Executive Summary Guide

What is it?

An executive summary is a highly compressed way of communicating key ideas and offering evidence/support for them. It takes the form of a set of bullet points (and sub-bullets) rather than narrative prose, that should be take up about two pages and be ~500 words.

On the whole, your summary should be about 1/2 historical summary from the reading assignments, and about 1/2 answer to the assignment prompt and connection to previous readings, especially if you can relate an earlier historical example to the topic at hand.

The best executive summaries focus on answering the question on the syllabus and draw synthetically from all the readings rather than going reading by reading.

The bullet points should make writing more efficient because you don’t have to spend time writing and revising formal prose, and it makes reading more efficient by focusing on specific ideas over narrative. Although limited to bullet points, an effective summary still has an overall point and flow to it. In other words, just because you’re using bullets DOES NOT mean you should turn in a random collection of ideas. It still requires thought and care to produce a coherent summary.

Check out a sample executive summary. I’ve also created a Word version, if you want to see it in word processor form.

Assignment Purpose

As always, this assignment shows that you’re doing the reading and thinking about how to relate them to each other and our discussions. Previously, you could do this in our class meetings as well. Now this exercise will be the primary medium to show that you’re learning and thinking critically. And they help me give you the most appropriate grade for your effort at the end of the term.

In terms of the writing itself, the assignments encourage/force you to focus on the clarity and concision of your thinking and expression. It’s a super useful skill that you’ll frequently employ in your future career, whatever it is.

This exercise should help you keep making connections between course material that I would have tried to do in discussion, and should make your final much easier to write.

What you’re being graded on

  • How intelligently you formulate an answer to the set of questions. The best summaries present a cohesive answer to the assignment prompt.
  • How well you create and follow a logical structure and progression to your bullet points. A random collection of ideas will be frowned upon (and graded down).
  • How well you use only bullet points (and sub-bullets) to articulate your ideas. Bullet points by definition are short and to the point; 2-3 shortish sentences MAX, or maybe one long, complex sentence.
    • Don’t write a whole paragraph and then make it into a bullet point.
    • Use complete sentences. Bullet points does NOT mean sentence fragments.
    • If you just ignore the bullet point requirement, I’ll ask you to resubmit it. THE FORM MATTERS!
  • The extent you can combine concision, clarity, and thoroughness. Revisions are the only way to achieve effective bullets and an effective summary. I will be asking myself if it seems obvious that you’ve used the revision guide.
  • EFFORT! If you’re asking yourself “what does Gibbs want?”, the short answer is: EVIDENCE OF EFFORT. I want you to show me that you’ve done the reading, thought about it, thought about how it relates to the other readings, and made a serious effort to answer the questions I’ve posed. You’ll be graded primarily on what seems to be the effort you put into the assignment, not on whether you mention X, Y, or Z. But if you don’t mention what are obviously main points from the readings that everyone else is mentioning, I can only assume you didn’t try very hard.

Formatting Requirements

Getting formatting to look nice in Learn can be like herding cats. But if you have a nice-looking bulleted list in Word, and cut and paste it into Learn, and use the “Keep Formatting” option when you’re asked, you should be able to maintain formatting without distortion. Bottom line: as long as bullets and sub bullets are clearly distinct, and the whole thing is legible, I don’t much care about the specific aesthetics.

Tips for success

  • Be specific. Don’t write vague statements like “canning was dangerous.” Include a real subject, time period, and specific examples: “Because of scares with botulism, mercury, and BPA, consumers have at various points throughout the 20th century questioned the safety of canned goods.”
  • Provide specific citations. This forces you to double check your own memory and interpretation of the readings, and helps you avoid making false claims. In your references to the readings, use page numbers in parentheses.
  • Paraphase. Avoid full quotations, since you want use all the space for your own thinking.
  • Be selective. You can’t fit everything worth saying into your summary. Choose carefully what you think is most important! You’re being graded on your ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.
  • Revise, revise, revise. Once you have a complete draft of everything you want to say, you are about half done. Set it aside (and budget time for this!), then come back and economize your prose. Remove simple sentences that force you to be unnecessarily verbose. See the revision guide. Revisions are hard! But they are the only way to make your writing—and your THINKING—shine.


It is always worthwhile to talk about these things in class; don’t hesitate to ask. Email is OK, too, especially for quick questions.