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College Essay Proposal Format

Whether you choose a research paper, a paper based on an Academic Civic Engagement project, or a project that will produce something other than a 35-40 page paper (perhaps a creative project, a website, or something else), you must submit a proposal to the American Studies program in fall of senior year that will merit approval by the faculty. A comps proposal is a thoughtful, detailed plan, a road map that you anticipate following. Of course, you cannot know exactly where your exploration will take you and the proposal does not bind you to avenues of inquiry that you discover to be dead ends. However, a successful proposal does demonstrate that you have a good idea of possible routes and have anticipated potential potholes in the road and thought about how to avoid them.

A successful proposal will outline your topic and approach, will indicate that relevant evidence is available to you, and show that you have the requisite skills and abilities to make sense of the evidence you propose to use, whether it is textual, statistical, ethnographic, visual, etc. If you propose research involving human subjects (e.g. interviews or survey research), you must obtain permission from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) in advance; see Carleton's Institutional Review Board webpage and indicate in your proposal that you have consulted with the IRB and begun the formal process of gaining approval or exemption. If you anticipate a product other than a 35-40 page paper, please explain as fully as possible the final form you hope your project will take. Any good proposal will make a case that this comps is worth doing – that it will add to the scholarly conversation about your topic in some way and that it will be an appropriate culmination of your interdisciplinary American Studies major. You should work closely with your advisor, as well as the faculty leader of AmSt 399 and your peers, in developing your proposal.

The proposal should be typed and double-spaced, coherently organized, carefully written, and honest about areas that are not fully developed. Examples of successful proposals done by previous students in the program are available in the e-reserves section of the Gould Library page under AMST 400. 

The preferred format of the proposal is as follows:


• Working Title: This should tell the reader the specific focus of the paper; it can also be clever. Your final title might be different.

• Explain in a paragraph or two why this topic is worth investigating. Be sure to define all your key terms.


• Narrow your focus from a broad interest and formulate a question about your topic. Posing two or three related questions might work well, but any more than that would likely be too many for a paper/project of this scope. You should pose questions that are answerable with information that you are confident will be available to you; you want to present a plan that is doable with the time and resources that you have. Articulate your working thesis if you have one.


• What sources will you use? What is their nature? Where are they located? How will you gain access to them? What will constitute evidence for your argument / interpretation in your comps? Include reference to both primary and secondary sources. What sources do you think will be central to your paper / project, and what will you need to explore as background or context? This should be a description and not a list (that will come later, in the Bibliography), and should reflect the interdisciplinarity of your inquiry.

• What methods will you use to explore and analyze your sources? How will you gather or generate your information / evidence?


Be specific about describing different methods drawn from multiple disciplinary approaches, as appropriate. Give examples of the kind of inquiry you’ll pursue, to the extent that you can. For instance, if you plan to conduct interviews, include a list of questions you intend to ask as an appendix to your proposal. Similarly, if you plan to use information from a particular database, such as a census report or a Pew Research Survey, it would be helpful to include a sample page or two as an appendix, as well as a description in the methods section of how you’ll use such information. This is the place to indicate that you’ve started the Institutional Review Board (IRB) process of approval if your proposed research involves Human Subjects.

• This Sources and Methods section is important in assuring yourself, your advisor, and the American Studies faculty that your research plan is doable. Of course, your sources and methods may evolve and change as you do further research, thinking, and consultation with advisors.


• How do you anticipate that your work will fit with earlier research and analysis related to your topic? Describe the conversation you’ll be joining in undertaking this project – what are the debates? Whose work will you be building on? What bodies of knowledge will you add to? What interpretations do you expect to contradict or revise? This is an invitation to situate yourself in relevant scholarship – to provide a review of the relevant literature. Here you should move beyond what you’ve already said about SOURCES, and include evaluation and context. Likewise, this should be a narrative and not just a list (which you’ll include in the BIBLIOGRAPHY). What do you think you’ll contribute that’s new or different – e.g. are you looking at new sources, or a new combination of evidence, offering a new interpretation or new angle on the question? If you know of relevant theoretical framework(s) that you’ll use, include a description here.

• Exploring and analyzing the conversation(s) you’re joining in undertaking your comps will help you answer the ultimate “so what?” question about the significance of your work.


• List all the sources you’ve identified so far, whether or not you’ve already looked at them. Your bibliography should be divided into two sections, one for primary sources and the other for secondary sources. Within each, list items in alphabetical order by last name of author, and annotate the bibliography to indicate what you have read and what you have not yet read. Indicate why you think sources are promising and relevant, what they contain or what you think they contain.
• Successful proposals will (at this stage) include at least a dozen substantial sources of information, with annotations.
• American Studies uses Chicago Style formatting for notes and bibliography. Handbooks with examples are available in the Writing Center in the library; you could also consult the journal American Quarterly (available in paper copy in the library) to see articles using Chicago formatting. If you choose to use different Style conventions, please discuss with your advisor and explain in your proposal.


• How well-prepared are you to undertake this comps essay or project? List here the courses you have taken that have given you the background knowledge and tools you’ll need and explain how they’ve prepared you. Also, describe any extra-academic experience or training that has given you needed skills or relevant practice. Explain how this paper or project will be an appropriate capstone to YOUR intellectual journey through the American Studies major.


• Download the American Studies Comps Proposal Cover Sheet, fill it out, and include it with your proposal. You must obtain the signature of your advisor on this sheet before turning it in. The signature of your advisor does not constitute approval from the program. 


Comps Proposals are due electronically by 5pm on Tuesday of seventh week of fall term (October 24th, 2017) on the AMST Class of ’18 Moodle site.  Seniors should make sure they have access to this site well before the due date. Any problems, contact lfalconer@carleton.edu asap.

