The dumbification of writing

My son tanked on the writing section of his SATs. I had offered to help him prepare before he took the test but he emphatically told me (many times, in fact) “mom, I’m fine.”

Which means that this school vacation, I’m holding an SAT writing class for him and two of his buddies. 

And it makes me sick.

Because my son is a gifted writer. He shows good organization, solid structure, and terrific use of vocabulary. He even has a strong and unique voice in his writing. Where he messed up was that he didn’t write a 5 paragraph essay.

That’s right. The graders of his essay didn’t see that he had set up a thesis with 3 arguments in paragraph 1. They didn’t see the next 3 paragraphs covering each of his arguments and they most certainly did not see his thesis summarized and restated in his final paragraph.

Instead what they saw was a more-than-5 paragraph essay that didn’t follow the rules. They didn’t care about originality, they only wanted to see that he conformed.

He was supposed to follow the rules.

And that, in a nutshell, is what modern day writing has become.

I understand that there have to be metrics, really I do, I get it. But I also find it disheartening to consider that our next generation of writers will think that in order to be a good writer, you’ll need to write to the formula. “Twilight” worked? Let’s do the exact same thing and write an adult version and call it umm, “Shades of Grey.”

Where will the creativity come from if we’re taught to write to the structure and not to a theme or one’s heart? Where will we find the “Call me Ishmael” beginnings, the complicated and entwined stories, if we are taught to lay out all of our cards in the first page. How on earth can my son learn to continue a plot, to flesh out a character, if he is required to write in a way that invites no creativity and no mystery to the art.

The short answer is that he can’t learn that, not from the school system as it currently is, anyway, where students are being taught not to think but to take tests well. In order to get a proper literary education my son is going to have to read, be involved in discussions about books, and he’s going to have to practice his writing craft. Fortunately, that’s the kind of activity that is constantly going on in our house. It’s just not unusual to hear a plot summarized while broccoli is being passed at the dinner table.

My son will eventually learn how to be a good writer, I sense he will have a few exciting challenges to recount down the road. He wants to explore, travel, and have adventures – all great stuff of which stories are built. But for now, that will have to wait until we finish this class on how to write using a formulaic structure so that he can score better on a test.


Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens).

Guess what? The first class starts this morning. 

And speaking of dumb, I fixed the title, thanks.

Photo credit: photosteve 101

67 thoughts on “The dumbification of writing

  1. I am going back to school and just took a writing class. I am a good writer, but I don’t follow the established process (research, outline, draft, re-write, etc). I marinate on the topic for a few days and then download. Sometimes, for some people, the process just does not work!

    • Jon-Paul,

      It’s not that I don’t believe in a structure to writing (in fact I’ve written about following an outline a few times before) what I object to in this particular example is the complete lack of creativity and let’s face it skill to write a 5 paragraph essay. No one is grading writing skill here, they are simply grading whether or not you’ve collected the separate pieces and put them together.

      I suppose that is certainly a test of some things (can you follow orders, how much do you deviate from what is expected) but I just fear that kids will start seeing this as what is expected from them going forward in life.


      • On the other hand,being home educated I never really learned the 5-paragraph essay. I tested into Freshman English at the college level and have never had to write a 5-paragraph essay. My English Prof also mentioned during class that the biggest problem with 5-paragraph is that by the end of high school youth may think that that is the only way to write an essay, which is not the case.

        I also think you make a good point about what they are really testing the youth on, because is that really what we want to encourage in our society? There are rules that are important to follow, but our society takes conformity too far.

  2. Unfortunately that is the way the school system has been for some time. There is no accounting for voice anymore. The current system is run by unimaginative academics who see only statistics and data. I guess you can paraphrase Tolkien and CS Lewis and just say, no one writes the things we want to read so we’ll have to write it ourselves.
    Education is simply a series of hoops to jump through so you can have a piece of paper on your wall that says you know something. Hang in there, college is worse.

  3. Texas is big on testing in the public education system. My kids were able to pass the tests but still can’t write worth a damn. Fortunately, they do other things well (math and science). Testing and regulation from Austin presumes that our local board of trustees can’t run a school without help. The local private schools are proving just the opposite by graduating kids who can write well, and even stand up in front of a group and speak comfortably and clearly. If I could do it over again, I would send my kids to one of the private schools.

