Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Open-Ended Assignments, Part 1: A Blank Slate Doesn’t Have to Mean a Blank Mind

By Travis Willmore

At times in your college career, you’ll face open-ended writing assignments. You may be asked to write about “a moment that changed your life,” or “a time you used interpersonal skills to solve a problem.” This last type of question pops up a lot, not only in class assignments, but in job applications, personal statements, grad school apps, and various other instances when people want to hear you describe your abilities on your own terms.

Such instances give you unlimited creative freedom. This freedom can feel a bit overwhelming—like being placed in the driver’s seat of a car and told to drive in any direction you want. You might find yourself wishing someone would say, “The road’s right over there.” At the risk of sounding self-helpy, though, there are a number of ways you can Find Your Own Road.

Start by playing to your strengths. Of all the papers you’ve been assigned that do have strict guidelines, which type comes most naturally to you? Maybe you’re good with personal narrative, telling the story of your thought processes as you investigate a topic. Or, maybe you prefer to keep things more fact-based and less personal. This isn’t necessarily a big hurdle in an assignment asking you to talk about yourself—just let your experiences have the leading role in the paper and minimize the “I’s” and “me’s”.

If you’re struggling over which experiences to focus on, think about what skills you want to highlight for your readers and pick situations that demonstrate your use of those skills. You could also ask someone involved in your life for some outside perspective. As your topic begins to take shape, stay on the lookout for a main theme or point that all this information might be bringing into focus. An ability to focus in on an overriding theme, when no outside focusing mechanism is provided, will serve you well in college. It will also be useful in the post-collegiate world where you won’t always be handed tightly delineated assignments with a concrete grading scale.


DanielStewart said...
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