Writing a Real College Essay: Part 2 - Research


This is Part 2 in a series of videos where I demonstrate a structured approach to essay writing by working through a real college essay assignment.

In Part 1 I introduced the assignment and looked at an email exchange between a student and the instructor about a possible essay topic.

In their feedback, the instructor pointed out that the assignment was to write a persuasive essay, and that the issue that the student is writing on needs to be one about which there can be some disagreement, and that the student’s proposal was lacking because it failed to identify an issue about which one could have a debate.

At this point I’m going to jump in and pretend that I’m the student in this class who needs to write this essay.

Remember that this is for an art program and the topic needs to be on something related to art or the art profession.

Here’s the topic I picked. The broad issue I’ve chosen is about the value of a degree from an art college.

The assignment asks me to narrow the topic down, so here’s the narrowed version. The question I want to look at is this — does a degree from an art program confer advantages, in terms of the goal of making a living as a creative visual artist, that offset the costs of the degree?

I know for a fact that this is a real issue that people argue about, so I know that it satisfies this requirement of a persuasive essay.

Now, this instructor also wants students to submit a “working thesis statement” with the proposal. This can be tricky because we don’t want to prejudge the issue before we’ve even done any serious research, but that’s why it’s called a working thesis statement — it’s meant to be tentative and open to revision.

Here’s my working thesis statement — “Whether a degree from an art college is worth more than the cost will depend on the student’s background, goals and personality type.”

That’s my initial thought, and that’s all I need to say at this time. This thesis statement is still vague. In the essay I’ll need to be more specific what kinds of background, goals and personality types lend themselves to the “art school is worth it” camp, and what kinds lend themselves to the “art school is not worth it” camp. But it’s enough to focus my thinking when I’m doing my research.

So, the next stage is to do some research. Google is my friend here, so let’s look at what we get when type in a provocative phrase like “art school is not worth it”.

Here’s the google search results page. I’m not surprised there’s plenty of discussion on this topic.

I’ll drag this search results page into my links folder in Scrivener so I can come back to it easily.

I’ve got some homework to do now, so let’s fast forward a bit.


First, I discovered that this is a recurring topic on industry forums like "deviantart" and "conceptart.org", where a lot of professional and aspiring graphic artists hang out. It shows up on blogs and online magazines, and people do video blogs on the topic on YouTube.

When you go through these sources, and read the comments and feedback, you see recurring themes in the reasons that people give for thinking that their art school experience either was or was not worth the cost. And that’s what I’m looking for, the recurring reasons that can be extracted and paraphrased, that I can talk about in the essay.

I’m a person who needs to take notes, so for any source that I think has something interesting to say, I take notes.

Here is my Scrivener document. As I was browsing and reading I dragged links to my links folder, so I can open them up and work with them in Scrivener. Here I’ve selected a link to a YouTube video, and I can play and watch the video right in Scrivener.

I take notes by opening a second document and put it up side-by-side with my source, so I can read or play a video and take notes right in Scrivener. The notes for any given source are nested under the source in the binder so I can always find them.

As you can see from looking at the Research folder in the binder, I’ve read and watched quite a bit and taken a lot of notes. I spent about a day and a half on this.

At this stage I haven’t written a word of the essay yet. I’m spending my time learning about the issue and thinking about strategies for organizing a discussion about the issue.

But I’ve come up with a plan, so I’m going to share that with you now.

Sometimes it’s easier to frame a persuasive essay if you can find someone who takes a very strong position on an issue, and use their argument as a device for introducing the issue and exploring opposing views.

On the topic of the value of an art school education, Noah Bradley is one of those people.

Bradley specializes in environmental concept art and illustration in the sci-fi and fantasy genre. He spent a year at a prestigious art college, Rhode Island School of Design, but left after that year and completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Bradley spent a number of years as a freelance artist and was very successful by freelance standards, but he eventually quit doing client work to focus on his own projects, and now runs an online teaching program, one of the many online resources that he cites as alternative educational resources for art students.

In 2013 he wrote an article on Medium called “Don’t Go to Art School” that expressed in very strong language his conviction that student should not go to art school, that it’s not worth it.

Some quotes.

