Tis’ the season for college essay drafts—lots of them. Seniors are attaching drafts to emails, delivering hard copies in person, and leaving papers on my chair when I step out for lunch. While I can barely keep up with the filing and reviewing, I am proud of their energy and industry!
Each year at this time, however, I am reminded of the need to re-focus my approach to reading and reviewing essay drafts. Perhaps influenced by the multiple English teachers in my clan, I instantly want to grab the nearest red pen and start circling, commenting, correcting, and drawing arrows all over the page. Then I reel myself in (“reboot” seems to be the new expression) and remind myself that is not my proper role.
How can adults (parents, teachers, guidance counselors and tutors) be of help?
Moses Brown is a very caring school and we want to help students as much as is humanly possible. But as a general rule of thumb when reviewing essays, less is more. For myriad reasons, a light touch is far superior to heavy editing.
While it’s tempting to refine points of grammar, suggest a more vivid word, or reshape a sentence, I believe those invited to read essays should think in terms of queries rather than corrections. My colleague David duKor-Jackson likes to distinguish between “macro” and “micro” editing. Previously a director of admission in several settings, he is appropriately sensitive to adults crafting phrases and choosing vocabulary for students—as well as assorted other small changes on the “micro” level. In keeping with our office philosophy, he favors a more “macro” approach that allows students to see the big picture associated with essay writing and maintain their own integrity as writers.
Providing a critique rather than supplying corrections
What kind of queries might adults offer to college applicants regarding essays? Starting the conversation with a couple of basic questions is useful for seniors—and helps them direct their own review.
*How did you decide upon your essay topic?
*Are you satisfied and content with this draft? Did it take shape easily when you wrote it?
*What do you see as the strong points of the essay? Any areas where you struggled? Do you have a sense of why you struggled?
When seniors request that a teacher or college advisor (or parent, older sibling, tutor) read a draft of the essay, they do so because trust the individual. They also crave some concrete advice. Here are a few “macro” queries that help students reflect on the content and structure of their writing:
*Consider the opening sentence and first paragraph of the essay. Does it immediately pull the reader into the text?
*How does the essay flow? Is it easy for the reader (especially the often overworked, sleep-deprived admission officer) to follow the progression of the prose?
*Is the essay engaging and absorbing—maybe even difficult to put down?
*Does the language sound like the student writer in the day to day? If the senior possesses a sense of humor…or a love of irony…or passion for cool words… do these characteristics emerge in the essay?
*Ultimately, does the draft feature the best topic? (In the College Counseling Office, we collect a lot of anecdotal information from seniors and note that every student has several great possibilities to use when writing his or her short “memoir”.) If an essay doesn’t seem to gather momentum, the reviewer might invite a discussion of the actual topic. (When this happens, the student is often quick to reply: “I know…I had a hard time with it.”)
*Is the overall essay well-crafted and soundly constructed? Again, I re-emphasize the “less is more” theory. I don’t think teachers, for example, should feel obligated to address every grammatical travesty. I do think it’s okay to point out—in the margins or in a summary comment—that comma usage is an issue or there is a pattern of tenses not agreeing with subjects. Then students take the lead with corrections. (Encouraging each senior to read his or her draft aloud allows them to catch their own mistakes. This strategy, while odd and “old school” for some students, works wonders.)
*Does the draft reach a conclusion? Alas, the dreaded final paragraph is never easy—even for seasoned writers. Sometimes students simply summarize points shared earlier in the essay. In other instances, they employ a quick wrap-up to exit the text. As seniors approach the last lines, I advise them to think about their audience—and ask themselves “So why did I tell the reader all of the above?” This seems to help.
*My colleague David likes to ask one last question of students: Have you communicated what is essential for an admission office to know about you? He adds: “This is your one opportunity to share who you are and distinguish yourself.”
Our philosophical message to students
As educators know too well, incidences of cheating and plagiarism are on the rise in schools and colleges. This is a multi-layered phenomenon, complicated by the amount of easily accessible information on the internet and the preponderance of sophisticated cell phones. Additionally, some students feel confused by the increasing number of collaborative projects in classrooms and laboratories; they report finding it difficult to distinguish between group intellectual property and individual intellectual property.
In the midst of all this confusion, adults need to be as straightforward and clear as possible in all situations. In the college counseling orbit, I think our messages when editing must be very succinct. Reconstructing a sentence for a student, suggesting a different term to describe a scene, or generating a conclusion is not productive. The unintentional message becomes “it’s okay for someone else to write for you.”
Finally, we need to keep in mind that when seniors complete the Common Application, they honor the following agreement with their signature:
I certify that all information submitted in the admission process—including the application, the personal essay, any supplements, and any other supporting materials—is my own work, factually true, and honestly presented…
So, back to my annual “rebooting”. As drafts begin to cover my desk and chair, I will try hard to focus on the “macro” queries when I meet with students after reading their drafts. I recommit to less of my ink on the page—or red inserts on screen. I may write in the margin “this paragraph seems to ramble” or “the reader may be confused by the sequence here”—but I will not run wild with comments and insertions. Most importantly, I remind myself that essays are called “personal statements” for a reason. By their very nature, they are different from classroom assignments and should be reviewed accordingly. Each student needs to write his or her story, in her own voice, in his own way.