It was pretty hard to throw out that graduate school essay that I had polished for months, especially knowing it could make or break my chances of admission. But that experience changed the way I approach writing – to let my words be as truthful as possible, not just to make myself look or sound better. I’m learning what it means to live up to my name, as I try to be an “honest scholar.”
A number of years ago, I worked as a private guidance counselor for high school students, and they often asked for help with their admissions essays. “What are colleges looking for?” they usually began. “What do you think I should write about?”
“Write something that shows who you are as a person,” I answered. “Don’t just reiterate a list of your accomplishments or extracurricular activities. And you might actually learn something about yourself in the process, which will help you not just for college, but for life.”
The reply: “I don’t know what to write about. Could you just do the essay for me?”
You’d be surprised by how often I was posed this question, either directly or indirectly from students. Or sometimes I’d talk to their parents, who just wanted me to teach their kids all the “tricks” to have an advantage. They’d give me a knowing look and say, “Look, we all know this is just a game. My daughter has to jump through these hoops. It’s your job to help us do that, right?” They seemed at times to treat their kids like machines trained to get into a particular college, regardless of their passions or personal development.
I knew I could write those essays for my students, and make a lot of money doing so. Who would ever know the difference?
A few years after I left that job, I decided to apply for graduate school. I was excited to put to use everything I had learned about the admissions process. I spent months constructing and phrasing some of the best essays I’ve written, replete with literary references, witty metaphors, and personal anecdotes. I couldn’t wait to put my application in the mail.
But something stopped me. As I re-read my essays, I thought, “You know, it sounds good, but how much of what I wrote is really honest?” My writing was so dramatic that it was no longer sincere. It didn’t reveal my personality; in fact, I didn’t even recognize the person it was describing! It was a sobering moment, as I realized I used every “trick” in my arsenal to embellish my image, just as my students had asked me to do for them.
My name in Chinese means “honest scholar,” and I believe the pursuit of integrity runs in my family’s blood. From a very early age, I was told that learning to write was one of the most important things I could learn in school. My teachers and parents said, “The ability to express thoughts and ideas will serve you well in life.” But it’s one thing to learn to write well; it’s another to write with honesty and integrity. It’s something I have to remind myself of constantly, since it’s not really a standard you’re held to within academic circles. Ultimately, you are only as good as the work you create; that’s how you’ll be judged. That’s why plagiarism is becoming a bigger problem in schools – I caught two students doing this.
Is this inevitable? I’m not sure… I think it’s a result of pressure to succeed, combined with how they’re evaluated – which causes students to value grades above all else. Often it’s lack of confidence, and sometimes it’s just pure laziness. I’d like to think this type of mindset can be prevented with good teaching and parenting, or anyone who can hold students accountable beyond a letter grade.
I never wrote an essay for any of my students. I tried to never let them see themselves as “college application machines,” with all their activities and words as their “tools” to reach the goal of admission. They didn’t always like what I told them, but they were forced to express themselves, andown their thoughts and ideas. Hopefully they also learned a few things about themselves, that remain with them to this day.