.
Thank you for your question for all of us to read! –Anita