In the awkward span of time between Election Day and the start of next semester, I have increasingly found myself becoming the stereotypical writer-in-the-coffee-shop.
Normally my various muffin/tea/quiet jazz spots in Charlottesville are populated with teachers grading tests, job interviewers and people like me enjoying their “funemployment.” However, today I found myself sitting next to a high school senior as his mother and another woman were writing his college essays.
In the world of SAT cheating scandals, getting slightly more than a fresh set of eyes is hardly uncommon in the college application process, so at first I thought nothing of it. But it only took a few minutes of sitting one table over from the trio to realize that this kid was a) really smart, and b) learning all the wrong lessons about how to articulate how smart he was.
I sat and listened as this student talked through the irony of holiday shopping, sustainable agriculture and his personal connection with the college he was applying to, and I watched as his companions transcribed his story through their eyes. This kid had a great story to tell, but his reliance on adult supervision will prevent him from ever telling it. Whoever reads “his” essays may be impressed by his resume, his “passion” (by far the most overused word in college essays) and his legacy. But not only will they have no clue who he is, he will be less capable of articulating his ideas without his mother holding his hand when he does arrive at college.
As bad as cutting corners to get your child into college is, it’s arguably worse when your child doesn’t need the help.
This student was clearly smart enough and qualified enough to get himself into at least one of the prestigious schools I heard him mention on his own merits. Instead, by signing on to the self-image his mother was creating for him he was rendering himself less prepared to leave the proverbial nest. The ceiling of this student’s potential has been lowered because he has forfeited his right to speak and argue for himself.
The college application process was the first time I had to answer the question: “Who are you and why are you ‘worth it’?” It was the first real exercise in originality that I had gone through, and I benefited tremendously from at least starting the exercise on my own. Sure, I sought help with edits in later drafts, but only after the ideas and stories were already on the page. Not only were my essays better for it, so was I.
The American response to being overtaken by the Chinas of the world, in terms of math and science education, is to say, “sure, but our students know how to think for themselves!” We pride ourselves on students who go beyond simply solving equations, and instead have ideas. In American undergraduate education, being “right” is often considered less important than having an opinion, and being able to construct a logical argument around it.
Our competitive advantage ends here. If we keep our students from thinking on their own we will lose our ability to “out-innovate…our competitors.” So, for the love of God, let your kids be themselves when they apply to college. We, and they, will all be much improved.