Good Advice on Writing an ACPA 2016 Program Proposal

If you haven’t heard, the ACPA 2016 Conference is happening—for the first time ever!—in Canada (Montreal, to be exact). This is an excellent opportunity for Canadian Student Affairs to network with our colleagues in American SA, and with the convention practically on our doorstep (or at least a “short” bus ride away) #RyersonSA is going to take full advantage!

John Austin wants us to come out in force and show the great work we’ve been doing at Ryerson, which means he wants all of us to consider submitting a presentation proposal (known in the ACPA world as a “program proposal”).

But as Hamza Khan said to me, submitting a program proposal to ACPA is like playing a game on hard mode. We’ve got to bring our absolute best work forward to have a chance to be selected, and that means preparing an outstanding proposal.

To help everyone put their best foot forward, I’ve compiled some thoughts on best practices for any presentation proposal, as well as some ideas specific to applying to ACPA. And don’t forget: the deadline to submit your proposal is September fourth—the last day of Orientation!

So start crafting your proposal now, and let’s say our submission deadline is actually: August 21, 2015.

Crafting A Strong Convention Program Proposal

1) Learning Outcomes

Learning Outcomes ultimately sell your session to conference goers. Potential audience members look at the long list of concurrent programs and ask themselves: “What will I get out of attending this program?” You’re selling them on your session, so just come out and tell them what they’ll get. “By attending this session, conference attendees will …”

Include 3 things your audience should walk away with having participated in your presentation. Try and link your learning outcomes to the following:

  • Utility and information
  • New knowledge and insights
  • Best practices and how-to’s

A good start is to try and fill this statement: “By doing X, the audience will ______ Y”, where blank is an action verb like “learn” or “practice”.

2) Theory

Canadian student affairs is on the cusp of a huge institutional growth as a profession, and the introduction of theory into everything we do is a huge part of that growth. Our American student affairs colleagues have been integrating theory for years, and if we hope to have the opportunity to share our work at ACPA we must be cognizant of theory.

Ensure theory is intentionally included in your presentation, and don’t be subtle about mentioning it either. (Especially with the ACPA crew; we can’t just shoe-horn in theories, they need to be baked in and well thought out.)

===Where Do I Start With Student Development Theory?===

If you’re anything like me, then you may feel slightly (read: definitely) overwhelmed by the sheer amount of theory out there—specifically those about student development that concern us in Student Affairs. But fear not! Thank you to Rachel Barreca for sharing a few links that can help you with some foundational knowledge around student development theory:

And if you’re still in doubt—chat with your colleagues! There’s a wealth of information floating around in the minds of those you work with every day.

=== === === === ===

3) Hook, Line, & Sinker

Use a compelling hook! Postulate a timely problem, question, or fact that catches attention and gets into your potential audience’s brain. They’re going to have lots of competing sessions for their attention.  A really good hook is what catches their eye in the program and gets them thinking about your session before they’ve even stepped inside (and if they can’t stop thinking about your session, they’re more likely to attend it).

Puns, pop-culture, new perspectives; all are really great for creating stellar hooks.

4) Be Novel

Once you’ve hooked your audience’s attention, the only way you’ll hold on to it is with a novel idea they haven’t seen before. It’s about doing something different. Can you challenge people to think differently, or approach their work in a different way? What about a new lens for an old problem? You may be pitching a presentation on an old idea, but if you can change the angle, suddenly that old topic seems fresh and new all over again.

This stage, arguably, is the most difficult to write because it is the meat of your presentation, which in truth, is the meat of the work you’re doing. A novel presentation is one thing; novel work starts a lot sooner. But don’t let that discourage you! (Especially here at Ryerson, where we’ve been challenging ourselves to think differently for years.)

For an example of novel, at the last CACUSS conference, I attended a session about career advising programs for incoming students, not because I’m super interested in the topic, but because they likened the process to rebuilding the world after the zombie apocalypse.  It was an old idea, suddenly made very relevant and new by being presented in a novel way.

Good Ideas For ACPA Conference 2016 Program Proposals

When writing your program proposal, I would start with familiarizing yourself with the conference’s learning outcomes:

ACPA Conference 2016 Learning Outcomes

To learn, develop, and grow as a professional; to provide tools for reflection and ways to transform theory to practice:

  • Identify learning scenarios in uncommon places, including and beyond traditional educational programs, to maximize professional growth opportunities.
  • Discuss global and contemporary critical concepts in higher education.
  • Examine perspectives on scholarship and practice to expand viewpoints and apply new understandings.
  • Demonstrate an increase in active use of the ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies (see list below).
  • Construct meaningful connections with other student affairs professionals.
  • Develop a plan to reflect on and take their learning back to their professional home.

Keep these in mind as you write your proposal. The more obvious it is for the selection committee to see your proposed program’s contribution to one of the learning outcomes, the more likely they are to choose your program over another.

Professional Competencies

Central to the substance and structure of the 2016 ACPA Annual Convention program are the ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies. As such, the competencies will be used in the program proposal, evaluation, and selection processes. ACPA members who are developing sessions and preparing proposals are urged to become familiar with the ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies to ensure that their sessions substantially address and incorporate one or more of them in their program proposals.

