On Academic Malpractice…and College Application Essays

I went to college in Brooklyn, the largest borough in New York City. My husband – coincidentally – was born there, near Coney Island. So last week we sat down together to watch a Samantha Brown TV show about visiting Brooklyn.

It was wonderful. Turns out there’s a lot about Brooklyn we didn’t know! But I also picked up something disturbing in Samantha Brown’s script. Here’s the beginning of a sentence from her introduction:

Many people associate Manhattan as the main reason to visit the Big Apple….

Gack. Or sigh. Or sob. Samantha Brown (who’s done many wonderful travel programs over the years) is not going to say “Many people think of Manhattan as the main reason to visit the Big Apple.” It’s too simple – too ordinary. And so we get nonsense: “Many people associate Manhattan as….”

Alas, this kind of writing isn’t rare. I sometimes get requests from friends to go over their son’s or daughter’s college admission essays. You have never read such gobbledygook! What’s really depressing is that these students are graduating from high school honors programs. Here’s a sampling (adapted and disguised):

#1 The more familiarity and interaction I had with the participants in the club positively correlated with the speed at which I could adjust; at which point it became apparent I had achieved my ultimate goal of comfortable adaptation.

#2 These requirements are needed in order that challenges facing various professions can be considered from disparate viewpoints, leading to developments that are effective as well as innovative.

If you’re a parent, you need to look at your son or daughter’s writing assignments to make sure they’re not full of vague, confusing syntax like this. If your student says this kind of writing is expected and encouraged, you need to storm the school and insist that it stop. This is educational malpractice.

No one is served by this kind of writing. The garbled words (“The more familiarity and interaction I had…positively correlated“) are bad enough. But what’s even worse is the absence of specific details. You learn practically nothing about these student writers – their values, hopes, and ambitions.

Go back to the first sample. That student was describing a powerful learning experience. But we don’t get into his soul to learn what happened. He had lots of “familiarity and interaction.” He “adapted” and “adjusted” – quickly. To what? How? I have no idea.

Student #2 wants to enroll in a college program that emphasizes debate and discussion. She hopes to gain skills that will help in her future career…in what field? I don’t know. What topics will she be debating and discussing? No idea.

Someone needed to tell her to read as much she could about the honors program she was applying to…and then make a connection to her own ambitions. (Well, I did tell her.) Here’s an example of what I was looking for. This paragraph is similar to what Student #2 finally submitted. (Incidentally, she was accepted into the Honors Program.)

I’ve been involved in student affairs for three years at my high school. One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I have good ideas, but I don’t always know how to organize and present them. The weekly small-group discussions in your Honors Program 101 Course sound like an ideal way to improve my leadership skills. As a hospital nurse, I’m going to be part of a healthcare team that will be exchanging viewpoints about patient care. I want to be an effective member of that team.  BETTER

Good writing doesn’t have to call attention to your big vocabulary and your ability to write long sentences. It showcases you. This student has told us several important things about herself: 

  • she was involved in student affairs at her high school
  • she’s interested in personal growth
  • she wants to be a nurse
  • she’s spent time learning what a nursing career would be like
  • she’s spent time researching the Honors Program
  • she’s spent time thinking about why the Honors Program would be a good match for her

I call that good writing, and I want to see more of it – much more. Please!

Brownstones in Brooklyn, NY


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