Notes from Session C306: Why Good Students Write Bad Essays Presenters: Jeffrey Durso-Finley, Lawrenceville School, NJ Holly Burks Becker, Lawrenceville School, NJ High School: Q: Advice: Don’t force yourself to write about something profound. The best essays are often about the most ordinary topics that students deal with sometimes on a day to day basis (going grocery shopping with mom, riding the bus, etc.) Little nuggets that are unique and quirky to them. One of my students is writing about his obsession with WaWa! Another about a car ride with grandma from MA to PA over the summer with no A/C, terrible heat, and a smelly dog. It was fantastic. Tiffany F, George School Tell me what your closest friends/family would say is important to you. Tell me what someone at your school who doesn’t know you well would identify as being important to you or about you. Do you have any guilty pleasures? i.e., watching Hannah Montana, reading mom’s Family Circle magazine, Sunday game night with your family—something you wouldn’t share with friends and /or family. Beth Murphy, College Coach Two things—the idea of the keyhole essay—start with something small (like peeking through a keyhole) and use that thing as a way to tell a larger story. 2) The thinking inside the box exercise: Kids come up with six ways to describe themselves (athletic, musician, sister, reader, etc.) and then come up with 5 stories. The kids would tell about themselves in each area. When they are done, they have 30 story ideas. (Yu may know this one already but kids like having a page full of ideas. Risa Nye, Head-Royce School Think of the story of your life and give me a very vivid 10 minutes—not an accomplishment, not a challenge, a telling episode that leaves a reader understanding you (the way you think) better just because you’ve chosen that episode to share. The best piece of writing doesn’t draw a conclusion so much as it leaves readers open and interested in connecting the dots. Rachel Petrella, Brooks School For students who are stuck, I have them follow a technique I learned as a grad student years ago: write the prompt at the top of a blank piece of paper; free write for 12 minutes. Stop. Read what you’ve written. Underline the sentence or idea you like the best. Put that sentence on the top of a blank sheet—with it as your new prompt, free write again. Repeat. Eventually something good comes to the writer. Then the ―real‖ essay begins. Susan Wood, Ferndale High School I find that I can help them out of the gate and put them at ease by stressing what they learned in third grade…The 6 traits of good writing: 1) brainstorm, 2) organize/outline, 3) word choice (watch repetition; verbs carry your message), 4) voice (authentic), 5) fluency/style, 6) mechanics. Mike Dolan, University Lake School The personal statement or essay needs to be ―memorable‖ and not common or ―forgettable‖. Diane Hale, Beverly Hills High School Friend from HS applying to highly selective school—essay question was ―Choose one word that you feel best describes you and explain why‖. His response and entire essay: ―Concise.‖ Andy Luther, Landon School If you are going to write about a common essay topic (a sport, community service project, etc.), then you need to write about it from an angle that no one else would think of. Alison Doernberg, The College Preparatory School, Oakland CA 1)When I read a draft that is not up to the student’s personality, etc., I ask them to show me how it is indicative of who they are. It’s hard for them at first, but they usually come back with a much better end draft. 2) Pull at the sentence or paragraph that is interesting and ask them to make that the focus. Jennifer Blake, Marin Academy A student’s topic once—I date the Homecoming Queen and throw the best parties at BC! Student was 4.0 and earned Presidential Scholarship to major public university—after he changed his topic! Carol Caruso, Bourgade Catholic HS, Phoenix, AZ Relax, be real, be yourself, be honest. Cindy Jackson, Yorktown High school, Arlington, VA One thing you can’t imagine giving up—living without?