Advising Senior Essays

Every year for the last five years I’ve advised two or three students writing senior essays. During that time I’ve noticed there are two types of student: Those who plug away the whole year (Type A) and those who have a lot of distractions during the year and end up cramming at the end (Type B). It turns out that the advising approach I’ve been using only works well for the type A students.

Last fall, I (verbally) gave each of my advisees a road map of the steps necessary to write a good essay, but I didn’t set any intermediate deadlines or specify any intermediate deliverables. We proceeded to meet as a group every Friday afternoon all year to talk together about recent progress and work through roadblocks. At the end of each meeting, individual next steps were clear to everyone.

What happens with the Type B students is that a week before the essays are due, they reach where they should have been two months earlier. This is frustrating for everyone involved. It requires very intense work on the students’ parts and very quick turnaround of feedback on my part at a time of year that’s already pretty busy. These students are producing good work, but it’s late and they don’t have time to make it good as it could be.

This is all going to change next year. Everyone I advise will get a calendar in the fall that has explicit due dates for following deliverables:

  • Research question
  • Literature review
  • Clear hypothesis
  • An economic model
  • A proposed empirical approach and potential data set
  • Descriptive statistics from the data
  • Draft main results
  • Final tables
  • Complete draft (2 weeks before actual due date so I have time to give feedback)

I’m even considering making the deadline that comes at the end of the fall a hard deadline such that if they don’t meet it, they have to drop the senior essay.

The particular components listed above are specific to the kinds of essays I advise (mostly applied microeconomic analyses), but I’ve heard that other departments have similar structures and similar intermediate deadlines. The funny thing is that I’ve been doing this all along in my seminars where I have my students write research proposals comprised of the first five elements submitted in three discrete chunks as the semester progresses.

This new approach won’t affect my Type A students much at all, but I’m cautiously optimistic that it will keep my next round of Type B students on track.