Wednesday, May 20, 2009

College admissions essays: who writes them, and who reads them?

In England, as in the U.S., college applications require an essay. In England, as in the U.S., some students hire professional help, some plagiarize from the internet, and many get some advice from teachers and parents. In England, unlike in the U.S., students also have the right to see the letters of reference that their high school teachers write for them.

In reaction to all this, the University of Cambridge doesn't read the essays anymore, and may not pay much attention to the letters of recommendation: Personal statements mean nothing, says Cambridge admissions head.

"Many toil for months, writing draft after draft with care and attention. Some simply cut and paste somebody else’s work from the internet. Others order tailor-made versions online for as little as £24.99.
However they do it, writing a personal statement extolling their virtues and love of study has become a rite of passage for teenagers applying to university.
Now it turns out that many of them need not have bothered.
The University of Cambridge has admitted that it pays no attention to applicants’ personal statements when deciding whom to interview or offer a place.
“With the profusion of companies and websites offering to help draft applicants’ personal statements for a fee, no admissions tutor believes them to be the sole work of the applicant any more,” said Geoff Parks, the university’s straight-talking director of admissions. Much simpler just to ignore them.
“We certainly don’t assign any marks to personal statements,” he added. “I have been told by students after they have been admitted that their schools write the personal statements. Reading a very good personal statement doesn’t tell you anything about the student because you cannot be sure that it’s the work of the person concerned.”
Although the university may use the personal statement as the basis for discussion during an interview, it is not used to judge the student. At all.
Personal references from teachers are also treated with a huge pinch of salt. Now that students can ask to see their references, teachers have stopped saying anything interesting or controversial, Mr Parks suggests."
"A survey of 50,000 university applications two years ago — many of them for places on medical sciences courses and at Oxbridge — found that a significant minority of students had plagiarised them from the internet. The giveaway was the 234 applicants who all began their medical school application with the same anecdote about setting fire to their pyjamas at the age of eight."

The head of admissions at Oxford, however, says they still pay attention to essays, to help them distinguish among their applicants more than they can by just looking at grades and standardized exams.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting, but the college admission boards are missing a wonderful opportunity. Use the submission of a plagiarized essay as a signal of the student's future academic behavior. That would put a quick end to the practice.

Of course, it would help if those same universities stepped up their efforts to police plagiarism once the student starts submitting essays and theses in their course studies. Universities that care about their reputation should be more vigilant about protecting the intellectual integrity of their courses. However, the trend appears to be in the opposite direction.

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