—Google, phone, chocolate… An action you took that next time you would do differently. Nancy Marcus, Educational Consultant I am a new HS guidance counselor and I would like to receive the list— Thanks! Sorry I don’t have anything to offer just yet. Jennifer Harris, Davidson Academy of Nevada When you’ve completed a rough draft, give your essay to someone who knows you really well (parent, sibling, best friend). Ask them if they learned something new about you. If they answer ―yes‖, imagine how much an admission officer will learn. If they answer ―no‖, it’s back to the drawing board. Miranda Litt, The Hewitt School, NYC Great way to generate a rough draft: Make a list of your characteristics; pick one and write a story about a time you demonstrated this characteristic for 20 minutes uninterrupted. Carol Carusco, Bourgade Catholic I encourage different reader - a teacher, counselor, parent, peer—to get away from the ―red pen‖. Missy Berg, Prairie Ridge High School, IL I didn’t come up with this one, but one of the ways to make a student aware of the dangers of the hackneyed intro and bland vocabulary is to put a dot on the paper at the exact moment that the reader’s interest waivers, then remind them that everything after that point probably isn’t sinking in. Chris Fleitas, Bellarmine College Prep, San Jose, CA Once you have a topic, instead of starting with first paragraph (which can be paralyzing), just think of things you want to say and write them down. Then go back to see which ones you’ll use, how the ideas might connect, what might follow what. The beginning and end of essay might be the last things you write. Audrey Kahane, Independent Counselor Make sure your essay is ―you‖. It’s great to have others edit for typos, etc., but you don’t want it to be so edited it no longer shows your voice. Read it out loud to someone who knows you well and ask, ―does this sound like me?‖ Show your personality as well as your writing ability. Kristen Doyle, Skyline High School Have them write one sentence about themselves and stand up and read them for everyone—which ones ―stick‖ in their minds? Why? This is done annually by Beverly Wheeler in a workshop for our juniors—very effective. Teach them to address envelopes—they cannot do this—have forgotten how since they supposedly learned this in 2nd grade. Ann Harris, Parish Episcopal If I have a student that is unsure of how to start an essay, I usually recommend that they begin with a ―blank slate‖ or a blank piece of paper in which they write any words or ideas that come into their mind. Hopefully, from the words or experiences they write down, they can eventually separate and form a wellwritten essay. Brad Serka, Edmonds-Woodway High School For a late draft…I read the essay OUT LOUD to them—as an ―oral interpretation‖—with the pauses, feelings, etc implied by the punctuation. It hwlps them understand that a reader only ever gets what you SAID, not what you meant. Read it straight through from beginning to end without your or the student’s comments. Jeff Harper, International School Bankok The best essays seem to be the ones where the student writes about one event or experience, and then they expand on what they learned or how it explains who they are. Cindy Neely, Shawnee Mission West High School Ask a teacher or administrator who doesn’t know you to read the essay. Ask what that teacher learned about you. Have students read their essay out loud— ask if they speak that way. Joanna Hartigan, Flintridge Preparatory School. Depending on the college – I recommend the essay to be about themselves— what can the reader learn about you that they will not find out from your transcript. Ok, they can see you’re smart and academically capable but they don’t know you’re funny, can tussle, and like to read Hunter Thompson… Joe DeFrancesco, Council Rock High School North, Newtown, PA List what you’d like others to say about you: illustrate, explain, articulate relevance of one or two of the qualities you possess. Simon Hall, Ridley College School I encourage kids to write a messy first draft, tell their story, get it all out. Often I can help them find the nugget, the true essay, within the messy draft. I tell kids to write the essay that only they can write. If they are writing about a common topic, then personalize it so it is their topic so only they could have written this essay. Anne Naman, The John Cooper School Write something personal—think about a time in your life that changed how you view. Beth Taubman, American Heritage School TIMING—Must start conversation in summer or before—application time. If they wait until Oct or Nov there is no way they can rewrite enough. Plus pressure builds and they can’t think straight! FEEDBACK—Don’t ask everyone for feedback—all different—too confusing. Joyce Slayton Mitchell, Nightingale-Barnford 1. Scenario: math/science student totally stuck on scholarship topic. We began talking about the topic and I began recording bits of her conversation— key points. I then gave this back to her because she had established key points. At that point she felt comfortable writing about her points. 