From Submission to Applause: Conference Proposals That Get Accepted

Elizabeth Wilcox, Sr. Consultant for Advising and Abigail Garcia, Associate Director, Academics, Pre-College Trio Programs

Great (and successful) conference proposals take both time and effort. The following seven step process is designed to help you knock it out of the park on a first try. Conferences are learning platforms as well as opportunities for collaboration and networking. You are likely to learn as much as you teach if you approach the proposal process with thought and care.

Step 1: What’s trending?

Conferences are wonderful places to access new ideas, scholarship, and research. As you begin to think about presenting at a conference, start by getting a sense of what’s trending regionally and nationally. You can do this by picking up a journal or other professional publication, looking at a recent conference program, or talking with others who have published or presented recently. While you want to contribute to what’s trending you also want to offer a fresh perspective and insights. Try to add to, not simply duplicate what has been presented in the past. Some topics are very well worn (advisor burnout, for example). Be sure you are picking a “fresh” but relevant topic and are adding something special and unique to the conversation. This will help your proposal stand out. What are others finding interesting, useful and currently relevant? What ideas, research or major thinkers do you see as being particularly important to advising or student affairs currently?

Step 2: Previous Presentations?

It can be very helpful to view previous conference proposals, abstracts, learning activities and visual presentations. Start by simply attending a regional conference and closely observe how good presentations are constructed (paying special attention to what feels especially interesting and creative). If you are brave enough, ask others if they would be willing to share their proposals with you.

Step 3: Conference Theme – Related Topics?

Conferences are often organized by theme. Keep your eye on recent conference themes regionally and nationally. This will help you begin to attach your work to the national “big picture”.

Step 4: Subject Matter Expertise?

We all have special knowledge, abilities and talents as well as unique professional skills. Where do you have subject matter expertise (through education or experience)? If you are a young professional, could you co-present with someone more advanced than you? Part of the excitement of a conference is the ability to connect with others who have similar interests and expertise in a related area. You might start by aligning your subject matter expertise with established interest groups. Your proposal readers (and your audience) will want to know how you are uniquely qualified to speak on the subject you are discussing. Use the proposal process to help define your special perspectives and insights.

Step 5: Best Format?

Most conferences offer a wide variety of presentation formats. Pre-conference workshops (longer sessions designed around problem-based and interactive learning that result in actionable takeaways), poster sessions (opportunities for brief conversation based discussion of projects and programs (with visual aids) that can be introduced quickly and informally), individual sessions (usually about an hour in length with a single or team of presenters - though more than three presenters gets tricky), and group, panel or roundtable discussions (these are facilitated discussions around core ideas, not necessarily formal "presentations"). If you have never presented before, consider joining forces with someone who has, or start with a poster session to get your feet wet. If you are a great facilitator but not a confident presenter, consider putting a panel discussion together. Each of these formats are wonderful opportunities to learn and connect with others and each is more or less demanding depending on your experience and comfort level.

Step 6: Outcomes?

One of the most critical components of putting your proposal together is determining what you want your audience to gain from your presentation (in terms of what they will “do”, “know” or “value”). Be as specific as you can about what you want your presentation to “produce” and how you will go about making this happen (review our learning-centered competencies statement to connect these outcomes with advising core competencies). Conference participants want knowledge and skills they can take back to their home campuses and apply immediately. Again, be specific about what you want participants to gain and design your learning activities to produce these results. Teaching a new method? Give your participants a chance to practice it during the session itself. Talking about a new program you developed? Be sure to identify the components of the program that can be transferred to other institutions.

Step 7: Proposal Outline?

Now that you have a good sense of what’s trending, have aligned your interests with a conference theme and interest groups, and determined where you have valuable subject matter expertise - you will be ready to select a topic and develop a proposal outline. Your session format and desired outcomes will help you begin to organize your thoughts and design your session.

Hint: You should be thinking year-round about what’s trending, how it impacts your work, and how you might add to related research, scholarship and practice. Also, note proposal submission opening and closing dates on your calendar for future conferences as far into the future as possible. Give yourself adequate time to develop a proposal so that you are not rushed at the last minute.

Proposal Development: Essential Components

The Title – Accurately descriptive, an invitation to participate.

Great conference presentations often have great titles. Your session title is your way of making an immediate connection with conference participants. You want your title to accurately describe your session and capture the attention of the reader – it should excite your reader and make them want to attend your session.

Here are a few examples of great titles:

All I Really Need to Know About Advising Theory I Learned from Star Wars (Ryan Scheckel, Texas Tech University)

Pants on Fire: How to Advise Students Who Lie to Themselves and Others (Katie McFadden, Brandis University)

50 Shades of Grey: Ethics in Advising (Corrie Fox and Karen Case, Indiana University, Purdue Unviersity)

The Proposal Abstract (130 words) – Will appear in the conference program

The abstract is a short description of your workshop content and format. It will appear in the conference program and will help draw participants to your session. It should accurately and succinctly describe your session. If you are not sure how to begin,

(1)    start with a problem statement,

(2)    if applicable, mention and incorporate foundational literature and research that addresses the problem,

(3)    identify learning activities and manner of audience involvement (i.e., reflective questions, demonstration, open-discussion, case study, role-play, etc.),

(4)    describe the relevant competencies or skills that will be developed, and

(5)    conclude with how the session content is transferrable (to other institutions or advising settings).

The Proposal (longer) – Reviewed by the selection committee but not publicly available.

The proposal is a longer description of your session and is used by the selection committee (but will not be available to session participants). It should include,

(1)    detailed references to source material (including foundational research and scholarship). It should define terms and describe the relevance to applicable student populations.

(2)    It should provide an overview of content (including relevance and contribution to the field),

(3)    describe your session structure, format and learning activities

(4)    as well as your detailed desired learning outcomes (tying these to activities).

Hint: Audiences like good content and opportunities for “active learning”. Be sure you incorporate opportunities for participant reflection, interaction, and discussion. Want to learn more? Check out this wonderful book on experiential workshop design….Workshops: Designing and Facilitating Experiential Learning

Selection Criteria

In general, clarity, relevance, timeliness, creativity and the applicability of material to a wide variety of advising settings is needed to make a successful proposal. It is also increasingly important that your material is research and evidence based. Proposals based on successful cross unit collaboration (academic advising + career center + pre-health advising) or cross institution collaboration (UC, CSU and CC efforts) are also very strong. Test check your proposal to make sure it addresses all of these points.

Acceptance or Rejection?

If your proposal is not accepted - try, try again. Many of us (including both authors of this article) have had proposals rejected. See (at the sidebar) additional resources that might help you develop a stronger proposal. Please spend some with the "Improve This Proposal" handout. Following a rewrite, this proposal was accepted on a second try.

Avoiding Plagiarism – Note relevant citation format – APA, MLA... and use the following website for guidance on properly citing references Purdue Online Writing Lab (When you present your slides and handouts must also be properly cited).

Keep in mind that your successful conference proposal and the presentation that results are also opportunities for eventual publication. You will not only be advancing your career through this endeavor you may also be contributing to important scholarship and research.

Recommended citation for this article

Wilcox, E., & Garcia, A. (2017, March 16). From Submission to Applause: Conference Proposals That Get Accepted. Advising Matters, University of California, Berkeley retrieved from

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