In Defense of the Art of the Pen

Both articles I’ve read about the change to the admissions essays have been so wishy-washy I find myself wondering if John Kerry is a ghost writer for The Tech. In an age where e-mails are being replaced by texts, magazines are being replaced by blogs, and blogs are being replaced by Twitter, MIT seems to have hopped on the shortening bandwagon with their recent decision to eliminate the long admission essay — and the biography-loving, multisyllabic-word-using, still-writes-with-pen-and-paper writer in me screams in indignation.

Now, please don’t get me wrong, I’m not attempting to fault the short essay in any way, but its position is not in danger here. I have heard little convincing criticism against the long essay, and while high praise has been heaped upon its shorter counterpart, there was a short essay in there before! In classic MIT fashion, we are wiping out the quality and diversity of information in exchange for a consistent data set and higher word count. I feel it is my duty as a lover of the written word to defend the merit of lengthy writing before the long essay goes the way of mailing letters and classical literature.

One issue that does merit serious concern is applicants recycling and over-polishing essays. Ben Jones, former admissions director of communications, says in his blog: “[W]e are looking for the applicant’s true voice when we read his or her essay. Not some perfect piece of prose […]” My inner cynic wants to say “tough, it’s their fault if they produce some bland over-processed generic drivel,” but overachieving high school seniors will be overachieving high school seniors, and we should at least make some effort to dissuade them of this. My essay? Yes, I polished it. Yes, I got others to edit it. Yes, I worried about it to death before sending it in. I still feel that it’s one of the most creative, introspective, and thoughtful pieces I have ever written, and I sure couldn’t have done it in 250 words.

My suggestion? Change the prompts, not the length. If you want to make sure they write from the heart, show their true creativity and passion, and, most importantly, not just copy an overly-edited essay from another school’s application, give them something good to write about. We’ve all gone through the application process — how many colleges asked for an essay on a “significant challenge you’ve faced”? (It’s a prompt on this year’s application, yet again.)

If you want a unique, raw, break-from-the-formula essay, take a look at the prompts the University of Chicago uses, famous for their creativity and originality. One from 2005 asks you to “Write an essay somehow inspired by super-huge mustard.” Another from 2003 asks “How do you feel about Wednesday?” Talk about an essay that really showcases a person’s thinking process!

But enough of my squawking — what do this year’s applicants have to say about it? (All quotes were taken from College Confidential.)

“i liked the one long essay better -_-”

“I kind of feel like I can’t get a really good thought started and completed in 250 words.”

“too short >:O i can hardly express everything in 250 words >_<”

“After working on the application a little bit, I’m finding it extremely hard to say anything meaningful in less than 250 words.”

Another common response applicants have expressed is relief — relief that we have made it easier. Relief? Easier? They’re applying to MIT, the most acclaimed technical school in the world! Our admission rate this last year was 10.2 percent. We are consistently listed among the top 10 universities in the country. According to a March 17 article by The Tech, the number of applications for 2009 “increased by the largest margin in recent memory.” This application is their first piece of work assigned by MIT — and we all know those are never easy.

And why have we not heard from our Humanities school on this? After all their recent efforts to introduce writing to the curriculum and improve our communication skills, we respond by making our admissions essays easier. Where is their outrage? Why is a course 6 major the one angrily writing about this? Bah, humbug.

Clare Bayley is a member of the Class of 2011.