As a college senior, my oldest daughter recently interviewed for a position with a well known financial investment firm. The job will entail analyzing financial data for their real estate investment sector. After spending an entire day in Dallas and completing a series of interviews, she was told that in addition to her transcripts, resume and recommendations – there was one other item they required: A writing sample. One of the six people she interviewed with asked if she was surprised by this request; why would a position requiring someone to compile and analyze financial data need to submit a writing piece? “Why aren’t we asking you to compute an equation for us? “ they probed. Luckily, she knew the answer and delivered her response with conviction. “An Excel spreadsheet can compute the data for me, but not everyone can write.” Indeed. And they went on to tell her that they see day in and day out, job candidates who cannot communicate effectively and most importantly, write well. “We’ve let smart people go because they cannot communicate in a sophisticated manner. You have to have these skills before you come through our doors. They are the skills that separate a good candidate from an exceptional one.”
As college admissions consultants, we see this every day and ponder the reasons for decline in high school students’ writing capabilities. At The College Advisor of New York, a significant part of our comprehensive college search process revolves around the college essay. . . two words that have come to wreak fear in the hearts of high school seniors and their parents. For good or bad, the college essay has taken on a life of its own. Years ago, it was the interview that provided a window into the soul of the applicant; however most students will never experience an interview before they push submit on their applications. And given that a college application is chock full of data, there has to be something that fleshes it out. Enter the essay.
Most high school seniors have never been asked to write anything quite like Common Application asks of them . . . “Tell us your story” . . . what could be more open ended than that prompt? Seems easy right? So many possibilities. Think again. And all of our coaches at the College Advisor will attest to how difficult this exercise is for the majority of our students. Ask them to write a document based question on the effects of the Columbian exchange on the formation of the economy of the American colonies – no problem. But ask for a piece of creative writing focusing on them and we find the result is often student paralysis.
I wish I had an answer as to why the phenomenon is so pervasive. I’m sure if we interviewed five different educational professionals we would hear ten different explanations, all of them legitimate. There is no question our American educational system is in peril, but that is for another blog. I am now heading in to my fifth season working with students as an essay coach and I admit to seeing a decline in their ability to handle this assignment each and every year.
So where do we begin? If you are working with an admissions counselor, you are admittedly ahead of the game, and if you are not – give us a call (my once per blog, easy to find shameless plug). And please, don’t think for a minute that we write the essay for you – nothing could be further from the truth. But we do spend session upon session brainstorming, drafting and critiquing this extremely important document. As lovers of the written word (we read hundreds upon hundreds of essays each season – we really love this stuff) we strive for more than just “let’s get this essay submitted.” It is our sincere hope that our students take away a larger lesson as a result of our intensive process. It’s not easy by any stretch, but our seniors produce some of the finest essays (we hear this first hand from application readers) because they worked long and hard, dug deep, drafted and found their voice. And that is what this is all about – the student’s voice must shine through. Anyone can write a data based document, but not everyone can WRITE. Facts speak for themselves; creativity is rare.
So the lesson here is (besides how wise it is to hire an admissions counselor that knows what colleges hope to read) don’t ever shy away from writing. High school seniors who think this difficult journey is over once high school ends, are sadly mistaken when freshman year in college rolls around. Because gone are the days when English and History majors were the poor students up all night slaving away on their papers. Engineering and Chemistry and Biology majors . . . you too will be asked to participate in writing seminars all four years of your undergraduate degree. This may be surprising, but it’s true. Why? Because employers are finding that they can hire the brightest and the best, but if an employee can’t write effectively, it reflects poorly on them as an organization. And top firms have gone on record stating that now, it’s time to get back to basics. Which is why my daughter carries her writing portfolio to every interview, relieved she attended a college that saw this handwriting on the wall.