Iowa’s unmatched writing-related resources prepare its graduates for success in many fields. This level of excellence positions Iowa as the best public university for writing and communication.
Story
Emily Nelson
Illustration
Sarah Florek

Adam Burghduff started his fourth year at the University of Iowa with his job hunt already completed. The Urbandale, Iowa, resident majoring in finance and minoring in philosophy over the summer accepted an offer to join global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company as a business analyst upon graduation in May 2022.

Along with his strong business knowledge and background, Burghduff cites something else that helped him land the prestigious job offer: strong writing and communication skills.

“Some of the interview feedback I received was that I’m very good at communicating my ideas—that I’m clear and concise,” Burghduff says. “And that’s something you learn at the University of Iowa. The university’s foundation in writing and communication really differentiates it from other institutions across the country. Students leave here with a better understanding of how to communicate, whether it’s through email, a presentation, or a report. It makes us more prepared to go out into the real world.”

Employers consistently rank strong writing and communication skills high on their wish lists when hiring. Professionals in all fields need to be able to clearly and effectively convey, among other things, important information, the impact of their work, and recommendations for how to proceed. This can be done through various mediums, including formal writing, presentations, public speaking, and social media.

Recognizing the importance of such skills, U.S. News & World Report for the second year included a ranking that recognizes the teaching of writing and communications across disciplines. As in 2020, the University of Iowa remains the only public institution on the list, but this year entered the top 10, joining universities such as Harvard, Yale, Duke, and Stanford.

Iowa is known as “the Writing University” largely because of world-renowned graduate programs such as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but the university’s commitment to helping all students build strong writing and communication skills is evident in every corner of campus and every field of study.

Whether Iowa students want to write the next great American novel, a successful grant proposal, a research paper for a scientific journal, or a clear and informative business presentation, they have access to a vast array of writing and communication resources found at few other universities. These include the English and creative writing major, Certificate in Writing, specialized curriculum within campus departments, tutors, and multiple centers dedicated to writing and communication.

“There’s no one that can compete with us,” says Daniel Khalastchi, director of the Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing. “We are a big research university that values creativity and is located in a UNESCO City of Literature—one of only two cities in the entire United States honored with that distinction. Writing is literally embedded in our sidewalks, and no matter what our students want—whether it’s to be a journalist, a creative writer, or a strong business or science communicator—we are likely to have courses and programs on campus that support those interests or can easily create them because we have a talented pool of experienced writers living in our own backyard.”

Integrating writing and communication into all disciplines

“We want to offer every single student on campus, regardless of whether or not they are majoring in something that is directly related to writing, the chance to take advantage of the amazing opportunities at the University of Iowa,” Khalastchi says.

The Magid Center, located in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Division of Interdisciplinary Programs, offers students across campus the opportunity to enhance their academic, creative, and professional communication skills by focusing on the written word. In addition to sponsoring the Certificate in Writing, the center also publishes student literary magazines and is home to the Iowa Youth Writing ProjectIowa Young Writers’ Studio, and Iowa Summer Writing Festival.

Daniel Khalastchi, director of the Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing

“We want to offer every single student on campus, regardless of whether or not they are majoring in something that is directly related to writing, the chance to take advantage of the amazing opportunities at the University of Iowa.”

Daniel Khalastchi
director of the Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing

There were 70 distinct majors represented among the students enrolled in the writing certificate program in May 2021, from anthropology to microbiology and everywhere in between.

“We want to work with students who have a love for writing but are majoring in something that is not writing-centered as well as students who simply know that being a strong written communicator is going to help them be more successful when they enter the job market or apply to graduate school,” Khalastchi says. “We are a space where students can find a balance of academic rigor and professional resources and walk out of here writing and communicating better than ever before.”

Before starting college, Ayushi Sood had written for a magazine, and a writing workshop her first semester at Iowa reminded her how much she loved writing. Her adviser suggested she pursue the writing certificate.

The fourth-year microbiology major from Ambala, India, says good writing skills can help students in any field.

“Especially in the sciences, writing plays a vital role when it comes to producing papers and presenting one’s work,” Sood says. “It also helps when applying to graduate or medical schools. I’m applying to graduate schools, and I think without being equipped with good writing skills, one cannot excel in the essays on the applications.”

Sood says working toward her writing certificate has played a role in her life beyond the academic world.

