Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Suggestion for College Admissions Offices

One of the skills that colleges are looking for in their incoming students is the ability to write. Currently, they have two ways of judging it. One is the short essay that is part of the SAT writing exam, the other is the collection of essays that are required as part of a college application.

The SAT essay is written in pencil by students whose previous writing experience is probably on a word processor. It is graded by the sort of mechanical standards that you have to use if you want comparable measures for millions of essays graded by (I'm guessing) tens of thousands of graders. One result is that, so far as I can tell, colleges do not put much weight on that particular piece of evidence.

Application essays have another, and potentially more serious, problem—the college has no way of knowing who wrote them. They may represent the work of the student, they may represent the work of his parents, they may represent the work of an admissions adviser paid by the parents to help get their kid into a good school. Even if the student sending them in played some role in the writing, the college has no way of knowing how much what they are getting reflects his ability, how much editing by others.

There is a simple solution to this problem, one which no college I am aware of has used: Have the applicant write an essay that they know is his. Put him in a room with a word processor—also pen and paper for those who prefer to write that way—and a short list of possible topics. Give him an hour and see what he produces. That should sharply distinguish applicants who can write coherent and grammatical English prose from those who cannot and, less sharply, distinguish the minority who are actually good writers.

The mechanics of the proposal should be pretty straightforward. Many applicants visit the colleges they are applying to, take a campus tour, attend a presentation by the admissions office, perhaps have an interview. For those, all that are required are a few rooms in the admissions office provided with computers.

What about students who do not visit, perhaps because they live far away? Colleges have alumni, and use them in the admissions process, often to interview such students. Alumni have computers. Arrange, in each region of the country from which students apply, for at least one alumnus to invite applicants to demonstrate their writing ability.

Once such arrangements become reasonably common, it should be possible to do the same thing in a more organized form, with someone in each major city in charge of supervising such essays on behalf of any college who wants them.


dWj said...

Rather than make the student do this for each college, it would seem to be easier to have them do it once for all colleges. At that point, it boils down to improving the SAT essay.

One way in which to assist this is to follow what I believe is the arrangement for the LSAT, in which the test administrator would cease attempting to grade the essay and would simply pass it along for the schools to use as they wish. I have the impression, though, that law schools don't use the LSAT essay much; you probably have a lot more insight than I do into why that is, and perhaps how it can be improved.

Miko said...

I've heard from those who work in admissions that most of the essays received in the current system are abominably bad. Perhaps the number of plagiarized (good) essays is small enough that it isn't worthwhile for the schools to go to the trouble and expense of detecting them.

Unknown said...

i still think that's bad, and not just from a logistical point of view. what can you write in an hour? and with no reference materials? notes? dictionaries?

a friend of mine said that she couldn't remember writing anything serious 500 words or less since about second grade.

some of the exemplary essays by people who had got in to MIT were just a full page of whining about being poor. surely there are better ways to see who 'can write'.

David Friedman said...

"what can you write in an hour? and with no reference materials? notes? dictionaries? "

A blog post. Probably two or three. I didn't time my last three, but I wouldn't be surprised if I did them in an hour.

Or an essay a couple of pages long. Why would you need reference materials, notes, or dictionaries if the objective is to show, not that you can research, but that you can write?

Gary McGath said...

But what if a funny little man appeared in the room and wrote it in exchange for the student's firstborn child?

Seriously, anyone who can't write a short essay in an hour should hardly be considered college material.

Biomed Tim said...

There are people who write well in the first-go-around and then there are people who create good writing through editing. Unless you strictly define "good writing" as good first drafts, this would bias selection against slower writers.

collegedirection said...

As a college consultant, one of my favorite parts of helping students with the college application process is the essay. I know it is difficult to tell whether an essay is written by a student, parent, or essay writing service, but I would like to think that the majority are student crafted and in their own words. I love to brainstorm topics with students and that is how many kids come up with their most unique essays. That is certainly something you would miss in a structured one hour essay session at a college or another monitored location.

Susie Watts
College Direction
Denver, Colorado

Chris Bogart said...

I took the GRE on a computer three years ago, and I had to compose my essay in an awkward text box in the test program. The program crashed and lost my essay when I was nearly done. Apparently grad schools are interested in finding people who are calm and persistent in the face of adversity.

Anonymous said...

Does writing really uncover a lot of information not revealed by a multiple choice exam? Maybe there are some people who can read but not write, but not many. Even a reading test may be overkill. If you know somebody is a native English speaker and has a high IQ, you can rest assured he can read and write (and if not, heck, that just adds to the appeal - diversity!)

Unknown said...

actually i meant half an hour! you said an hour in the post, but i was thinking half an hour because that's what you get on the SAT. maybe it's personal style, but there isn't much i'd feel comfortable writing in complete isolation and a strict time limit.

Andrew said...

I write my papers in vi.

Why aren't they serving ME!

Anonymous said...

I've read hundreds of admissions essays, and they were definitely written by high school kids (or parents who happen to write like they're still in high school).