Writing Academic Proposals: Conferences, Articles, and Books


This resource will help undergraduate, graduate, and professional scholars write proposals for academic conferences, articles, and books.

Contributors: Martina Jauch, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2018-02-14 03:33:31


An important part of the work completed in academia is sharing our scholarship with others. Such communication takes place when we present at scholarly conferences, publish in peer-reviewed journals, and publish in books. This OWL resource addresses the steps in writing for a variety of academic proposals.

For samples of conference proposals, article abstracts and proposals, and book proposals, click here.

Conference proposals

Beginning the process

Make sure you read the call for papers carefully to consider the deadline and orient your topic of presentation around the buzzwords and themes listed in the document. You should take special note of the deadline and submit prior to that date, as late submissions leave a bad impression and suggest poor planning skills.

If you have previously spoken on or submitted a proposal on the same essay topic, you should carefully adjust it specifically for this conference or even completely rewrite the proposal based on your changing and evolving research.

The topic you are proposing should be one that you can cover easily within a time frame of approximately fifteen to twenty minutes. You should stick to the required word limit of the conference call, usually 250 to 300 words. The organizers have to read a large number of proposals, especially in the case of an international or interdisciplinary conference, and will appreciate your brevity.

Structure and components

A conference proposal will typically consist of an introduction to your topic, which should not amount to more than one-third of the length of your submission, followed by your thesis statement and a delineation of your approach to the problem.

You should then explain why your thesis is original and innovative as well as important and interesting to scholars who might be outside your specific area of research. As Kate Turabian states, “whether your role at a conference is to talk or only listen depends not just on the quality of your research, but on the significance of your question” (Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 2007. p. 128). This portion takes up approximately three to five lines, whereas the rest (approximately another third of the total length) focuses on the conclusion that you will arrive at in your essay and exemplary evidence.

Important considerations for the writing process

First and foremost, you need to consider your future audience carefully in order to determine both how specific your topic can be and how much background information you need to provide in your proposal. Larger conferences, such as regional MLA meetings or the ALA (American Literature Association) will require you to direct your remarks to an audience that might not conduct research on the same time period or literary field at all.

Along those lines, you might want to check whether you are basing your research on specific prior research and terminology that requires further explanation. As a rule, always phrase your proposal clearly and specifically, avoid over-the-top phrasing and jargon, but do not negate your own personal writing style in the process.

If you would like to add a quotation to your proposal, you are not required to provide a citation or footnote of the source, although it is generally preferred to mention the author’s name. Always put quotes in quotation marks and take care to limit yourself to at most one or two quotations in the entire proposal text. Furthermore, you should always proofread your proposal carefully and check whether you have integrated details, such as author’s name, the correct number of words, year of publication, etc. correctly.

If you are comparing and contrasting two different authors or subjects, you should clearly outline the process at which you arrive at your conclusion, even in a short proposal. The reader needs to realize the importance and legitimacy of comparing these two themes and get a sense of cohesion.

Types of conference papers and sessions

As a scholar, you may encounter the following presentation types; they cannot be sorted into either the humanities or the sciences. On a general note, however, humanities papers are usually read aloud at a conference, sometimes with the use of audiovisual equipment, and can look at fairly specific aspects of their research area. Social scientists tend to summarize their longer projects and works in order to introduce them to a larger audience and emphasize their usefulness and practical application.

Panel presentations are the most common form of presentation you will encounter in your graduate career. You will be one of three to four participants in a panel or session (the terminology varies depending on the organizers) and be given fifteen to twenty minutes to present your paper. This is often followed by a ten-minute question-and-answer session either immediately after your presentation or after all of the speakers are finished. It is up to the panel organizer to decide upon this framework. In the course of the question-and-answer session, you may also address and query the other panelists if you have questions yourself.

Roundtables feature an average of five to six speakers, each of whom gets the floor for approximately five to ten minutes to speak on their respective topics and/or subtopics. At times, papers from the speakers might be circulated in advance among the roundtable members or even prospective attendees.

Papers with respondents are structured around a speaker who gives an approximately thirty-minute paper and a respondent who contributes his own thoughts, objections, and further questions in the following fifteen minutes. Finally, the speaker gets that same amount of time to formulate his reply to the respondent.

Poster presentations are not very common in the humanities and ask participants to visually display their ideas as either an outline of findings, an essay of several pages length, or, preferably, charts, graphs, artwork, or photographic images.

Reasons proposals fail/common pitfalls

Depending on the conference, acceptance rates of proposals might range from about 10 percent to almost 100 hundred percent of submissions. Accordingly, you will receive some rejections to your submissions in the course of your career, which, in contrast to book proposals or fellowship applications, do not come with an explanation for the rejection.

There are common pitfalls that you might need to improve on for future proposals.

The proposal does not reflect your enthusiasm and persuasiveness, which usually goes hand in hand with hastily written, simply worded proposals. Generally, the better your research has been, the more familiar you are with the subject and the more smoothly your proposal will come together.

Similarly, proposing a topic that is too broad, can harm your chances of being accepted to a conference. Be sure to have a clear focus in your proposal. Usually, this can be avoided by more advanced research to determine what has already been done, especially if the proposal is judged by an important scholar in the field. Check the names of keynote speakers and other attendees of note to avoid repeating known information or not focusing your proposal.

Your paper might simply have lacked the clear language that proposals should contain. On this linguistic level, your proposal might have sounded repetitious, have had boring wording, or simply displayed carelessness and a lack of proofreading, all of which can be remedied by more revisions.

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