An Assignment for First Year College Teachers

WSJ asked college presidents to write a 500-word essay on a topic taken from the entrance exams from their colleges.

That would be an interesting assignment for first-year college teachers, too.

And maybe it would be a good assignment for freshman English classes at a community college, since they will have to transfer if they plan on getting a four year degree.

The story said:

The “applicants” were told not to exceed 500 words (though most did), and to accept no help from public-relations people or speechwriters. Friends and family could advise but not rewrite. The Journal selected the question from each application so presidents wouldn’t pick the easy ones. They had about three weeks to write their essays.

The exercise showed just how challenging it is to write a college essay that stands out from the pack, yet doesn’t sound overly self-promotional or phony.

And some of the questions and responses?

“I was to heal the wounds caused by the death of that beautiful little boy in the picture,” he wrote. “Yet I was also to remain the trace of those wounds.”

Mr. Diver of Reed, in Portland, Ore., was asked to write about an experience that demonstrated the importance of diversity to him. He described a violent episode as a young man that eroded his liberal self-image. Overhearing the mugging of a young black woman outside his home in Boston’s South End, Mr. Diver, who is white, grabbed a baseball bat and hit the woman’s attacker, who was Latino.

“Doubts welled up in my mind,” Mr. Diver wrote. “Did I really understand what it means to live in a diverse neighborhood? Or did I just want cosmetic diversity as a backdrop for imposing my white, professional-class ways?”

Ms. Spar, who once wrote a graduate-school application essay about talking backwards, used a trick familiar to many survivors of the college essay ordeal: She turned her question on its head. Asked to describe an ordinary-seeming daily routine or tradition that held special meaning for her, the working mother wrote instead about her lack of routine. She described a typical chaotic day: she was juggling preparations for a black-tie event with the needs of her three kids. Meanwhile, her husband was stuck in a snowstorm in Buffalo, N.Y. and the family cat was found with a “writhing” chipmunk inside the house.

It’s an interesting story and an interesting idea that could make an interesting topic assignment.

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