“Being from a small town in India, coming to the States was intimidating,” Sood says. “The writing classes helped me put my feelings into words and gave me the chance to pursue my passion for writing. Learning how to build connections by communicating well helped me make a community for myself away from home. So, I would say that good writing and communication skills should not be taken for granted and should be acquired, especially in college.”

The Magid Center also works with departments across campus to develop writing courses for specific majors.

“For example, we worked with the Department of Health and Human Physiology to create Writing for Health and Human Physiology, which has become an extremely popular course, with multiple sections of it filling up every semester,” Khalastchi says. “We’re trying to remind people that while you might not love writing, if you can do it successfully, you’re going to be better off. And I think students are starting to recognize that and get excited about what Iowa has to offer.”

University of Iowa microbiology major Ayushi Sood

“The writing classes helped me put my feelings into words and gave me the chance to pursue my passion for writing. Learning how to build connections by communicating well helped me make a community for myself away from home.”

Ayushi Sood
fourth-year microbiology major from Ambala, India, who is pursuing the Certificate in Writing

Writing, communication skills give Iowa students a leg up in the business world

The importance of strong communication skills is built into the culture of the Tippie College of Business. In fact, its Judith R. Frank Business Communication Center was the first business communication center in the Big Ten.

The center develops integrated communication plans for writing and presentation skill acquisition across all academic departments in the college. It helps students hone these skills through tutoring and the required core course Business Communication and Protocol, and works with faculty in writing-intensive courses to develop communication rubrics for particular assignments and targeted workshops.

“We see our role as helping students not to think of business communications as a one-and-done where you take the course and you never have to think about it again,” says Pamela Bourjaily, associate professor of instruction and director of the Frank Business Communication Center. “We get a lot of feedback from advisory boards and the academic departments about what they would like to see in new hires and what skills would help differentiate our graduates from others.”

While grammar and sentence structure are always important, Bourjaily says the center emphasizes macro communication skills such as organization of message and audience analysis.

“We really try to focus on storyline and the ability to convey a story about the numbers,” Bourjaily says. “That story is not, ‘How did you get the numbers?’ That’s usually boring. It is a story of what do the numbers mean. You don’t just give someone a data dump. I tell students that it’s your job to make the information as easy to upload in the brain as possible so that when someone finishes reading your document, they know what to do next.”

Burghduff says he has used the Frank Center since his first year at Iowa, and it has proven a valuable resource throughout his education, internships, and in securing a job after graduation.

“The idea that you do a lot of quantitative stuff in business is true, but Excel and other automated tools have made that so much easier,” says Burghduff, who is now a peer consultant for the Frank Center, helping other Tippie students develop their own communication skills. “But can you explain what the numbers mean or concisely explain the deliverables for a project? In a world where the quantitative stuff—other than the real cutting-edge stuff—is doable by most people, the real differentiator is writing and communication skills.”

University of Iowa finance major Adam Burghduff

“The university’s foundation in writing and communication really differentiates it from other institutions across the country. Students leave here with a better understanding of how to communicate … It makes us more prepared to go out into the real world.”

Adam Burghduff
University of Iowa senior majoring in finance

Burghduff urges students to make use of the many writing resources at the university and to take classes or minor in an area such as creative writing, philosophy, or rhetoric.

“When you get in the real world, especially in business, it’s not about who can make the most grandiose sentences,” Burghduff says. “It’s about who can understand and explain the information as quickly as possible, as concisely as possible. And that’s what I learned through the Frank Center; the University Writing Center; and my business communication, rhetoric, and philosophy classes.”

Bourjaily says the university’s rich writing tradition benefits business students as well as those pursuing writing as a profession, including providing an immense talent pool to draw upon when hiring tutors, consultants, and graders.

“Writing is taken seriously by people in leadership positions across the university, which makes them receptive to initiatives that are pertinent to writing and communication,” Bourjaily says. “In terms of services and programming, and our reach into curriculum development, we are at the forefront of all of it at Tippie.”

Strengthening future engineers’ communication skills

Similarly, the Iowa College of Engineering recognizes that engineers with strong writing and communication skills stand out from their peers. The endowed Hanson Center for Technical Communication provides students resources to help write, revise, and clarify lab reports and essays, as well as space to practice presentations and receive feedback.

