Continually Sharpening

A theological blog by Janelle Zeeb

How To Succeed In Seminary

Are you thinking of going to seminary or bible college? Are you wondering what you need to do in order to do the best you can in your studies?

Having gone through seminary once myself, and now being a TA for two terms for a Master's level seminary course, I want to share with you some important advice for helping you succeed in seminary.

(These tips are also probably applicable to many other areas of higher-level humanities studies where you will be taking courses that require essay writing for the assignments).

What occasioned this post was my interaction with students as a TA, where I have been shocked and saddened that even at the Master's level, so many students are struggling with things that should be simple, such as handing in assignments on time, following assignment instructions, and knowing the basics of essay-style writing!

A recent article written by Barbara Kay for the National Post notes that less than half of university students were adequately prepared in highschool for higher-level studies. This definitely seems to be true based on my experience as a TA so far.

So here are ten basic things I wish I could tell all my students, to help them to do well in seminary:

1. Read The Syllabus

Most professors spend a portion of the first class going over what is in the course syllabus. It often contains important information such as grading schemes, assignment instructions, reading lists, and other administrative information.

The most important information to pay attention to here is:

  • assignment or reading due dates
  • assignment instructions
  • late penalties
  • requirements for assignment extensions

It is amazing to me how many students have asked me questions that could be clearly answered by a quick check of the syllabus.

And if it's not in the syllabus, then please ask the professor, or TA. (Even the TA might tell you to check with the professor, since the professor is the ultimate authority in the course).

Also, sometimes seminaries will post their syllabi online to help you when you're choosing what courses you want to take. It's always a good idea to read through the syllabus, if you can, to see what sort of assignments or other grading criteria the course will use, so that you can choose courses that match with your strengths. So if you're not good at exams, but are good at essays, then don't choose a course with a final exam, and opt for one with a final research project instead.

2. Talk To the Professor

Don't be scared of the professor (or TA). As a TA and future professor, my goal is to help all my students get A's in my course. I don't want to set up anyone for failure, and so if you have any questions about the course, please just ask!

Professors don't intentionally want to make it hard for students to find the information you need to meet the professor's expectations. Although depending on the experience or age of the professor, they may forget to include some information in the syllabus that students might care about.

So if you've got a question about an assignment, requirements, extensions, or something else that is not clearly answered in the syllabus, then please talk to your professor.

Even if it's about something as minor as what line-spacing or font-size to do the assignment in. It never hurts to ask!

In one course I was TA for, a group of students were confused about whether an assignment was supposed to be in essay format or not. Instead of just asking the professor or myself, some students just guessed what we wanted. It turns out they were wrong, and they were missing a critical part of the assignment, which meant I could not give full marks.

If they had just quickly asked me in class or sent me an email, they could have made sure they met the assignment requirements, and thus received much higher grades. There's really no reason to be confused about any element of any assignment. If the professor's expectations are not clear, then ask them!

You should also feel free to bounce ideas off of the professor or TA regarding your assignments. This is a good way to check that you are on the right track, and that your assignment will meet their expectations. If you're not on track, usually they can give tips on how to tweak what you have in mind to meet their requirements.

3. Keep Track of Due Dates

Have you ever had that nightmare that it's the end of the term and you've forgotten to do a very important assignment? I have. Don't let that nightmare become your reality!

If you use a calendar or day-planner, enter your assignment or reading due dates into it. And check it frequently!

Professors should not have to remind students of when things are due. If they are an especially nice professor, they may give reminders in class. But at the Master's level there really is no excuse for not keeping track of your own due dates.

This is a basic life skill that you're going to need in any career! Especially pastors.

After all, your congregation is not going to be pleased when you get up to speak on Sunday and tell them that you just got so busy this week you couldn't manage to finish your sermon, and so you're winging it, or are using someone else's sermon that you found online late Saturday night.

And if you've gotten an extension for an assignment, then please meet that extended deadline! The professor or school has already accommodated you, so don't make them irritated by missing that deadline, or having them have to remind you to send your work to them.

Professors have deadlines too for when they need to submit students' grades to the school administration, and if you don't get your assignment to the professor or TA with enough time for them to grade it, then it might not go well for you.

4. Manage Your Schedule

It does take a little time to learn how to fit your new academic studies into your life. You will likely fall into a rhythm of when you get your reading done for each class you're taking, in order to get it all done each week.

