The senior essay is often the longest and most complex paper a student will write during a Yale career. While the Writing Center supports all student writers, we’re especially eager to help as you plan, develop, and revise your senior essay.
The expectations for a good essay vary by department, because different fields have different standards for evidence, analysis, and argument. Below we offer some general good advice for developing a senior essay, followed by a list of some of the additional resources available to help you complete your essay.
Tip #1: Write about something you’re curious about or don’t quite understand.
Although this advice applies to any writing project, it’s especially crucial for a long essay. If you don’t begin with something you’re curious about - something you really care about figuring out - you’ll have trouble sustaining interest in your essay, either for yourself or for your readers. Papers you’ve written for coursework can be a great source for topics, if there are issues that were just starting to excite you when it was time to turn in the initial paper. Think, too, about unanswered questions you’ve had from the courses in your major; your senior essay can be an opportunity to explore more deeply an issue that you feel has been neglected. Most advisors will want to begin discussions of your topic as far in advance as possible. If yours hasn’t initiated that conversation, take the first step and set up an appointment today.
Tip #2: Use writing to help shape your research - not just to record your results.
The most productive change most students need to make in working on their essay is to begin writing sooner. We don’t mean by this just avoiding procrastination. Even if you begin researching and meeting with your advisor early in the year, you may still be tempted to delay writing until you have a strong sense of your direction, or even an outline. But research shows that taking time to write all throughout the process will help you develop a richer, more complex thesis. Here are some occasions to write that you may not have thought of on your own:
Write about your ideas as a way to find and explore your initial topic.
Don’t just underline and take notes on our early research; take ten minutes to write at the beginning and end of each research session about what you’ve learned and the new questions you’ve discovered.
Write before and after meeting with your advisor. Even if you have a draft or chapter to show, take an extra ten minutes to write about your sense of the project - where it’s going well and where you need help.
It’s possible that you won’t incorporate this writing directly into your final essay, but doing it will help you reflect more effectively on the progress of your research, which will lead to fuller and more satisfying results.
Tip #3: Develop a bigger network of readers.
Ideally, you will have the opportunity to meet with your advisor several times in both terms while working on your essay. This is the person who can help you the most with questions of general direction, with focusing on the most productive parts of your topic, and with finding the most relevant research sources. But most professional writers get feedback from several readers before publication, and so should you. One obvious source for additional readers is the Writing Center, which offers several different kinds of tutoring. But showing your work to friends, roommates, and classmates can also be immensely helpful. If you haven’t shared your work with other writers before, let us give you some advice about how to make these opportunities productive: don’t expect student readers to offer solutions. Instead, get your readers to raise questions that you can talk and think through more deeply. Or ask them just to say what they understand and where they get stuck, then use your own judgment about whether your advisor will have the same kinds of questions. Until you’ve tried it, you have no idea how valuable it is just to show your work in progress to someone. Even before they say anything back, the meeting will allow you to think about your own writing differently. If they also give you helpful advice, well that’s just a bonus.
Many departments publish guidelines for senior essay writers. We’ve compiled a few of these below. If your department is not listed, ask your DUS if any guidelines exist. The Writing Center Director, Alfred Guy, is available to help departments create and post advice for their senior essay writers.
Residential College Writing Tutors
Every residential college has a dedicated writing tutor, and they have experience with senior essays from a wide range of departments. Students who work with a tutor write better essays, and the sooner you start, the better. Go to the tutoring section of this Web site and contact your tutor today.
Workshops for Senior Essay Writers
Many departments offer a senior essay colloquium—the Writing Center directors are available to lead discussions about any topic related to developing your essay, including: setting a timetable, soliciting and using feedback, and structuring a long essay. In the past few years, we’ve worked with colloquia in American Studies, Sociology, and African Studies, and we’d love to meet with your group. Ask the coordinator of your colloquium to contact us to arrange a meeting.
Other Yale Resources
The Mellon Seminars
Each residential college organizes a Mellon seminar for senior essay writers. During these seminars, you’ll have the chance to talk about your work in progress with other seniors. Check with the Master’s office in your college for more details.