“Communication—written and spoken—comes up in most engineering careers on a daily basis,” says Abby Laures, a fourth-year biomedical engineering major from Cedar Falls, Iowa. “Formulating ideas clearly and concisely is easier said than done, making efficient communication a skill that must be developed. And in my opinion, it’s best to develop communication skills as early as possible rather than struggle to develop these skills on the fly at a job.”

Laures admits that her communications skills, particularly her writing skills, weren’t the strongest when she started at the University of Iowa. But she says that quickly changed thanks to a rhetoric class, statics essay, and the Hanson Center, where she is a writing tutor.

“Strengthening my communication and writing skills has allowed me to do well on lab reports and writing assignments, and enhanced my communication with professors and TAs,” Laures says. “I also was able to join a lab where written and verbal communication occur on a daily basis at a high standard.”

Developing better doctors through writing

Iowa’s appreciation and commitment to writing and communication also is evident in the Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine. The college’s Writing and Humanities Program gives medical students the space and time to pursue interests in the arts and humanities, as well as develop skills critical for their futures as successful physicians.

Abby Laures, fourth-year biomedical engineering major

“Communication—written and spoken—comes up in most engineering careers on a daily basis. Formulating ideas clearly and concisely is easier said than done, making efficient communication a skill that must be developed.”

Abby Laures
fourth-year biomedical engineering major

Cate Dicharry, director of the Writing and Humanities Program, says effective communication with patients is a skill that med students are expected to develop but isn’t always addressed in a formal medical school curriculum.

“They go into an exam room as a whole person with stories, and they interact with someone who has a whole lifetime of stories and experiences,” Dicharry says. “Assumptions will be made about each other, and they have to find ways to communicate. Thinking through the elements of storytelling—whether it’s through literature or creative writing—is one way to make those tools available and to practice them.”

While the program prepares medical students for their professional lives, it also impacts their personal lives and helps them maintain a healthy work-life balance. High-quality health care requires the well-being and health of medical professionals, yet the National Academy of Medicine estimates that half of American physicians experience burnout.

“There’s a reason why a lot of med schools are moving in this direction, not just as an option but as a requirement,” Dicharry says. “The argument is that some of these elements are more necessary in a STEM program because they’re not necessarily part of the formal curriculum. But med students are still human beings, and they’re going to be engaged in vulnerable, high-stakes experiences. They’re going to go out and work on human bodies, and there’s more to it than what they learn in an anatomy lab.”

Making writing a career

For those undergraduates who want to make writing a centerpiece of their professional lives, the university continues to expand on its long and historic creative writing tradition.

The English and creative writing major combines a rigorous grounding in literary study with a workshop-style focus on writing. Started six years ago, the major’s popularity grew quickly, with 532 students enrolled in spring 2021.

“Creative writing has spread like wildfire across the country,” says Loren Glass, professor and chair of the Department of English. “I think we are creating what the new English major will be in the new millennium, placing a higher emphasis on expressive writing and content creation, but still based on scholarly understanding of literary history and literary criticism.”

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Iowa has long been a destination for its graduate writing programs, and its undergraduates are able to reap the benefits.

“If you come here as an undergraduate and you major in English and creative writing, you have access to pedagogical resources and writers in cinema, theater, poetry, drama, graphic novels, and young adult novels,” Glass says. “We have all these adjacent writing programs that contribute instructors to the creative writing major.”

The major is designed to give students the tools to follow a variety of career paths, including creative writing, publishing, editing, public relations, marketing, advertising, social media communications, and teaching.

“It’s partly connected to the digital revolution; content is king now,” Glass says. “Writing is a valued skill, and our students build careers around that.”

The demand for content also is increasing within the television and film industry. To help foster the next wave of such storytellers, the university debuted an undergraduate screenwriting degree program in 2019. In spring 2021, 77 students were enrolled in the program.

The emphasis placed on writing and literature at Iowa extends beyond the classroom and campus.

“Not only do you get this great program, you get this great city, a City of Literature. Every well-known writer comes through here at some point,” Glass says. “You get this community of people who love and value writing. You can’t buy that. It’s an amazing benefit and invaluable resource for young writers.”

The writing and communication skills that all students gain at Iowa will benefit them long after they leave campus—both professionally and personally.

“Literature breeds empathy,” Khalastchi says. “It helps give an understanding to the world around you, and these are things everyone can take into their field, no matter what profession they choose. Literature and writing are taken seriously here, whether you want to be a bestseller or successful grant writer. You put those together and it’s the most unique writing environment in the world.”