Do Bad Questions Make for Bad Essays?

1 Oct

How Mediocre Are the Common App Questions?

Peter Laipson, provost and vice president of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, blames the poor quality of the essay questions for the badly written, cliched tales that so many students submit:

Unfortunately, the vast differences in culture and mission among institutions that accept the Common Application mean that its essay topics appeal to the least common denominator. This fact makes for both bad writing and, often, a bad experience for the writer.

. . . First, the topics [on Page 5 of the application] are extremely general, ranging from “Evaluate a significant experience you have faced and its impact on you” to “Describe a character in fiction that has had an influence on you,” to that petrified chestnut, “Topic of your choice.” Essay prompts are effectively empty of specific content — and the essays themselves often follow suit.

A second problem is that the topics avoid controversy by focusing almost exclusively on the applicant’s interior life rather than their ideas about the world outside them. Such questions invite applicants to write about . . . themselves. But in doing so, they also confirm . . . that the admissions decision is more a judgment about them as people than their suitability for a particular college.

Is it any wonder, then, that . . . many applicants submit either clichéd tales (“winning the big game” and “my grandfather, my hero”) or content largely written by someone else? With anemic prompts that invite self-centered reflection, we should expect little more.

The View from Here

The questions aren’t the problem. You don’t necessarily need a good question to write an interesting response. But you have to know how to do that.

We’ll be offering some exercises on this issue very shortly.

The presidential debates should give us some clues. 

See the whole article at Inside Higher Ed.

Sept. 30, 2012

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