The senior essay at St. John’s
Writing the senior essay is a rite of passage for St. John’s students: a meaningful and personal exploration of a book or a question that is meant to draw on all the skills cultivated in four years of reading and discussing great books. Seniors in Annapolis will turn in their essays Saturday, February 2, before midnight; Santa Fe students face a February 9 deadline.
The senior essay is not a research paper; instead, it is one student striving to understand something he or she cares about, whether it is a character’s actions in Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning” or the idea of whether human beings really have free will. Students write a major essay in each of the three previous years at St. John’s, but the senior essay is meant to be a sustained discussion.
Students generally start thinking about the essay in the first semester of senior year, though some students are captivated by a particular book or author in their early years in the Program and look forward for years to the opportunity to explore it in this way. Students are permitted to write on any book or topic, as long as the dean approves. (Films and works of fine art have made it as senior essay topics in the past.) Students choose a faculty adviser to guide them through the process of paper writing and meet often with the tutor to discuss their progress. Except for two seminars in Santa Fe during the first week, students have no classes during the month-long paper-writing period and are expected to focus entirely on their papers. Advisers become like beacons in this month, helping students focus on this new experience.
In Annapolis, the end comes at midnight on the last Saturday of the writing period, and it is an occasion full of traditions. A party is held at the president’s house, and the traditional admission is four copies of one’s essay: one copy for the Polity (the greater St. John’s Community) and one for each of the tutors who will form the oral examination committee. Students then return to campus for the favorite essay tradition: ringing the bell. Every senior climbs the steps to the top floor of McDowell Hall and presses a red button on the wall ringing the bell that sounds their passage through one of the most important rituals at St. John’s.
In Santa Fe, students will turn their essays in by 9 p.m. and then enjoy a presidents’ and dean’s reception to celebrate their accomplishment. Seniors return to their regular class schedule, but their essay will remain at the forefront for them, until they sit for their senior oral.