Why Writing Matters

When my principal sent me this article and asked for my comments, I knew it was major: I can't remember her ever doing that before.  So I read carefully.

At first glance, author Trip Gabriel seems merely bitter about the weight of the personal essay in college admissions decisions:
It was a theme I was to hear many, many times in more than a dozen campus visits. The personal essay, they all said, growing soft and fuzzy, is the one element where a student’s own voice can be heard through the fog of quantitative data.


Is this really fair? Certainly some students will succeed in writing wonderful essays. But mostly this will be because of natural talent or dubious outside help.

This isn't surprising, considering he has a very personal stake in this issue: twins who are set to attend college next year.  ("There wasn’t a vacation day in the next eight months that one of us didn’t spend on a college campus, somewhere.")

Nevertheless, it started to rankle me when he implied that the essay shouldn't be more important than teacher recommendations and extracurricular activities, and should come nowhere near the sacred four digits of the SAT score.

Look: most important are good grades in a tough program.  No one disputes that.  And standardized test scores do help to validate a student's performance and make a "first round" of cuts; together, these two elements help ensure that a student, if admitted, will feel comfortable in classes and on campus, neither too intellectual nor too oafish for the general population.

But that's not enough when students are applying to seven and eight colleges each.  The number of applicants is sky-high, and their credentials artificially inflated, since even the brightest students apply to four or five "safety schools."  Gabriel admits this freely through interviews with admissions counselors.  So what should a college do when presented with a glut of highly-qualified applicants?

a) Rely on a half-page letter dashed off by a teacher or coach who likes the student and can say some positive things about her.

b) Look at the number of self-reported hours a student has spent in debate, track, SADD and / or the school newspaper.

c) Listen to the student's own voice to get a feel for who she is and whether she would be a good fit for the school.

To me, it's crystal-clear that the first two choices, while they should be considered, come nowhere near as close as the third to the student herself.  In fact, I think the personal statement (I dislike the term "application essay" because of the mentality in which it places most students, even the creatively-minded ones) is preferable to the old tradition of an interview: students have a chance to reflect on the question, seek the advice of friends and family, and craft something that is self-aware, analytical and critically sound.

Sure, some will be more mature than others, but the immature ones can shine just as brightly.  And regardless of career choice, the ability to speak intelligently and positively about yourself to others is one worth taking some time to hone.  Unless, of course, you plan to become an ascetic.