Last week, I met with an admission officer at a top liberal arts college. As our meeting ended, he mentioned that he was off to read his final batch of Regular Decision applications. Always curious, I asked, “How are the student essays this year? Any feedback to share?” He looked up with a pained expression and commented, “Someone needs to teach these kids how to write!”
It sounds harsh, but I wasn’t surprised. As a private college consultant working with high school students, I’m seeing a distressing trend: teen writing skills are plummeting. Yes, it feels like a crisis. And note, I’m not referring to average and remedial students—I primarily work with high-achieving teens who are enrolled in Honors and AP English classes.
I’ve spent years helping students prepare their college applications, and right now, their lack of skills is glaring. Granted, I’ve always had my “great writers,” my “decent writers,” and—frankly—my “terrible writers.” But why are so many students suddenly falling into this rapidly growing third category?
A shift in feedback
Every summer, I work with motivated, ambitious rising seniors on their admission essays. We brainstorm a unique topic for their Common Application essay, then the student begins to write. I expect the essay to go through multiple rounds of editing as the student fine-tunes their thoughts, ideas, and style. In the past, my comments down the side of the paper have included critiques such as:
- I’m not understanding the purpose of this paragraph—how does it relate to the prompt and the rest of the essay?
- Show, don’t tell, your story. Let the reader come to their conclusions based on what you are describing.
- This sounds like you’re trying to make your essay into a résumé. This is not the place in your application to list your activities.
- Are you using a thesaurus? Write in a conversational way. Nobody should have to look up words in a dictionary in order to understand what you’re trying to convey.
These comments are expected. Learning how to craft a college essay takes practice, and students need to work hard for it to become their own masterpiece. But over the last couple years, my comments have shifted. I find myself increasingly writing “This is not English” or “You are using the wrong word.”
To reiterate, the students I’m working with are top-performing high school students. Take a look at some examples of what they wrote this year:
- The group of students struggling over the math problems caught my eyes.
- I had went to a small middle school and high school.
- Young voters have an indispensable responsibility to understand the government and the constitution.
- He had never stopped to amaze me of his incredible math skills.
- On my hands and knees, I erected myself when I heard the door open.
These aren’t typos; it’s actually the way the students thought the sentence should be written. They’re selecting incorrect words, misusing idioms, making capitalization and punctuation errors, and ignoring other basic rules of grammar.
So what’s going on?
My students tell me they aren’t being asked to write many papers in high school. That’s a problem; how will they hone their writing skills without essay assignments and teachers correcting their mistakes? Some also claim that their teachers grade on their content only, not on their writing ability. Without feedback on their writing, how can they improve?
And what about cell phones? Students are glued to their phones at an earlier age and spend less time reading books. When teens don’t read, their writing suffers. In addition, teens text constantly using their own form of English which includes “u” for “you” and “i” for “I.” Obviously these substitutions would never be considered acceptable in formal writing, but these errors are ignored in texts. Teens certainly don’t check their spelling or grammar or worry about their level of writing when they communicate with each other.
Many of our brightest teens are writing below their education level. They are entering college without the written communication skills necessary to succeed. How will they do well in college and beyond?
Help your students become more proficient writers
- Urge your students to read, read, and read some more! Reading boosts their vocabulary, enhances their comprehension, and increases their reading speed. All of that is terrific for standardized testing, but the greatest benefit is that these students become better writers!
- Encourage your students to meet with their English, history, and other humanities teachers to go over papers they write for class. They should ask whether their writing is clear and concise and how they can improve.
- When assessing students’ essays, take the extra time needed to explain basic errors. If a comma is mistakenly used instead of a semicolon, add a comment that explains the rule. If “English” isn’t capitalized or “math” is capitalized, don’t simply fix it—point it out and include an explanation. If you’re reviewing an email that starts with “Hey Ms. X,” explain that “Hey” is not the appropriate way to address an admission officer.
- Remind your students to read everything out loud. That way they can train their ear to hear repetitive words, unclear thoughts, and rambling sentences. Once they get in the habit of editing while reading aloud, their writing will improve.
- If they’re amenable to the idea, suggest they enroll in a reputable writing class. Who knows—as they begin to improve and learn various techniques, they could even start to enjoy writing!
Related: Reading: You’re Doing It Wrong
Find more writing tips to share with your students in our Application Essay Clinic.