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Find a path through complexity

Next year, my daughter will have to hand in a senior project. She seems overwhelmed by the whole idea. It is supposed to be her "best work" and the pinnacle of her studies, but she doesn't know where to start. It weighs heavily on her—she talks about it every time I see her. Is it really that major of a requirement? And how should my daughter approach it?

Imagine that each bit of knowledge acquired by students through coursework and training were a small ball of clay. By senior year, students would have accumulated a large block. While collecting such a mass of knowledge is an accomplishment, it lacks an important element. A student needs to shape it to reflect a personal voice or vision.

This shaping is the senior project. And while the opportunity to create something unique can be exciting, the process can be overwhelming. This is why tolerance of ambiguity is one of the University’s Student Learning & Development Outcomes (SLDOs).

Structure is a buffer against ambiguity. As students move from high school through college, the balance of structure-to-ambiguity shifts from high structure—provided by parents and teachers—to high ambiguity. The senior project represents the greatest level of academic ambiguity. No syllabus, no regular class time, no reading list, and no assigned topic. All are decisions the student needs to make.

This is not to say that students are abandoned by faculty. All needed tools and resources are available. Unlike prior projects, however, students identify and coordinate the effort.

So, what should your daughter do? What are the tools and strategies for tolerating ambiguity? She could consider the following:

  • Acceptance. Take a deep breath and accept that this will be a different experience. Just because the situation is new doesn’t mean you cannot handle it. Avoid procrastinating. Become engaged early and benefit from the confidence this develops.
  • Say goodbye to Plan A. Too often, students enter projects with a plan (Plan A) and when it proves to be ineffective, they become determined to hold onto it. Plan A rarely works. Practice the willingness to let it go and move onto Plans B, C, and beyond. The goal is finishing the project, not making it fit the initial vision.
  • Self-awareness. Like reading tea leaves, students often mistakenly believe that by accumulating research the topic will speak to them and the project will come together. Research is ambiguous. It represents various opinions and voices. No one certainty is out there waiting to be found. Instead of looking outward, look inward. Clarify your beliefs and interests on the project. What in particular do you value about it? What do you need? Let this guide you.
  • Interdependence (one of the SLDOs). Communication and consultation are essential. That this is your project doesn’t mean you can’t speak to others about your process, thoughts, and ideas. Form a support group, use professional services (such as academic counseling at UCCS or guidance from an instructor), and ask experts for opinions and suggestions.
  • Attitude. Adopt the attitude that you are an expert on the topic and that others are eager to hear your findings. Find your excitement.
  • Manage expectations and stress. Needing to produce your “best work” can be a set-up for stress. You don’t need to try to make your senior project your best work. Just do it and let the “best” take care of itself.
  • Be strategic/break things down. If you think about it, the senior project is essentially a collection of writing tasks, each about one to three pages in length. You write short papers all the time. Map out due dates for yourself for these smaller pieces. (SLDO—goal orientation).
  • Practice balance. Build routine into your life. Exercise, socialize with friends, eat well, and keep a regular sleep schedule.
  • Start early. By facing ambiguity and learning to handle it during the first or second year of college, you can make doing so comfortable by senior year.
  • Replace thinking with doing. Think less, engage more, and let the process unfold.

Dr. Scott Slattery, University Counseling & Consulting Services, addresses questions from parents of University of Minnesota students. He may be reached at 612-625-4568 or