But then eventually you will also need time to do the research and writing for your assignments, on top of your regular reading.

If you're unsure how much work you can handle, err on the side of taking fewer courses at a time.

Just because someone else you know is taking four courses per term and working part-time while still managing to get straight A's doesn't mean this is realistic for everyone. Consider your own pace, how you handle stress, and your other commitments, to decide what is realistic for you.

Taking fewer courses per term can be a very helpful way to balance all your commitments, help you stay on top of deadlines, avoid anxiety or burnout, and do your best at your courses.

It may be good to sit down and make sure all the other commitments in your life are realistically going to allow you to do well in your courses. Maybe this is not the right season of life to go back to seminary in. Or maybe you need to cut back on some other things, or ask others to step up to help relieve you of some responsibilities.

If you've got some challenges, then you can see what sort of policies the seminary may have for extensions and see if that would be enough to accommodate you. If not, then maybe another format such as online courses or modular courses would work better for you.

5. Learn to Write an Essay

I thought this was a basic academic skill that most people were taught in high school. But it is totally shocking how many Master's level students cannot write a basic essay with an introduction, body, and conclusion!

Now, I understand that not everyone going to seminary has been in school recently, and may not be coming from a humanities background. I myself have an engineering background, and only had to write two essay-style papers during my engineering studies. So it was a skill I was worried about when I went back to seminary.

Turns out, it's really simple. Here's my short guide to how to write an A-grade essay:

Introduction:

  • start off with a few sentences about why the topic of your paper is interesting, important, or relevant, in order to catch your reader's interest
  • add a thesis statement about what you will argue about that topic
  • give a brief outline of the evidence you will present in support of your thesis statement

Body:

  • use section headers to organize your thoughts and ideas, to make it easy for a reader to follow your argument
  • in each section, split your text up into paragraphs by keeping similar content or ideas together
  • provide transition statements or words to connect your sections and paragraphs together
  • try to avoid redundancy or repetition; aim to be clear and concise.
  • refer to evidence from your sources to convince your reader that your thesis statement is true

Conclusion:

  • generally avoid adding any new evidence or arguments in your conclusion
  • re-state what it is that you are attempting to prove in your essay
  • summarize the main evidence you presented earlier to support your thesis statement
  • end with a few sentences on application, or relevance, or implications of your essay

So, not so difficult. I would say that this is at least 50% of writing a good essay. The other 50% is having good clear ideas and finding good sources to cite to support your ideas.

6. Learn to Write Thesis Statements

A thesis statement is what you will attempt to prove or demonstrate in your essay. Usually, you will want to write papers that have thesis statements.

You can tell that you have a thesis statement if there is the possibility that someone could argue against it. If you can imagine reading your thesis statement to someone, there should be the possibility that they may say "No, I disagree".

It helps to make it very clear to your reader exactly what you are arguing, by specifically introducing your thesis statement with words like "In this paper, I will argue that..." or "Here I will demonstrate that...".

For example, some thesis statements could be:

  • "In this paper, I will argue that Jonathan Edwards believed only those who agreed with him on predestination were real Christians."
  • "This essay will demonstrate that for most of church history the topic of the pre-millennial return of Christ was neglected."
  • "As will be shown below, Christians who do not have assurance of eternal security frequently become joyless and anxious, and even judgmental of others."

Try to avoid statements like:

  • "Let us read together the words of Jonathan Edwards as he wrestles with the question of who is a true believer."
  • "I will discuss some interesting trends in historical sermons on the return of Christ."
  • "Early monks retreated to the desert for a variety of reasons."
  • "Comparison of Augustine and Irenaeus reveals that their theology about God's sovereignty was both similar and different."

You can see how these second categories of sentences are not really things that someone could say "No, I disagree" to. Therefore, they are not really thesis statements.

Additionally, as seen in the last two bad examples above, avoid phrases like "a variety of reasons" or "similar but different". These are so vague that they don't really mean anything, and shows that you have not formulated a clear idea of what you really want to say. Be specific about your claims!

Then, make sure you argue for your thesis with specific and compelling evidence, by using reliable sources and effective use of both paraphrasing and direct quotations, as discussed in the next section.

