The Unlived Life Is Not Worth Examining

by Robert Pondiscio
July 21st, 2008

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?


  1. Great headline.

    Requiring a research paper would be a much better way of judging college readiness but it also would further disadvantage students who don’t get good college-prep instruction. Of course, these kids are in bad shape in any case.

    Comment by Joanne Jacobs — July 21, 2008 @ 8:59 pm

  2. You’re right, of course, Joanne. My naive, child-like article of faith is that schools will respond to external stimuli. If educators realize that the path to college requires the ability to write a research paper, we might see more emphasis on that skill instead of encouraging children to unburden themselves endlessly in personal essays.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 21, 2008 @ 9:40 pm

  3. Sometimes through personal essays, we can find out more about students that doesn’t come out in academic work. I think you can tell a lot about a person by what and how they write on a personal level. I am in favor of keeping the personal essays.

    Comment by Pat — July 24, 2008 @ 8:31 am

  4. A research paper would be a great idea — and it would take so long to examine, I think admissions officers would balk. At least it could be accompanied by a certificate (I wonder if kids would be forced to purchase individual sessions/accounts on in order to generate authenticity receipts).

    Assignments graded by the teachers…well, I guess we’d learn a lot mmore about the state of teacher standards! With no rubric to norm the assignment (not as if the personal essay has them, either), it would be difficult to compare one assignment with another.

    Perhaps the personal essay could answer a philosophical question, moral dilemma, or practical problem — that way there would be some indication of the student’s depth, creativity, and complexity of thought.

    Comment by OKP — July 24, 2008 @ 5:39 pm

  5. You brought such a great point about these essays. I absolutely LOVE the idea of submitting a research paper or some other academic example that would demonstrate a potential ability. Unfortunately I have found that over the years our institutions of higher education are more concerned about emotions and feelings than in fostering academic growth.

    It seems that so many people scream and yell at placing too much importance on test scores. Well by submitting an academic portfolio, that would definitely put the test scores into perspective. I love it!!

    I also think academia puts too much pressure on kids to decide early on “what they want to be when they grow up”. I am a second career teacher and am absolutely passionate about my new vocation. But it took me until I was 35 years old to figure out what I wanted to be when I “grew up”.

    Great post…

    Comment by Strausser — July 24, 2008 @ 9:48 pm

  6. The SAT already has writing tasks requiring an “academic” response. It’s part of the test.

    As a writing and humanities teacher myself, I shudder to think of the increased pressure on students to churn out formulaic 5PE’s. It’s based on a predictable assumption on the part of academics that the purpose of college is to create more professors.

    The vast majority of the world does not read professor prose, nor want to write it. To pressure k-12 schools, parents, and students to put even more energy into this implies, to the contrary, that that’s what successful writing is. It’s not.

    Personal narrative is closer to journalism and popular writing, which the world much prefers to read. Let’s keep encouraging it k-12.

    Comment by Clay Burell — July 25, 2008 @ 11:48 pm

  7. I agree with Joanne J. above. A research paper could be a nice way to see some of the work involved in that 3.9 GPA from high school, but it’s one more thing that kids from wealthy, highly involved, and unfortunately, unscrupulous, families will ace, while kids from the other kinds of families will do poorly at. Passing all these essays through would be a basic minimum requirement, but the sad fact is that a nationwide move to a research paper would instantly create a multi-million dollar marketplace for entrance paper writing services. It’s not impossible to do that with personal essays (I’m sure it goes on all the time), but it’s much more problematic and it’s not a sure thing that having a pro do it for you would boost your chances.

    I tire as much as the next person of reading essays from snowflakes who think their short lives are profoundly interesting. But for even some top schools in the country, the ability to write coherently is shockingly absent in college first-years. So writing a personal essay is not the kind of self-indulgent fluff assignment that some people claim it is.

    In my experience, most of my poor college students think they know how to write a research paper. They go on google and find some quotes and put them in their own words. They’ve flat out told me that this is what they do, and excuse their plagiarism by saying they only neglected to put everything in their own words. So I’m not impressed by the average undergrad’s ability to produce research. I’m a lot more impressed by the ability to evaulate and comment upon sources, to analyze what they read, and to know when they don’t know enough about something. That’s something you usually can’t tell from a research paper on a random subject submitted by a high school senior.

    Comment by Jeremiah J. — July 26, 2008 @ 12:13 am

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