Tomorrow, at least one high school English class in northern Virginia will be listening to their teacher read aloud “the best” among all the college essays or personal statements submitted to her by students in the class for a grade. This will be after the class has engaged in an activity referred to as “peer editing,” in which essays are exchanged, read and evaluated by students in the class.
In other words, personal statements meant to be both personal and confidential will be shared and showcased for the entire class to appreciate, criticize and possibly comment on. A document considered central to the college admissions process will be passed around and subjected to class discussion promoted by a teacher, who while well-meaning, is potentially breaching a student’s confidentiality and arranging for feedback that is amateurish at best and possibly self-serving at worst.
No one supports English teachers more than I do. I was one—albeit for a very short time. And no one wants English teachers to teach students the basics of expository writing and give them experience preparing self-reflective essays more than I do. I read hundreds of essays each year, many of which suggest to me that the student has never been asked to engage in this kind of writing before. I want these lessons to begin, but well before fall of senior year. I want students to have experience developing personal statements of the sort required by colleges throughout middle and high school. Why wait when communication and writing skills are considered so important by colleges and they are relatively easy to develop under less stressful conditions?
Peer editing can be a useful teaching device in which a student learns from another when carefully supervised and controlled. In small groups or on a one-to-one basis, students may be provided with opportunities to learn about the process of accepting criticism and subsequently revising written work. And it can work equally well in early elementary years as in a freshman college writing seminar. I’m all for it.
But when it comes to peer editing college essays, I have to protest. In addition to sharing a document that really isn’t meant for sharing, the feedback isn’t always so good. I’ve seen essays in which the peer editor has provided unconstructive criticism and incorrectly corrected spelling and grammar. I have had students lose confidence in the quality of their work based on remarks provided by less-than-knowledgeable readers whose experience with college admissions is by definition limited. Who needs that kind of help?
And while I hate to attribute negative motivations among peers, it’s naïve to think that many of these students aren’t competing against one another for admission to selective and highly-selective colleges and universities. Sharing these kinds of personal statements not only opens the work to self-interested criticism but also gives away ideas for topics, formatting and approaches to essay prompts. Even if subconscious, it’s way too easy to take someone else’s idea and run with it. And while we tell students to write personal statements that none of their friends could write, these kinds of exercises do anything but protect the uniqueness of a student’s independent work.
Instead of reading aloud personal statements generated by students in her class, the English teacher who has embarked on the mission of helping her students with this project would do more of a service by reading sample essays from other sources and generating discussions based on those essays. I particularly like samples found on the Essay Hell website or some of those provided by colleges themselves such as the Johns Hopkins Essays That Worked series or a similar collection put together by Connecticut College. This avoids conflicts, comparisons and possible questions about confidentiality. And if what my students tell me is correct, it may make the lesson much more valuable.