  • Advising and Supporting
  • Assessment, Evaluation, and Research
  • Ethical Professional Practice and Personal Foundations
  • History, Philosophy, and Values
  • Human and Organizational Resources
  • Law, Policy, and Governance
  • Leadership
  • Social Justice
  • Student Learning and Development
  • Technology

Advice From ACPA On Submitting A Good Proposal:

The following list is pulled from a webinar recording on the ACPA website titled How To Propose a Program for #ACPA16:

  • Pick a topic you know a good deal about.
  • Connect topic to professional competency areas.
  • Provide supporting research and data.
  • Applying theory can strengthen your proposal.
  • Clear outline of session.
  • Be sure learning outcomes are clear and concise.
  • Avoid unnecessarily large presenting teams.
  • Stay within the word limit.
  • Don’t put everything in all caps or all lowercase letters.
  • Don’t put title in APA style— make sure to capitalize all major words.
  • Include outline of session agenda (preferably with timeframes for each part).

Program Review Process:

Experts in the appropriate field will review each program.

  • Relevancy to ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies.
  • Supported by data and theoretical framework, when appropriate.
  • Well written and structured proposal.
  • Evidence of quality pedagogy.
  • Background of presenters.
  • Balance of keywords and competencies.
  • Evidence.

ACPA Glossary

Here are a few terms that might be useful in preparing your program proposal for ACPA. (Thank you to Wincy Li for writing these definitions):

1. Program

When you see this word, it means the presentation that you’re pitching—not the thing your presentation will be about.

2. Coalition Vs. Commission


Inclusion and social justice oriented entity groups that represent and advocate for the social identities of the ACPA membership; they deal with issues related to “who we are.” For example: Coalition for LGBT Awareness.


Entity groups that represent student affairs and services’ functional areas and professional specializations; they deal with issues related to “what we do.” For example: Commission for Career Services.

3. Program (Co-)Sponsorship

To have your program sponsored (or co-sponsored) means:

  1. Your program proposal will be reviewed first by leaders of the corresponding Coalition/Commission, to see if it is “sponsorship worthy.”
  2. Accepted programs will be advertised and promoted quite actively to the corresponding Coalition/Commission’s members. In some ways, sponsorships are “seals of approval” from those groups; having your program sponsored is a great way to raise its/your profile.
  3. If your proposal is rejected by the Coalition/Commission, the General Program Committee will still review it for potential acceptance into the General Sessions. (Basically, if you think it worthwhile, there’s no risk to submitting your program proposal to the sponsorship application.)

4. Justification For Program Types

In this section of the program proposal, you’re telling the selection committee why your proposed program/presentation needs, or is best done, in 6.66/60/120 minute format (for PechaKucha, general, and extended programs, respectively). In particular, if you’re doing a longer session (120 minutes), you will want to describe what activities you have planned for the attendees that may require that amount of time.

5. Presenter’s Familiarity & Expertise On The Topic

In this section of the program proposal, you’re informing the selection committee how familiar you are with the topic that you’re going to present on. Think about your formal and continuing education, research, work experience, personal narratives/experiences, etc.

Program Types

The following are the different program types offered at the ACPA 2016 conference. Think about which one would work best to convey your content before you start writing your pitch. Remember: there’s a section on the application form where you’ll have to justify why you’ve chosen the program type you did.

General Session

These 60-minutes sessions are focused on advancing participants’ professional competencies.  General Convention Programs comprise the majority of the educational sessions at the Convention and are expected to have a theoretical or conceptual basis for the discussion.

Extended Sessions

An Extended Session is a lengthier program filling an entire 2-hour block.  These sessions provide Convention attendees with an intensive learning experience designed to promote a level of competence in a specific area.  By providing more time, presenters can explore a topic in more depth.  Extended Session submissions should provide a justification for the lengthier session, including a strong conceptual framework and a detailed agenda.

Sponsored And Co-Sponsored

ACPA’s organizational structure includes Commissions that represent functional and interest areas pertinent to student affairs and higher education work and Standing Committees that represent specific identity groups within our membership.  Should your program be directly related to the work of one of these groups, indicate this by selecting “sponsored program” as your program type.  If your proposal is not selected as a Sponsored or Co-Sponsored Program (60-minutes), it will be considered as a submission for a General Program based on the sponsoring entities reviewer’s feedback.


Designed for the presentation of scholarly research, particularly by graduate students or faculty members, each 75-minute program slot will include presentation of three research papers (20 minutes each) followed by a brief discussion.


Poster Sessions are designed for discussion about research projects that are in process or have been completed.  Poster Sessions are also designed for showcasing theory-to-practice.  Presenters display their work on a large bulletin board and are available to discuss their display and interact with those circulating the poster display area.

Pecha Kucha

Pecha Kucha is an innovative presentation format where each presenter’s 20 slides auto-advance every 20 seconds (a 6 minute 40 second presentation). This is the art of precise presentations.

Genius Labs

The convention’s Genius Labs are 20-minute skill-building workshops highlighting a number of practical activities (primarily focused on technology) designed for participants to learn about, experiment with, and implement immediately. Take a break from the traditional learning sessions and join us in our open, interactive, and high-tech space. Topics have been selected with the intent of having meaningful instruction for all skill levels, sending attendees home with effective (and often free) new resources, and building confidence and competence in new tools to help you work on your campus.

I have organized a series of writing sessions over the summer designed to help you create the absolute best ACPA 2016 conference proposal you can before the submission deadline. (August 21, 2015.)

Each session will provide you with advice on what to include in a successful proposal, as well as offering you a chance to actually write said proposal. Come out for the advice, the time to write, or to bounce ideas off your colleagues. All are welcome!