I will no longer encourage aspiring artists to attend art school. I just won’t do it. Unless you’re give a full ride scholarship … attending art school is a waste of your money.
I am saddened and ashamed at art schools and their blatant exploitation of students. Graduates are woefully ill-prepared for the realities of being professional artists and racked with obscene amounts of debt. By their estimation, the cost of a four year education at RISD [that’s Rhode Island School of Design, which Bradley attended for a year ] is 245,816 dollars. By way of comparison, the cost of a diploma from Harvard Law School is a mere 236,100 dollars.

This is very strong language. It’s not that it’s just a bad investment — Bradley is making a moral judgment, that art school programs are guilty of exploiting students.

This is embarrassing. It’s downright shameful. That any art school should deceive its students into believing this is a smart decision is cruel and unusual.

So there’s a tone of moral condemnation that Bradley brings to this issue that makes his critique stand out.

Another important element of his argument is that students are no longer forced to this gamble because today there are alternative paths to a career as a visual artist.

You don’t have to go to college to be an artist. Not once have I needed my diploma to get a job. Nobody cares. The education is all that matters. The work that you produce should be your sole concern.

This is a recurring theme in the art and design industry, and many areas of the tech industry — your skill set and portfolio is what gets you work, not your degree per se.

Today there are many lower cost alternatives for art students.

There are excellent atelier schools all over the world that offer superior education for a mere fraction of the price. Here are a few”... [and he lists a few] “There are more. Many, many more. And none of them will cost nearly as much as a traditional four year school.

I had to look up “atelier school”, this was my first exposure to this term. “Atelier” is the French word for “workshop”. It’s more of an apprenticeship model than the traditional art school model. An atelier consists of an artist working with a small number of students to train them in art.

And then there are the online options. The availability of drawing and painting resources is incredible. Sitting at a computer I have direct access to artists all over the world. I have the combined wisdom of the artistic community to pull from at my leisure. For less than a few grand a year I can view more educational material than I would see at any art school.

So this is an important component of the “it’s not worth it” argument.

What I’m trying to do, in my head, is reconstruct the argument in its strongest form. And I realized that there were parts missing, or undeveloped, in the Medium article.

Specifically, when Bradley says that art schools don’t prepare students for success in the work force, this point isn’t really developed in the Medium article. So I went and looked at some of Bradley’s other interviews where he’s more forthright on these points.

In this interview, for example, he says the following:

Artists graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and they’re not even educated. They don’t even know how to be an artist.
They don’t know how to make art, and even if the do know how to make art they don’t know how to make a living. And it’s just tragic.

This is an important part of the argument. The claim isn’t just that art schools are expensive. It’s that they’re expensive and they don’t properly prepare students for success after graduation.

So as I see it, here are the main elements of the argument.

One: Art schools can be very expensive and most students who attend will graduate with considerable debt.

Two: Art schools don’t teach student how to create professional quality art.

Three: Art schools don’t teach students about the realities of the job market and how to make a living as a professional artist.

Four: There are many cheaper alternatives to art school that can teach the relevant skills.

Now, if we can defend all of these claims, we have the makings of a compelling argument.

The more contentious claims are number 2 and number 3, that art schools don’t teach students how to create professional quality art, and don’t teach students how to make a living as an artist. These need to be substantiated, and in my research I was on the lookout for discussions that were more narrowly focused on these points.

So at this point I’m formulating a plan for the essay. I’ll use Noah Bradley’s article as a starting point for introducing this issue and developing the main points. I’ll try to make the strongest case for the “it’s not worth it” side, and then I’ll look at possible objections and replies.

This is a short essay assignment, though, and I have to keep in mind the length requirements, so I know won’t be able to do justice to every aspect of this interesting debate.

I’m still inclined to think that the “is it worth it” question, and the cost-benefit calculation that a student is being asked to make when asked this question, is going to look different for different people. But at this stage, I haven’t written a word yet, and I honestly don’t know what my ultimate position will be in the end.

The next stage of the process is to write up an outline. I’ll know a lot more about what I ultimately want to say in the essay after going through that exercise.

So that’s what I’m going to work on next, and in our next video I’ll show you what I came up with.