- Explain how to get clarification on writing assignments proactively and productively
It happens to all of us occasionally: The assignment’s right there in front of us, but we genuinely can’t figure out how to get going. Maybe it’s hard to interpret the prompt: what is this assignment asking for? Sometimes the prompt seems like it’s designed to confuse you, like the infamous University of Chicago admissions essay questions:
- What is square one and can you actually go back to it? 
- Cats have nine lives, Pac-Man has 3 lives, and radioactive isotopes have half-lives. How many lives does something else—conceptual or actual—have, and why?
- If there’s a limited amount of matter in the universe, how can Olive Garden (along with other restaurants and their concepts of food infinity) offer truly unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks? Explain this using any method of analysis you wish—physics, biology, economics, history, theology… the options, as you can tell, are endless.
In a case like this, where the cursor is blinking, the clock is ticking and your mind is blank, it’s time to email the instructor (or better yet, if the schedule works, sign up for office hours). HOWEVER: before writing this email, we need to do some background work. First, this email should be sent well before the assignment is due. Don’t be this student:
- Student: The assignment is due tomorrow, and I don’t know where to start.
- Professor: The real question is when to start. Try a week ago.
As a rule, never just write that you’re confused or don’t know where to start. How could anyone respond productively to that? Instead, try to think about how you would answer the question if clarification wasn’t an option. If there’s a specific reason why you’re having trouble answering the question, try to give a sense of why you are confused: where exactly do you see a contradiction or a problem? Here’s a formula:
Dear Professor _______:
I was hoping you could provide some clarification about the essay topic for [ COURSE NAME ]. My understanding is that this assignment is asking us to [ YOUR BEST UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT THE PROMPT IS LOOKING FOR ]. I was thinking of approaching this by [ YOUR APPROACH ], but wanted to run the idea past you first.
Thank you for any guidance you can offer!
You can write the message in your own voice, and with the level of formality that seems appropriate for the situation and the course. The main thing is to give enough information about your thought process so far that the instructor or TA can help you productively. Let’s practice!
- Read the following essay prompt. Let’s say it’s for an imaginary course called “Ways of Knowing.”
French novelist Anatole France wrote: “An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don’t.” What don’t you know?
- Spend around 5 minutes breaking down what the question is asking for. Are there words or concepts you need to review or look up?
- Spend around 5 minutes brainstorming how you could tackle the question.
- In your workshop document, use the template to write an email to an imaginary professor sharing your initial ideas and asking for clarification.
Dear Professor Unklar:
I was hoping you could provide some clarification about the essay topic for “Ways of Knowing.” My understanding is that this assignment is asking us to [ YOUR BEST UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT THE PROMPT IS LOOKING FOR ]. I was thinking of approaching this by [ YOUR APPROACH ], but wanted to run the idea past you first.
Thank you for any guidance you can offer!
- https://waylandstudentpress.com/52263/articles/students-respond-to-the-university-of-chicagos-essay-questions/ ↵
- https://www.collegeessayadvisors.com/supplemental-essay/university-of-chicago-2019-20-supplemental-essay-prompt-guide/ ↵
- Brown University admissions essay question, as quoted in Ryan, Julia. “Applying to College Shouldn't Require Answering Life's Great Questions.” The Atlantic, 4 Oct. 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/10/applying-to-college-shouldnt-require-answering-lifes-great-questions/280250/. ↵