College essays reward dishonesty

Abolish the personal essay on college applications, writes Samuel Goldman.

In theory, personal statements allow admissions officers to get to know applicants as individuals rather than the sum of grades and test scores. In practice, these brief texts are the basis of subjective and sometimes highly political judgments about the groups of students that an institution hopes to enroll.

Hard-luck stories — “overcoming adversity” — are favored, reports the New York Times. That gives undisadvantaged a strong incentive to embellish minor hardships or “even invent sob stories,” Goldman writes.

Some parents hired paid tutors. Others help “savvy applicants revise and polish their statements so many times that the final versions are not very accurate reflections of their writing skills–or even their own ideas,” writes Goldman.

Most applicants to elite colleges have similar academic and testing records, a Yale official told the New York Times. So “they might as well make admissions decisions by a lottery among objectively qualified students,” writes Goldman.

If they really need to supplement high school credentials with a writing component, colleges might consider prompts that encourage classic features of the essay such as humor and ingenuity, rather than tear-jerking reminiscences. The University of Chicago is famous for offbeat prompts that encourage applicants to think rather than to recollect or emote.

Another option is to ask applicants to submit a research paper on a substantial topic, suggests Goldman.

One of my daughter’s high school classmates wrote a touching essay about coming out as gay. He’s now an Ivy League graduate. He’s not gay. But, at least, he wrote it himself.

True grit

What if the Secret to Success Is Failure? asks Paul Tough in the New York Times Magazine. Both Dominic Randolph, principal of the elite Riverdale Country School in New York City, and David Levin, superintendent of KIPP schools in New York City, are trying to teach character, the “essential traits of mind and habit” that lead to success in life. It’s more of a challenge for Randolph because private school parent don’t see the need.

 “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

Both men met in 2005 with Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Learned Optimism, which helped establish the Positive Psychology movement. Seligman showed them his new book (with Michigan Psychology Professor Christopher  Peterson), Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, a “manual of the sanities.”

Seligman and Peterson consulted works from Aristotle to Confucius, from the Upanishads to the Torah, from the Boy Scout Handbook to profiles of Pokémon characters, and they settled on 24 character strengths common to all cultures and eras. The list included some we think of as traditional noble traits, like bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity; others that veer into the emotional realm, like love, humor, zest and appreciation of beauty; and still others that are more concerned with day-to-day human interactions: social intelligence (the ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social situations), kindness, self-regulation, gratitude.

These strengths represent a reliable path to “a life that was not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling,” they wrote.

Eventually, Randolph and Levin developed a shorter list: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.

One of Seligman’s graduate students, Angela Duckworth, a former teacher who’s now a psychology professor, focused on two key traits: self-control, which is essential to achieve basic success, and grit, which is needed to excel.

Levin had seen the first KIPP grads go off to private and parochial high schools; most went on to college. But those who persisted in college were not necessarily the top students academically.

. . . they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class.

KIPP’s New York City schools now integrate discussions of character traits into lessons and issue a character report card that’s used for parent-teacher-child discussions.

But Riverdale’s character education remains focused on being nice to others. Randolph worries that his students think success is guaranteed.

“The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,” Randolph explained. “And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

If you read my book, Our School, (which you should), you’ll encounter the Spanish version of grit, ganas. Downtown College Prep, a charter high school in San Jose, recruits underachievers from low-income and working-class Mexican immigrant families. They need a lot of ganas to make it to college and even more to make it through. Many in the first graduating class struggled academically in college, counselor Vicky Evans told me. But they weren’t discouraged.  “They know what it’s like to start a new school and get hammered. They can handle failure. They’ve done it and survived.”

Magdalena Villalvazo gave the commencement speech for the first graduating class, recounting all the challenges they’d faced. “Slowly, our fears became our strengths,” she said.