2. Earn your generalizations. Variation of the ‗show me, don‘t tell me‖ maxim. * Brainstorming and free write during college counseling class. Write from your heart, edit with your brain. Show examples …what‘s good, what‘s not. You don‘t need to reveal your deepest secret or struggle. * Consider the reader—people like to read a good story. Your story needs to leave the reader able to remember and share your story. * If it is boring to you as you write it, it will DEFINITELY be boring to whoever reads it! So, write about something that excites you. * Focus! Too often too much ground is tried to be covered. Focus and keep it simple. * I work with Senior English teachers to coordinate Write College Essays unit I teach with the writing Resume they incorporate in the classroom—this works with student and teacher buy-in. * Assign a college application essay to seniors through their literature classes— that would be critiqued and returned and ultimately reviewed by their guidance counselor as a possible base/starting point for senior year applications. Remember that your essay writing is NOT journal writing. This is not time for private confessions. * Any life-long passions? * Continue to look back at the question, your idea, etc. as you write. Are you still on track? * Admissions officers want the ―real‖ you in the essay, not the ―ideal‖. I always tell students ―do not assume that your experience is unique—your responsibility is to write about your experience in a memorable (but avoiding the gimmicks) way.‖ Avoid ―plethora‖ and myriad‖ (SO overused to impress) * Between student and college consultant: present self reflective process thru student surveys of what is important to them and priorities on life. Self report. This is springboard for discussion and then we brainstorm, get feedback, and then continue discussion. * Imagine you‘re driving your 3rd, 6th, and/or 9th grade self to school at the end of senior year—what would you tell those selves? About the current you? About high school? A version of the letter to your younger self. * This is not a ―rocket science‖ suggestion, but I make students read essays aloud to me. When they do, they find more grammatical errors, hear their voice (or lack of voice), focus on fluency and word choice, and gain more ownership of the process. This testing generation is not always comfortable with this exercise, but it is incredibly revealing. * To get them to write about your passion. What do you really want them to know about you? * 3H‘s: Own Head, Own Hand, Own Heart (this advice was from the Boston College Rep) Also we tell them the Reader doesn‘t want to feel sorry for you or be afraid of you. They are trying to see where you fit and whose roommate you will be. I tell kids ―the best essays are written like a conversation. Like you are telling me a story.‖ * 1. The most important thing we can do is listen-as they talk at some point we will say‖Stop! There‘s your essay.‖ 2. We have a saying: ―Write about a blade of grass, not a field of grass.‖ 3. Beheading the essay (your phrase)-probably the thing I most often suggest. 4. Another saying: ―Free your mind and your essay will follow.‖ (Do you catch that 70‘s allusion?) * Essay should leave the reader thinking ―I want to meet this person.‖ * Enlist help from junior/senior English teachers to have students do more reflective journal writing AND creative writing. 1. Breaking the ice: ask a student to write the ―story‖ behind his/her name (every one is different, even with twins) 2. good prompt for reflection (old Notre Dame topic) If there were one thing in your life you could change, what would it be (and why?). I‘ve had some great essays come from this prompt. * 1. Tell a story—if you are funny, use humor; if you are not funny, don‘t try to be. 2. Start your story with conversation if it can help make it more lively. 3. If you write a story about issues that you have, be certain to resolve the problems in the end if possible (don‘t leave the reader with thoughts that your life is a complete mess. * As you mentioned, I often am able to help by saying ―wait, here is your story‖—after reading an overly generic piece of work. * 1. ―Rice Krispies Test‖—when a reader seems to have graphic details, etc.— like the ―mouse killer‖—I ask them if an admissions counselor could read it while eating breakfast and not get grossed out. 2. ―Cut & Paste‖ We actually cut and paste in the old sense. They write draft on single side of paper or print out paper so we can cut it (with scissors!!). We then can go thru process of talking about what could be completely left out and then student can play around with re-arranging parts. Once they‘re satisfied, it‘s ―pasted‖ on blank paper. They then have a new essay to work on to revise again. * Give it to someone to read who doesn‘t know you and ask ―what did you learn about me‖, ―what impression do you have of me‖ (you got to this later!) As a way to jump start/use micro focus—use 6 words to describe this morning…your reaction to…something you care about… i.e. Every weekend fill up and withdraw (kid who was describing chore of getting $ and gas). * 1. Do you find yourself re-telling a story or event that occurred—to your friends and family—write that story. 