Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Why the Student College Application Essay is often a Con Job

Are we woefully off track with the college essay?  I had this student, Martin, who was truly brilliant and also a really sincere and wonderful kid.  He wanted to write an essay about a time he was working at a camp for economically disadvantaged students and was asked to run the basketball activity at the camp, which included getting a competitive team to play other camp teams. He laid it out for me:  He was a short white kid with minimal athletic skills who had been asked to coach kids who were tall, athletic, all kids of color and who knew way more about basketball than he could ever know.

The essay had promise and he kept bringing me draft after draft.  I knew this kid could write — but personal narratives weren’t his thing.
One day a University of Chicago representative came to visit me and I shared with him Martin’s final draft.  “It’s serviceable,” he said.  Martin had so much going for him that the essay really only needed to be serviceable.  He was admitted to Harvard University and had a great academic career.  A few years after graduating, he wrote “Equity and Access in Higher Education" with ]former Princeton University president] William G. Bowen and Eugene Tobin, a seminal work.
So here is my point:  Isn’t the college essay just a project, in many cases, of how good a con job a kid can do?

Let’s be real here. We are dealing with 17-year-olds who are often incredibly unformed.  The personal reflective essay expects them to display a written essay that is engaging, thoughtful, somewhat witty, readable, self-reflective and a “window” into the student.
But like most on-line postings that these students produce, isn’t this really just how students want you to see them, not necessarily any reflection on who they really are?  We speak about students “crafting” an essay, and this is really what it is about, isn’t it:  presenting an image of oneself.
Secondly, there is NO connection between those who can write strong personal narratives and those who can write what one is expected to produce in college. So why not make college essays like Bard College’s optional admissions essay?  Let kids write college essays to get into college.
You could even have a random essay generator.  A kid would complete part I of the application and then be assigned a unique essay which involved research and footnotes and technical writing.

You’re admitting or denying a kid based on how well you think they can do college level work. You should ask them to do college level work to apply.”

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Isn't This MuchFuture-Focus a Problem?

It seems everything legislated about schools is about being career ready.  Let's begin with how students are being pushed into honors programs or to an accelerated tracks who simply aren't ready.  They either do not have the emotional or educational maturity (or both) to succeed by being pushed.  These sometimes are brilliant kids or kids with some amazing talents, coming from years of dedication to it. We need to find a way to meet these kids' needs.  We are just wasting our resources by not doing so.  Pushing harder and more math and science requirements at them in order to even graduate, is putting up a barrier that makes no sense for many kids in society.  Why make every kid take Algebra II and Chemistry to graduate?  Really, how many high school graduates use either of these EVER after high school?  One per cent?  Maybe two per cent?  MD's are not solving problems with multiple variables or balancing chemical equations, but they're among the 2% who "need" to have this course work but, in reality, rarely use anything they learned in these subjects.  And let's look at the other 98%, lawyers, psychologists, designers, painters, and on, and on, don't even pretend to need anything as obscure as the skills needed to be successful in Algebra II or Chemistry.  But we push all these kids, the kids that really hate it, the kids with learning disabilities, the kids with no interest in it whatsoever.  And we start it earlier and earlier.  Competitive kindergartens?  Are you kidding me?

This is one where I need to actually talk about the good old days.  My parents were as supportive and wonderful as you can imagine, but they let me be me.  They never knew where we were in the neighborhood and pretty much would give a strong stare for a weak grade and nothing more.  And we ended up going different ways, one brother working as a DJ, the other as a bicycle store owner, my sister working for Medicaid and me in high school guidance.  The math and science requirements of high schools today had no meaning an any of our lives.  Why are we requiring all students to have skills that are needed by few others than engineers, scientists or science teachers, certain professors and maybe accountants, economists, financial analysts and maybe a few others, and having so many other students struggle and really hate school.  

We need to give much more thought to keeping students enjoying and being involved in school and their lives.  There are other ways to nurture grit, dedication, intelligence and responsibility without forcing kids to do advanced math and science without purpose or reason.  
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I was once depressed many years ago, and I remember feeling that the most horrible part of it was the excessive self-consciousness I had.  I could not live in the moment because I was thinking about myself, and what I was doing, all the time.  We are doing that to our children, pushing them harder and harder and earlier and earlier, and it is not good for any of them.  We need to find ways to allow students to learn and grow at their own pace.  The obsession with ever rising standards is not about education, it is about social darwinism, leaving behind more and more of our students, including some of those who have the potential to do great things, taken away from them for no good reason. 

We consistently hear that some other country is catching up to us intellectually and creatively, but there is little evidence that is true.  We are the country that leads the world in innovation and design.  Why are we not doing more to promote that as a goal.

Why are we not concerned that we are turning out students who feel that they must compete from the day they enter pre-school, and never know what it is like to really enjoy learning and discovery?  

To the college admissions offices pushing this trend, shame on you.  Just because some of you CAN demand that students take schedules that are back-breakingly difficult, does not mean you should.  You have let the laws of economics control the lives of our students, instead of really thinking about what we really want in our kids.  We want them to be responsible, and self-reliant, and kind, and hard working and dedicated.  And you want them to be good people who want to make the world a better place for others.  But none of these are really part of our public education graduation requirements and the curriculum expected at many of our colleges.  Schools that are succeeding in promoting these traits in their kids are doing it despite college and graduation requirements.  Thoughtful education by caring teachers and leaders are the most important factors in producing characteristics we would want in our children.  The way we are pushing our children, and teachers, and school administrators, makes this tougher and tougher to achieve