Being Schooled

Since it was being debated just this last weekend, the common application's latest - or should we say future latest - version is worth a moment's discussion. The debate centers on the essay, which is the only area of substantive change this year. How is the essay to be framed? Will it spring from one of the six pre-existing prompts, the last of which basically is wide open [topic of your choice]? Or will the Common App Board choose a few - two or three - prompts and require all students to choose from among them?
Secondly, will the essay's length be limited to 500 words, as is proposed?
So, whatcha think? Is "government" [here the Common App, backed by the collegeo-university complex] taking away student's rights, one by one? Or is the limitation of topic and length both lifesaving for the harried admissions officer and not unduly restrictive for the anxious, too often prolix applicant?
As a long-time teacher - some 35 years of essay assigning and reading, not to mention all the college essays thereafter - I get the length thing. But I'm not sure I get REQUIRING it. Guidelines, sandbagged in a bit but not in an overly draconian way, are good. But requiring length?  Well, that gets me to requiring topic. For every harried admissions reader, there are at least fifty if not five hundred anxious writers of those essays. If the reader wants something succinct, concise but meaty, the writers desperately want the same. But they are not the same. Some of them will be at ease with writing; some not. Some of them will crave the structure of an assigned topic; some won't. However, these groups don't necessarily coincide. So, let's go back to why an essay gets assigned in the first place. I taught history. I assigned essays so that I could find out whether my students could take the tools of historical analysis and use them to deconstruct an historical situation. College essays really aren't all that different. Can you deconstruct your life - or least a piece of it - for me? Can you tell me why you did that? Or thought this? How did you get from A to B and why?
My job as the teacher was to find essay topics that could reach everyone. I discovered that the best topics weren't always best, in fact, almost never - for everyone. Some liked it wide open; some liked it narrow gauge. I liked 500 words.
So, as the Common Application Board reaches for a decision, I hope for all our sakes that their deliberations include some consideration of ways to delimit without destroying, ways to standardize delivery [e.g., length] without sacrificing content. I can't shake the feeling that this initiative is being driven by rancor, by the antipathy that admissions readers have developed, essay by essay, which now drives them to seek some - any - change in the rules. We'll see who benefits, if the proposed changes take effect. Somehow, I'm not sure it's going to be the student.

updated: 8 years ago