7. Learn How to Interact With Scholarly Sources

First, learn to identify reliable 'scholarly' sources. Usually these include books that can be found in your school's library, or peer-reviewed journal articles in relevant scholarly databases, and are written by someone who appears to have a relevant degree by a reputable university.

Popular-level sources (e.g. books you may find on a shelf at an average public bookstore) can be helpful if you're researching popular views of a topic, or are looking at a popular author's own views on a subject. Blogs and other websites with clear mentions of the author and/or organization are also often acceptable. If in doubt, ask the professor if a source is ok to use.

But please, avoid using sketchy websites which have no information about the author or organization that is providing the information. Also avoid crowd-sourced information such as Wikipedia, which may not be accurate.

Then once you've found some good sources, learn when to paraphrase and when to use quotations in your writing. Direct quotations from sources are a way of adding interest to your paper. They are also an important way to show the reader your evidence, instead of just telling the reader that the evidence exists.

For example, you could simply say: "Jonathan Edwards believed that God controls absolutely everything". Ok. But your reader might be skeptical, and think to themselves "Oh, really? Where exactly does he say that?". So to strengthen your point, add a direct quotation from him, something like: "Edwards clearly says 'God orders all events; and the volitions of moral agents among others, by such a decisive disposal, that the events are infallibly connected with his disposal'."1

But don't overdo it. Generally, save the quotations for the most important points you want to make, or if you need to show the reader specifically what a source says, in their own words. You can paraphrase the rest (but don't forget that even paraphrased information still needs references).

It should be obvious, but remember to put quotation marks on either side of the direct quotation, and a footnote or reference to where the quotation is from (e.g. see my above reference to Edwards).

If you're using the exact words from another source, put them in quotation marks to avoid being charged with plagiarism (a serious academic offense, which can lead to you being kicked out of your program). Also learn when to use block quotations versus in-line quotations (generally, if your quotation is more than 4 or 5 lines long, turn it into a block quotation).

Finally, please make sure that the references you are citing actually say what you claim they are saying! Assume that your professor or reader is going to look up every single piece of information you cite.

Don't try to claim that a source says something that it does not, thinking that your professor or reader won't actually verify this. You never know what books your professor has access to. If you are caught making bogus claims about the information in a source, it's going to make your reader suspicious of every other citation in your paper.

This applies to your use of Scripture also. When grading, I make a habit of looking up every Bible citation that a student uses in their paper. (This is also good to do when reading any theological material).

It's very tempting to cite a particular verse as supposed 'evidence' for a point, even if it is only tangentially related at best, to try to make it look like your case has more scriptural support than it really does, while hoping that your reader won't actually care enough to look up the verse for themselves. But don't bet on this. Ideally, only choose the strongest verses that prove your point, and leave the weaker or unclear ones out—you don't want to look like you're desperately grasping for straws.

Related to this last point; sometimes I've found students citing a verse that they think proves their point, only for me to check it, and become utterly baffled about how the student could possibly interpret that verse as supporting their point. Again, choosing the strongest and clearest verses should help avoid this problem. If in doubt, specifically say what words or details in the text or verse you see as proving your point.

8. Learn How to Properly Reference Your Information

Please make sure you know how to properly reference the information you use in your assignments when it comes from other sources.

Usually, this is done by using footnotes, endnotes, or in-line references.

Make sure you reference not only direct quotations, but even ideas that you got from other sources. If something is 'common knowledge' usually you don't need to reference it, but if in doubt, it's better to provide more references than less.

Most times you cannot go wrong with using footnotes. Endnotes may be desired for certain sorts of projects, but usually for papers that are being graded, footnotes are most convenient so that the professor does not have to flip or scroll to the end to check your references.

Microsoft Word has a really convenient footnote feature that will even manage your footnotes for you, so that you can copy and paste the footnotes around in your essay and it will automatically adjust the numbering, and so it's really helpful to learn how to use this feature.

In-line references are ok if you are only referring to one book over and over again, and don't want to waste space at the bottom of your page with footnotes that are only going to say "ibid." over and over. (Also, learn when to use "ibid." or "ibid., #." correctly! If in doubt, it's better to avoid these altogether).

Usually, it's best to always include a Bibliography of all the sources you used in your paper.

While it's usually acceptable practice to include sources in your Bibliography that you read but did not specifically interact with in the text of your paper, I find it's best to avoid this. It is better to actually interact with all the sources in your Bibliography through direct quotations or footnote references.