2. Write your first draft as if you are writing a note to pass across the room to your friend or as if you are sending a long text message—this will help you find your voice. * I tell students that the essay is their opportunity to show/tell the reader something about themselves that the reader won‘t glean from anywhere else in the application! * Personal writing/introduction 15-min. freewrites through junior English class— they pick from a list of general topics (holidays, lies, family, vacations, pets, etc)—mujst write for 15 min/pen doesn‘t leave paper/if they can‘t think of what to write, they write‖I can‘t think of what to write ―until next idea surfaces. * I often have to remind kids NOT to list what they have done—NOT to describe an incident, but instead to tell how it changed them. * 1. Always follow the prompt of a college essay! 2. Do not stray too far from that prompt… 3. Follow length restrictions. * Ask the student:‖What do you want the reader to know/learn about you after reading this essay?‖ Read your essay out loud…how does it sound? * After the student writes his/her essay and has made corrections/revisions, put the essay down. Do not send it out that minute. Wait a day or two and come back to the essay with fresh eyes and make final round of corrections before submitting it. * Though I‘m not counseling kids on college essays, I do get endless questions from 8th graders about how to write essays for admission to LC: ―What do you want me to write?‖ I respond with—―approach this from the inside out ―You tell me what it is I want to know about you‖ Then I assure them there are no tricks in this. Seems to help. 1. Start with free write. This helps generate interesting topic ideas. 2. Write a draft and help students pull essay together with points made thru out essay from taking the last paragraph and making it the first paragraph. 3. Write the essay that either would cause your classmates to immediately recognize as yours, or would give them insight that they would be really surprised by. But—that no one else you know could write. ************************************************************** Why Good Students Write Bad Essays: • Misunderstanding the Audience • Previous Paths to School Success Do Not Apply • Generational Characteristics • Curriculum Clash • Adolescent Sense of Self • Mixed Messages at All Turns • Perceived ―High Stakes‖ Creates Performance Pressure Previous Paths to School Success Do Not Apply Good Students Gain their Standing, in Part, By Successfully Learning How to Play the ―Game of School.‖ The Rules of the ―Game of School.‖ 1) Write for Each Teacher‘s Preferences and Biases The Rules of the ―Game of School.‖ 2) You Can Go a Long Way on Effort and Reputation. The Rules of the ―Game of School.‖ 3) Learning is important, but there‘s a grade at the end of the class which gives you feedback on your performance. The Rules of the Game of School Do Not Apply to College Application Essays 1) Write for Each Teacher‘s Preferences and Biases. 2) You Can Go a Long Way on Effort and Reputation. 3) Learning is important, but there‘s a grade at the end of the class which gives you feedback on your performance. Generational Characteristics Millennials are Tech Savvy, but Weak in Writing Skills? • Email and Text Msg. Vocabulary • MySpace / Facebook Projection of Self • The Age of Auto-Correct and Spellcheck Generational Characteristics Millennials: • Success Oriented • Thrive on Structure • Expect to be Mentored Closely • Deep Parental Involvement -―Millennials Go To College,‖ Neil Howe and William Strauss Generational Characteristics A 2007 survey of 7,705 college students in the US found: • 97% own a computer (?) • 94% own a cell phone • 76% use Instant Messaging. • 15% of IM users are logged on 24 hours a day/7 days a week • 34% use websites as their primary source of news • 75% of college students have a Facebook account. ―Connecting to the Net.Generation: What Higher Education Professionals Need to Know About Today's Students,‖ Reynol Junco and Jeanna Mastrodicasa Generational Characteristics Age Old Maxim: ―If you want to learn to write, you must read…‖ ―Reading at Risk‖ (NEA 2002) – Reading literary works has declined in all cohorts by educational levels, race/ethnicity, and age groups, with the largest declines at the youngest ages. The 18-24 year old group dropped from ~60% in 1982 to 42%. Changes since then? Mixed Messages • Millennial Students receptive to guidance, structure and seek to know the right answers… • Will look for advice from adults. • Follow signs / signals from ―authority.