First, get a life

In The Unlived Life Is Not Worth Examining (great headline), argues Robert Pondiscio of Core Knowledge Blog in response to an AP story on college admissions essays. Why not drop the personal essay and require applicants to submit a research paper?

Which is more predictive of college success, past academic work, or a personal essay, where student students labor to make themselves seem well-rounded, fascinating and irresistible to schools?

If colleges demanded a research paper, parents would demand that teachers assign such papers. Pondiscio hopes it would trickle down to elementary schools.

The “curriculum” in my elementary school (the tedious and content-free Teacher’s College Writer’s Workshop), forces children as young as third grade to grind out endless personal essays, “small moment” stories and memoirs (!) designed to plumb the depths of their eight-year old souls. But it seldom, if ever, called for kids to write anything approaching a simple five-paragraph expository essay, let alone a research paper. That might change if doing so became an requirement for college admissions.

. . . At the risk of sounding churlish, the unlived life is not worth examining. Rather than require 17 year old to unburden themselves of their life experiences, how about three pieces of actual academic work, graded by the student’s high school teachers?

Of course, the personal essay is a way for students to describe their disadvantages; those with comfortable lives are tempted to embellish or invent, sometimes with the help of a paid “editor” who knows how to find a defining moment in an undefined life.

At the University of Virginia, Parke Muth, the associate dean of admissions, shares essay tips with the AP.

“It shouldn’t be an essay about community service. It should be about a moment of time,” he said. “Start writing an essay about John who you met at a homeless shelter who talked to you about his life. Like any piece of good writing, then you’re going to make that come alive.”

You’re going to make up the whole thing, aren’t you? Tip: Pretend you met “John” at a bus stop, so you won’t have to supply the name of a shelter director. (This is so Season 5 of The Wire.)

It would be healthier to focus students on demonstrating their mastery of college skills.

In Our School, I write about helping a boy with a college essay asking him to describe a challenge he’d overcome. It didn’t occur to Frank to write about being Mexican-American. He explained how he’d overcome his math fears to become an A student. That college turned him down, but he was accepted elsewhere and earned his BA (theater arts) in four years.

About Joanne


  1. You know, I hated a lot of the “personal essay” assignments in high school for precisely the reason stated: I felt like I had not yet done anything with my life, and it seemed banal to write an essay about getting separated from my parents at the mall when I was 8 or something.

    I much preferred writing “stories,” where I could make up the plot, or doing research papers. (And yes, the school district I went to had us do them, even as young as third grade.) I remember enjoying doing a paper on mountain lions when I was about 10, and that may have been the first realization that I wanted to go into biology because living things were just so COOL.

  2. I agree the personal essay for college admisions is silly, but learning how to sell yourself is useful. I wish I new how! What is wrong with the personal essay is colleges do not admit they really want a sales pitch.

  3. Kids have to write research papers in my school, starting in 4th grade. The 4th/5th grade paper is on a history topic; the 6th grade paper is on beach animals (assigned animals, as preparation for an overnight field trip, so it’s a science paper), and 7th/8th is history again. We teach proper citation format over and over and over and it just barely sinks in. But our kids seem to go off and do well in high school

    Occasionally I teach an independent study elective where the kids research and write papers. This last time, I had several papers on planets, several papers on forensic investigation, and a paper on football. The shortest paper was two and a half pages, from a kid who hadn’t written much before (typed, double-spaced).

    I continually tell the kids that mastering a research paper format is the most useful skill they’ll have for the future in high school and college. So many other people don’t know how to do it that the kid who does know how to do it soars.

  4. My students constantly struggle with content for personal essays, and it ends up being one of the most difficult experiences for them. That’s the most common complaint – “but I haven’t done anything yet!” Last year, one of my students started applying to colleges for the first time, and used to bring the paperwork into class for me to look over with him. I’ll never forget the look on his face when he opened the application package and said, “Oh my god! You mean I have to write about myself *again*? And they say teenagers are too self-centered!”

  5. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I only applied to colleges that DIDN’T ask for the standard personal essay.

    I didn’t want to waste time writing one, and I figured if a school couldn’t come up with an interesting essay topic for the application, it would probably be dull once I got there, too!

  6. Devilbunny says:

    Selling yourself would be a much more pleasant task. “I’m smart – just look at my SATs. I’m hard-working – just look at my grades. And I’ll be a great alumnus – just look at my plan to major in finance!”

  7. Devilbunny

    That is one way to do it, but I think it would fail because that is what most applicants would write.

  8. Of course they’re banal, but they’re also not used for much. And when people make these suggestions, do they ever think about the equity issue? Like the rich aren’t going to pay for their kids to do summer internships that give them fascinating research topics?

    The personal essay exists for a reason–it allows them to spot the low income URM kids–and allows them cover for any inequities noticed in their GPA and test scores (due to legacies). Other than that, it doesn’t mean much.

  9. It’s hard to imagine less equity than a personal essay penned by an inner city kid, and the privileged teen who can write about his journeys of self-discovery; how he learned teamwork doing volunteer work in Costa Rica; or the dedication and hard work needed to become a soloist in the philharmonic.

    How is it possible that personal essays level the playing field? Oh wait, I forgot: writing about the harsh reality of urban street life has grit and authenticity. Helping inner city kids find their voice is our mission as teachers. How fortunate that we can level the playing field and forego the trouble of actually preparing then to do college level work at the same time!

  10. I really wonder how many college-bound kids compose their own version of “A Million Little Pieces” (or insert your favorite faked-memoir title) for the essay.

    I don’t even remember what I wrote my personal essay about. Probably doing volunteer work in the local National Park, because that was about the only thing I had done at the time that seemed like it would carry any weight.

  11. Reality Czech says:

    URM? This is an unfamiliar TLA.

  12. I had to look it up myself. Under Represented Minority.

  13. By the same reasoning, it’s pointless for students to do a science experiment that’s already been done. The results are known, so they’re not doing anything worthwhile.

    But the point of performing the experiment is to learn to question, observe, and reason, not simply to “get it right.” Personal essays give students the opportunity to practice reflecting, comparing, judging, and describing – skills that are useful throughout life. And if students master those skills, then later, when they’ve “really lived,” (*eyeroll*) they will hopefully be able to examine their lives in a meaningful way.

    (And whatever happened to the idea that ALL HUMAN LIFE has value? Since when do the first 15-20 years of a person’s existence count as “unlived” anyway? Sheesh.)

  14. The ability to dish out a load of bullshit at will is a useful skill, although I don’t know why universities would be so interested in screening for it among applicants. Unless they’re looking ahead for potential master’s and PhD candidates.

  15. I probably wouldn’t have gone to college if all colleges required a research paper as part of the application process. As it turned out, I eventually learned how to write a research paper in law school.

    Some of us are just not into writing in our early years, and the English teachers are/were easily fooled into giving us A’s because we could master grammar, spelling, and diction. Writing is a whole ‘nother ball game, though, that a lot of us learn very slowly.

    How ironic that I write patent applications for a living now.