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 â€œcurriculumâ€ in my elementary school (the tedious and content-free Teacherâ€™s College Writerâ€™s Workshop), forces children as young as third grade to grind out endless personal essays, â€œsmall momentâ€ 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 studentâ€™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.