‖ • Tell me what to write about; tell me what I should do. • Adolescents are dependent on culture and each other for guidance and information. • Rumor mill carries tremendous weight. • Sound bite attention spans. Mixed Messages What Greater Authority for a College Bound Student is there than the College Board? SAT Writing: • Spellign Errors aloud. • Evidence does not need to be factual. • Crossouts, etc. acceptable. • Volume / Length More Impt. than Complexity. Mixed Messages Adolescent Rumor Mill Leads to Gimmickry Examples: Styrofoam Hamburger The ―Essay Dress‖ Puzzle Pieces Mood Music Backward Writing Essay in Latin / Russian Sending a Sneaker Curriculum Clash • Five Paragraph Method • Explicit Thesis • ―It‘s as Long as it Needs to Be…‖ • Introductions, Transitions & Subject Matter • Personal Writing De-emphasized Adolescent Identity: Projected Sense of Self Exceptional Students Wish to be Seen as ―Normal‖ • Ironically, quirky, interesting, academic students sometimes see the application essay is a chance to tell the reader they are like everyone else. – Essays on boyfriends/girlfriends – Confessions of stress or being nervous – Discussions of favorite TV shows or popular figures – Self-deprecating stories of athletic struggles or musical ineptitude – Breezy/underdeveloped language – asides, parenthetical qualifying statements, etc. Adolescent Identity: Projected Sense of Self ―Normal‖ Students Wish to be Seen as Exceptional • Relatively accomplished students feel compelled to appear excessively intellectual or prepared for college academics. – Overwrought prose – Mundane life events leading to ―Save the World‖ academic interests – Professions of work ethic – Leadership grandeur: Why being the Spanish Club President will lead to the Senate – Losing perspective of range of experience in applicant pool Perceived ―High Stakes‖ Creates Performance Pressure • High achieving students are quite aware of the competition, i.e. single digit acceptance rates, etc. • Loss of control over the outcome, possibly for the first time in their academic lives. • If it doesn‘t, in fact, come easy to them, the pressure is magnified: they are not used to struggling on assignments. • Worry that a weak essay will undermine past achievements. • Self-reflective time is in short supply - overscheduled, the ―resume‘ kids.‖ • Appropriate versus inappropriate essay help. • Will not ‗red pen‘ the essay. • Will not give you a topic. • Will not revise it for you. • Will help you generate ideas for topics. • Will share our impressions based on reading the essay. • Will give you honest feedback, incl. ―Admission Hat‖ Most importantly, you will get the ―how‖ to write the essay, even thought you might want the ―what‖ to write in the essay. Generational Characteristics Work Two Ways • Millenials: • Love Structure • Eager to Please • Achievement Oriented • Seek Mentors • Extremely Adaptable, Flexible, and Able to Assimilate Information • Adolescents: • Look for Approval • Seeking Identity Markers (even if not skilled at finding them) • Enjoy Being Challenged Puncture the Stress Balloon Frame the ―Assignment‖ / Give them the blueprint • Let them know it is designed to be hard (it‘s not them) • Explain the process • Acknowledge the challenge b/c, they will respond • Let them know you will give them the tools • Reassure they will have the ―How‖ to do this • Praise their ability to accomplish the task The Blueprint Once the issues of audience are understood and students are freed from the restrictions of critical prose, off they go, because they already understand the writing process. All they need now is the application essay blueprint. The Writing Process 1) Find a Topic 2) Text Generation & Drafting 3) Revise & Rewrite* 4) Solicit Feedback * 5) Final Editing * *Repeat as necessary. Five Questions to Consider… • What did I learn about you from reading your essay? • What will I remember about you from this essay? • Do I have a sense of your intellectual vitality and /or how your mind works? • Do I have confidence in your overall writing ability? • Am I left with any nagging questions or concerns? Revising • Show vs. Tell • Vague Language • Passive Voice • Inappropriate Word Choice • Flowery language / Overly complex constructions • Spellcheck vs. Proofread • Feedback: • What did you learn about me? • Summarize my essay in one sentence. • What will you remember about my essay? • Do I come across as thoughtful? Interesting? • What do you think I am trying to say in my essay? • Is it well written? • ―Worst case‖ read. Any worries or concerns? • Describe three characteristics you discovered about me from reading the essay.