I don’t know what you have been doing this fall. Personally, I have been knee deep in college application essays. I have been reviewing and editing the application essays of 50-plus seniors, who attend excellent top-ranked high schools, almost all public ones. Once again, I have come to the same sad conclusion. As I said to a class of seniors at an elite high school a couple of weeks ago, “You write like third graders.”
Okay, maybe that was a slight exaggeration, but it got their attention. What I meant was that they were making mistakes in their writing—grammar, punctuation, word choice, and more—that they should have stopped making back in middle school, or earlier. So, think of this as a wake-up call to you, parents, and to your kids.
Here is the big problem: You can’t really fix a high school senior’s writing in the middle of trying to get his or her college application essays created, reviewed, and submitted on time. There is too much pressure then, and there is too little time. Those of you who have seniors at home are going to need to do the best you can in a hurry. But, those of you who have a freshman or sophomore or junior at home can do better. Those of you who have a middle school kid can do even better. You can start working to improve your kid’s writing in a serious way right now so that a future fall’s college application season will be a lot easier for both of you.
Of all the essays I have read and edited in the past few weeks, I found one essay that was surprisingly well written, especially from a mechanics point of view. I called the young man aside and said, “How did you learn to write like this when no one else in your class seems able to do it?” His answer was immediate and seemed exactly right to me.
He said that he had worked regularly with a writing tutor since he had been in ninth grade. His tutor went over his written work and showed him how to improve it. She worked shoulder to shoulder with him, line by line, in many sessions. I got the feeling that she was relentless and demanding. He said that he did not enjoy writing. But he sure could do it.
In my experience, both with students and with my own three children, this is what it takes to improve someone’s writing. It is not lessons taught from the front of a classroom. It is painstaking discussion and editing of the student’s own work, with the student watching and learning and absorbing and understanding the reason for every change that is being made. It sounds slow and laborious, and it is. But it works, and I am not sure that anything else does.
Here is the rest of the problem. Today’s high school English teachers cannot do that for their students. I wish they could. Imagine trying to correct the written work of 150 students on a one-line-at-a-time basis—or even of 100 students or even of 50 students—day after day and week after week while talking through those corrections with each student one by one. And, of course, that’s not all English teachers have to do.
Parents of middle school and high school students, do this now: If you can help your own teenager learn to write well—and by “well,” I really mean correctly—then do so, by all means. If you cannot, for whatever reason, then consider getting the kind of over-the-shoulder tutoring help that is much more likely to ensure your kid’s success than hoping for the best from your kid’s school.
Parents, I believe this is on you.