Why do colleges insist on personal essays with applications? Could changing the requirement create better prepared students?
The Associated Press ran a piece about college admissions essays over the weekend and the sturm und drang associated with them. Since the die is already cast on SAT scores and grades, the essay gets a disproportionate amount of attention from students and families, the AP notes, spawning a veritable industry with books and counseling and editing services.
Does it matter? “Applicants and their families have somewhat of a belief in the redemptive value of the essay,” Barmak Nassirian, of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers said. “It’s an urban myth that a student who has goofed off his whole academic career can get in with a come-from-behind epic struggle in which the essay serves as the primary tool. It’s not a substitute for a rigorous curriculum, good grades and evidence that you’re going to do well,” he said.
What if applicants were asked to write or submit a research paper instead? Which is more predictive of college success, past academic work, or a personal essay, where students labor to make themselves seem well-rounded, fascinating and irresistible to schools?
Dropping personal essays could have an interesting trickle-down effect as far down as 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 a requirement for college admissions.
Last year’s common application, used by scores of colleges and universities around the country, asked students to discuss an issue of personal concern, a person, fictional character or historic figure who influenced them, a life experience or a topic of their choice, the AP notes. 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?