This proves to the professor that you actually read the source. Otherwise, the professor might think you just wanted to pad your Bibliography with titles that sound good but which you didn't actually read.

And finally, choose a format for your footnote and Bibliography references, and use it consistently!

Don't just take the information off the library catalog or web-page and paste it into your footnote or Bibliography. Learn how to format your references according to the style required by your professor or school. Usually, this will be either Chicago/Turabian style, or APA style. In both of these, the format is slightly different for footnotes versus Bibliography entries.

A great resource that I use regularly is Kate L. Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, which not only has great tips for how to come up with ideas for papers and how to write papers well, but also has a thorough guide on how to cite nearly any possible type of resource you might come across, in the convenient Chicago/Turabian style.

9. Be Courageous Enough To Disagree

While this might not apply to all professors, I would rather have a student who is confident enough to disagree with me, and give their reasons why, than to have someone who just repeats back to me my own views, for fear of getting a low grade.

Similarly, feel free to disagree with and to question the sources used in your courses, or that you come across in your research. Just because someone is a well-known Christian scholar or managed to get a book or journal article published doesn't mean they were/are right on everything. Thinking for yourself and gaining the confidence to disagree is an important part of scholarly work.

I have no problem giving a high grade to a student who writes a really excellent essay, with great format, and strong evidence, even if I disagree with their conclusions. I hope this would be the case for most other seminary professors as well.

But this may depend on the sort of school you're attending. Certain denominations are more open to disagreement or are more flexible with their theology and biblical interpretation than others. Which school you attend may depend on what your future goals are.

If you want to be ordained in a specific denomination, often you will have to attend a seminary that is approved by that denomination, and likely, you will learn there the specific denomination's viewpoints, which you would have to generally agree with in order to be ordained in that denomination anyway.

Whereas if you want more academic freedom, then something like a non-denominational, multi-denominational, United Methodist, or Anglican seminary might serve you better (Anglicans and United Methodists are usually fairly tolerant of a variety of viewpoints).

10. Ask for Accommodation If You Need It

Nowadays most universities and seminaries have policies to help students who have a variety of needs, whether those are physical disabilities or learning disabilities. So if you have a challenge in an area that makes schoolwork more difficult for you, there may be ways the school can help you work around this, by making some accommodations for you.

However, please verify ahead of time what these are, and if they will be sufficient for your needs, and tell your professor at the beginning of the first class (or even before classes start) what you need and how they can help.

Don't wait until you're halfway through a course to speak up and say something is not working for you - the sooner the professor knows you're struggling with something, the sooner a solution can be found.

So please, if you need any special accommodation, please talk to the school administration and your professors right away, and find out what policies there are about accommodation, and what else they can do to help you. Don't wait for them to come to you if you're struggling.

Conclusion

All these things: time management, planning to meet deadlines, keeping on top of assignments, and learning how to write convincing papers with thesis statements that make good use of scholarly sources, are going to be important in order for you to do well in seminary.

Critical thinking skills are a bonus. If you don't have these skills yet, hopefully your experience at seminary will help you develop them. Even coming into contact with differing theological views will help you learn to think critically about your own beliefs and why you believe them. Learning to question and ask what the evidence is for certain claims is a very helpful skill to have for life in general.

Other factors that may impact your success in seminary could also include:

  • how much family support or church support you have to help offload some of your responsibilities
  • what resources the seminary has to provide academic support or personal support
  • your ability to learn new languages (if you're in a program which requires Biblical languages)
  • your current fluency and writing ability in the language of instruction at your seminary
  • your financial situation, and whether you can study full-time or have to work part-time while studying

These are things that you may not have as much control over, and you might need to find ways to compensate for them or work around them.

If it sounds like all this will be too difficult, then remember: not every Christian has to go to seminary or may be suited for seminary. I'm confident that God has ways of using you with the unique skills and gifts that He has given you, even if you cannot go to seminary or make it through seminary.

But I do still think it's helpful for all Christians to think critically about what we hear in church or what we read in our devotionals or other books, because all Christians are theologians since we all have ideas about God, and so reading some theology is helpful, even if you don't attend seminary. Personally, I would recommend starting with the books on my Recommended Resource list.

Footnotes:

  • 1. Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2012), 255.