Students Stress Over College App Essays
Because for the First Time They Want to Write
But Realize They Don’t Know How
The New York Times ran an article yesterday called “Why Kids Can’t Write.”
Great piece, but I didn’t agree with the title.
They can write. (Click bait.)
However, as the article chronicled at length, most students have not been taught how to write. The writing experts debated if the problem was at the mechanics end (lack of instruction on writing rules) or the other end with creative writing (lack of opportunity for personal expression through writing.)
I don’t think it’s an either-or issue.
Students need to first learn the rules of the road with writing and develop a basic skill set with grammar, syntax, vocabulary building, punctuations, etc. They also need to learn early on why these skills matter and are relevant.
Everyone knows the only way to learn writing is to do it a lot. If students don’t care about it, or lack something they want to say or express through their writing, they will never do it—and they won’t get better.
You need two things to write: Something to say and the skills to say it.
As a writing coach, I have the privilege of working with students who are highly motivated to write, possibly for the first time in their life—they need to write outstanding college application essays to help get them into their dream school.
When they come to me, however, most are not prepared. They either don’t know what to say in their essays (about themselves and who they are), or if they do have ideas about their topics, they are ill-prepared on how to frame and express them effectively (so others care).
Does this mean they can’t write?
As long as they have their most basic writing skills down—and yes, most do by their senior year of high school—these students mainly need specific guidance on how to think about themselves (what they value, how they learn, why it matters…) and direction on how to frame and structure their piece.
THEY CAN WRITE AFTER ALL!
Yes, if those same students had more opportunities and efficacious writing instruction during their English classes over the years, especially sophomore and junior year, of course they would have more confidence when it came to these college application essays.
The more you write, the better you get at it.
Like all other skills—tennis, throwing pots, hacking computers, etc.—the combination of good instruction and practice is the only way to get better.
Same with writing. It’s not a gift, although some people catch on faster for whatever reason (again, not that different from tennis stars and hackers). But even the pros practice like maniacs.
If you took the time to read the The New York Times piece on Why Kids Can’t Write, they quoted several experts who were at the helm of efforts to improve student writing.
Some believed the “problem” was with the mechanics, and promote solutions, such as returning to sentence diagramming. (I actually did that in 7th grade with an ancient English teacher and thought it was fun, but I still suck at grammar and I don’t think that held back my writing career.)
Others made the case for setting students loose to free write to find their voice. I think free writing is a great exercise to flesh out ideas, but I also think structure can be very freeing in writing and gives students a productive framework for expression. You can free write for a month straight and still not be able to kick out a meaningful personal essay.
And, of course, all of them lamented the lack of reading.
I join their despairing chorus.
You can write even if you don’t read a lot. It’s possible. But chances are your ideas won’t be as wide and informed, and your ear for language will be on the flat side.
Also, the best way to learn is to see how others do it. (This goes for writing college application essays: Read sample essays by other students to see how it works, and borrow ideas and techniques from the ones you like.)
As far as “bad writing” crisis discussed in this article, there’s no easy fix.
If The New York Times had asked me about students and writing, this is what I would have said:
First, we need to value writing as one of the most important skills most students need both in their education journey and the workplace.
Second, we need to train our English teachers how to write well themselves, and then how to teach writing. This is not happening in most high schools.
(I believe people–from teachers to administrators to policy-makers—are scared of writing because it’s such an intangible skill, hard to quantify and a pain to review, and are happy to not have to deal with it.)
Teachers are time-strapped, burdened and overwhelmed by the mandates of excelling at those stupid standardized tests (AP classes and SAT/ACT). There’s literally no time to allow lessons on different types of writing, including personal and creative writing.
So, of course, kids can’t write very well, and lack confidence in their ability. They are not taught how to do it, and they aren’t given time to practice it. Also, most of what they have had to write about is irrelevant to their world and BORING.
And as non-readers in a culture that doesn’t prize writing, they have little reason to value it.
Until then one day, usually in the summer or fall of their senior year, they are tasked with writing an essay about themselves that could make or break their college dreams.
To me, it’s a golden moment. They suddenly care about writing.
And most are willing to scramble to find something meaningful to say and learn how to write about it.
Most students surprise themselves that they do have something to say. That they have things they care deeply about and opinions they want to express.
For the first time, they have a chance to hear their unique writing voice.
The New York Times article mentioned my favorite writing exercise to help students capture their voice and write about their background. It’s called “Where I’m From,” based on using a template from a poem by George Ella Lyons.
I mentioned it in my post of College Application Essay Lesson Plans for English Teachers (at the bottom.) I also just used these exercises working with high school sophomores attending a collegebound camp here in Orange County, sponsored by Girls, Inc. And I used it with students at another collegebound program down by the border in the Rio Grande Valley last year.
It’s almost magic when they read their poems out loud and experience the power of simple, everyday details and images from their childhood.
For a few minutes, they felt like writers, because they were, and they liked it. They got a glimpse at the impact of their own words and background. They cared. And wanted to learn more.
All students deserve opportunities like this to learn how to write for a purpose other than pleasing their teachers or standardized mandates.
It’s not fair that for most students, the one time they will care about a writing assignment is when it feels too late to learn how to do it.
(Good news If this is you: It isn’t too late to learn. That’s why I started this blog—to share loads of advice and tips on how to learn writing skills and techniques to craft standout essays about yourself! Read more posts!!!)
We can change this. But first, we all need to care more. About writing.
What do YOU think?
Please let me know if you think kids can write or not in the comments.