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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


The Difference Between Being Qualified and Being Prepared

Qualifications don't always mean much.

January 11, 2018



Following grad school and about four months of unemployment, I secured a job for which I was utterly unqualified.

On paper, at least.

Leo J. Shapiro & Associates was a survey research provider and marketing research consultancy, and in terms of credentials, someone with a degree in marketing, or sociology, or business would make sense. In a larger company with a self-contained human resources unit, my B.A Rhetoric, M.A. English Literature, and M.F.A Creative Writing degrees would’ve had me bounced early in the hiring process.

But thanks to a connection through someone I’d freelanced for, my first interview was with the company’s namesake, Leo J. Shapiro, who made it clear he was not impressed with my credentials, but took me on as a “trainee” anyway. 

While I was unqualified for the job, it turns out I had been well-prepared, essentially moving from the typing pool to a project director/analyst inside of four years. At one point, not long before I left, I realized I’d spent an entire day directing the work of others, rather than doing any of my own and I thought: Holy crap, I’ve got minions.[1]

The writing and critical thinking skills I’d developed over the course of my studies allowed me to adapt to a field I barely knew existed before I showed up for my first day of work.[2]

I’ve been thinking about the difference between appearing qualified and being prepared since Dave Mazella of the University of Houston asked a question over the holidays I found really interesting.




I followed up asking how we should define “prepared” and he replied, “Able to demonstrate some comprehension of readings, write intelligible, organized prose with some awareness of citation.”

By that standard, nearly 100% of the students I’ve worked with at four different “selective” (or higher)[3] institutions over the past 17 years are “prepared.”

And yet, these students who were in theory prepared for college-level writing often struggle mightily to move beyond Professor Mazella’s base-level. They could demonstrate that proficiency over and over, but moving to something more complex and sophisticated often required some degree of unlearning what they’d brought to college with them.

The five-paragraph structure and list of rules many students rely on just aren’t going to cut it in college-level discourse. The disconnect between high school and college – despite their apparent preparation – is profound. 

Over the last thirty years for K-12 school reform efforts, the explicit rationale has been to make students “college and career ready” to the point where the mindset has even invaded Kindergarten itself

How was it that when I was well-prepared to succeed in a profession for which I was unqualified, while students who are, by all possible measurements, highly qualified, are poorly prepared?

Writing instruction in the age of school reform has fallen prey to something those who study education know well, Campbell’s Law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

By establishing a standard by which students are to be deemed “qualified,” often through a standardized assessment, instruction gravitates towards helping students achieve surface-level indicators of proficiency, which then crowds out the kinds of experiences and struggles which allow for the development of a more robust and flexible writing practice.

Being able to do the one thing by which we we’ve decided to judge student qualifications leaves them not versed in this very narrow skill, but also seems to negatively affect their attitudes and orientations towards writing. The average student I’ve worked with approaches their first-year writing course with limited enthusiasm, with limited actually meaning, no enthusiasm at all.

Once they get into the course and are allowed to engage in the full dimensions of the writer’s practice (skills, attitudes, habits of mind, and knowledge) and experience writing as not a quest for correctness and proficiency, but a process of thinking which leads to discovery, they begin to see how pleasurable writing can be, even writing in academic contexts.

Working at Leo J. Shapiro I found out writing focus group reports and conducting large-scale studies on fast food could be pleasurable in a way. Finding more and better ways to sell stuff was never a passion, but the underlying intellectual challenge was often interesting.

When it comes to writing, I think we have to spend much less energy on certifying students as qualified so we can instead give them much more time and space to prepare. I don’t need students to know the ins and outs of MLA citation when they arrive, but I do need them to be curious and capable of generating ideas rooted in their own interests.

Students should be a little adrift when they get to college, otherwise what’s the point? However, they should also be confident that while they are adrift, they also have a boat with a motor, or at least some oars, so they can head towards shore.

Many of my highly qualified students have very little experience with writing in ways other than pleasing surface-level assessment, often rooted rubrics, which they can follow faithfully without understanding what may be beneath those rubrics. They have also rarely been given sufficient freedom to fail and learn from those mistakes without suffering undo harm.

These are the faults of a system which privileges the wrong things and burdens teachers with too many students. We can change this if we care to and if we want to.

[1] I left so my wife could pursue additional training as a specialist veterinarian, which is how and when I returned to teaching college.

[2] The story of how figuring out how to write an explication of a sonnet in grad school translated to figuring out how to write a focus group report at Leo J. Shapiro & Associates is included in this old post

[3] This context is obviously important. In graduate school at an open admission institutions, I worked with many students who could not meet this bar on arrival. Over 17 years, teaching between 120 and 250 students a year at the selective or better institutions, I could count the number of truly remedial students on one hand.


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