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Why Essays

Earlier we discussed what to avoid when writing your "Why This College" college application essays. Today, let's get positive and talk about what should be in there by using some examples.

DO: Think of this as a "Why we are perfect for each other" essay.
Imagine you're on a date and the person sitting across from you leans in to ask, "So, why do you like me?" You can't just say, "Because you're hot." You're gonna need to be a little more specific. How do you do this? Here’s how:

DO: Fold a piece of paper in half to create two columns, then at the top label one "What I want" and the other "What they have."
As you're researching the school, bullet-point 10-15 specific, concrete reasons why you and the school are a great match for one another.

So, for example, if the school has a music and medicine program, put that in the right column. Next to it, in the left column, say why that's the perfect program for you. Or maybe you're interested in studying Chinese? Put that it in the left column and then look for something related to learning Chinese that the school offers--either academically or extracurricularly (an actual word but don't use it in your essay)--and put that it in the right column. How does this help? It takes your essay from:

"Michigan's well-known legacy, its fantastic football team and spectacular location in Ann Arbor are just a few reasons why I believe UM is the place for me." #supergeneric

to...

"I look forward to Academic Argumentation (225) and Professional Writing (229), as I believe these courses will provide me with a firm basis in journalistic writing technique and improve my abilities to write analytically and develop well-supported arguments. Furthermore, the Professional Writing course will teach me how to write in a concise, straightforward style, a skill vital to a journalist." #likeaboss 

See what he's done there in this Why This College example?

DO: Mention specific classes, professors, clubs and activities that you will actually be excited about being a part of.
And don't BS it. Imagine yourself on campus as a freshman. What are you doing? What conversations are you having? How are you involved? I want to say "You can't get too specific," although I'm sure you could if you try... On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being "I want to be involved in all the campus activities!” and 10 being "There was a particular student's dorm window I looked in during the campus walking tour and I saw her reading a Microecon book and drinking a Strawberries Wild from Jamba Juice--my favorite--and I thought--" (Slow down, creeper. And how did you know what flavor it was??) Anyway, keep it at like a 7 or an 8. And make sure all your details are relevant and appropriate. Here's a good gauge to know what’s relevant and appropriate. Ask:

  • Am I showing that I've done my research?
  • Am I demonstrating my intelligence?
  • Am I connecting what they have to with what I have?

If you’re doing all three, keep it in. If you’re not doing any of these, consider cutting. And I know I said that third thing already, but it's worth repeating: often students only say why the school is awesome. But remember that this essay is not about why the school is awesome. The school knows it’s awesome; the admissions readers spend a lot of their time telling students like you why it's awesome.

Finally...

DO: Remember this is another chance to show a few more of your skills/talents/interests/passions.
Make a list of 10 things you definitely want the school to know about you. Ask yourself: are all these values/qualities in my main essay or another supplement? If not, the "Why This School" may be a place to include a few more details about who you are. But remember: connect it to some awesome opportunity/program/offering at or near the school.

Okay, I said I was finished but here's one more: If the school doesn't have a particular program/opportunity you're looking for, don't freak out. Look at this not as a dead end, but as an opportunity.

Recently a friend sent me a link to a website called UnemployedProfessors.com. I have written about services like this in an earlier blog post. This site is a regular paper mill, with a twist.

They mock the entire educational system. Here’s a screen shot from their “About Us” page:

In case you can’t read that, the juicy bits say that education is…

“a scam, a charade. Professors can only stay in business if they force students to write essays, within their disciplines, that will do nothing to contribute to their own education or edification… the system spit the professor out the same way it will spit out any student who cannot write his or her own paper on the symbolic significance of baboon mating within the confines of Gramsci’s theory of the sub-altern, or any other mundane matter you might be asked to write about. That’s the endgame – that’s why we’re here.”

That got me thinking, why dowe have students write essays? Is it really because that’s how the system “spit us out” and now we are doing the same to our students? Well, for some instructors, there may be an element of truth there. Some academics and teachers think that things should be done the way they have always been done because that it the tradition.

But really, that’s not good enough.

To me, we don’t ask students to write papers because that’s part of the “scam” of the system, or because our students have to go through what we went through in order to be initiated into the hallowed halls of the university.

We ask students to write papers so they can learn how to write. The topic and content areas are secondary. Knowing how to write cogently and construct a written report that has elements like an introduction, a body and a conclusion is a useful skill to know. It is also useful to know how to construct sentences, form an argument and persuade a reader.

Why? Because when you leave school and get a real job, you may have to write something. A report. A letter. A policy. Whatever. You may need to convince someone that you actually know what you are talking about. You may need to show someone (your boss, for example?) you can string together ideas with some semblance of logic and coherency.

I did a post a while back on the International Adult Literacy Skills Survey that showed that 2% of Canadian-born university graduates scored at the lowest levels of prose literacy. In other words, 2% of folks who are born in this country and who make it through University can barely identify or decode words and numbers. Most seven-year olds can do that. (Check out this post on what the literacy levels of IALSS are.)

If we are focussing on having students write on a particular subject, we are missing the mark. (Pardon the pun). Not only is it more about learning to write well than it is about expounding on any given subject, it is also about learning to take pride in your own work and creation. It is about going through the entire process of creating a piece of research writing from beginning to end.

It’s also not about a grade. If the focus is just on getting a good grade and not on learning, heck, why wouldn’t students use these services?

What would happen if we said to our students, “OK, folks, your grade is based on learning, not just on production, or on completing an inane assignment. Show me what you’ve learned, how you’ve learned and it and why you think it has any relevance at all to the real world.”

How would that change what we do as teachers?

How would it change our students’ view of their assignments?

We don’t make our students write papers so they can learn about “the symbolic significance of baboon mating within the confines of Gramsci’s theory of the sub-altern”. We have students write papers so they can learn the art and craft of writing and more importantly, to “learn about learning” and to learn about themselves as students and human beings. Hopefully they grow and expand their own minds in the process.

If students’ minds aren’t expanding, we are not doing our job.

Related posts:

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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, September 13th, 2012 at 4:30 pm and is filed under education, teaching, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.