  4. This really struck a chord. It takes a strong impression for me to remember events from the past; yet, I remember instances in 5th and 6th grade where the creativity was pushed down in favor of structure or format. I remember in first grade when day dreaming was mentioned on report cards. But I also remember those people along the way in my 52 years who encouraged, accepted and educated me to get me again connected with whatever creativity I have. You’ve just picked up a incredibly important role for your son.

  5. Our only hope is that college admissions will discover that the SATs don’t tell them what they need to know about a student’s creative process, and that those colleges looking for original thinkers will either discontinue looking at the verbal schools and/or look more carefully at the supporting documentation in each application. BTW, there was an interesting piece on NPR yesterday about how machines are as good at reading and scoring these essays as human readers – because they are only looking for a narrow set of skills: 5 paragraphs and sentence structure – but not content! so that illogical but grammatically correct sentences score higher than skilled but non-standard rhetorical strategies. It’s time for everyone to reread George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language!”
    Thanks for this post!

    • That’s what I’m screaming! Don’t sweat the small stuff, play by the rules if you must, but all in all, this SAT score is not going to determine your son’s fate. People of greatness have a way of breaking the rules and not really caring what the rulemakers say because deep down they know what is right. They know their creativity, character, and fortitude will carry them where they need to be.

      When I was job hunting I experienced this same machine grading separation. At big companies resumes are filtered by computer, if you don’t have the right “formula”, you don’t even make it to a real person’s eyes. Guess what, joke’s on them because I realized I don’t belong in their world.

      Great post Wendy!

      I really enjoy this blog. In fact, our website points to it as a reference for writers. Check it out at and look in the bottom right hand corner of the welcome page!

      Deborah, I read a lot of your posts as well 🙂

  6. Hi Wendy,

    Hear! Hear! 😉
    I had a similar problem with my daughter who came home in a huff one day because her teacher (grade 5/6 in Australia – age 10-11) told the class they must write “within the realms of possibility”. My daughter loves writing fantasy stuff. Yes she is very enthusiastic and writes quite well but obviously has lots to learn. And what better way to learn than to just do it? She can probably see where she went wrong simply by reading it back. And why can’t the teacher let them go wild occasionally, then steer them in the right direction instead of playing it safe and cozy (and lazy?) and potentially hold these students back from what could be one of their great talents?

    Sorry, end of rant. That teacher got me in a huff, too!

  7. Good for your son. We need more rule-breakers! Rules change. Frequently. I bet my writing teachers back in college would be confused by some of the “writing rules” I’ve learned since. 😉

  8. It’s a sad commentary! The “form follows function” approach (or visa-versa) does not work in artistic realms. But I appreciate the whole idea of following some kind of structure. For so long, we’ve allowed kids to get away with inventive spelling, rewarding them for good ideas in a sloppy format, etc. Most kids today can’t write a full paragraph with a topic and concluding sentence if their lives depended on it. Years ago, a special ed teacher said to me, “Not everybody can be an Ernest Hemingway, you know!” I replied, “Why not? Ernest Hemingway wrote in simple sentences.”
    I think it’s a sin we are not holding our children to standards that encourage and develop structured writing AND creative thinking simultaneously. And I think it’s tragic we aren’t doing that while they are still in grade school, so by the time they are prepping for college they can concentrate on showcasing their unique talents!
    I think we hog tie our children and then wonder why they aren’t as innovative as the last couple of generations. We stuff them full of sugar, overfill their plates, and then ask them eat heartily so they can be “healthy.” Just sayin…
    This post could be a real soapbox! LOL Good points to discuss, Wendy!

  9. Well, I have seen time and time again, schools focus on all the wrong things. Truth be told, unless you are a ‘writer’ you forget ‘how’ to write. Who wants to be a ‘writer’ unless they stumbled upon the joy of reading and writing. To me, they do not focus on this poor joy enough to entrigue our children today, and after they are ‘writers’ teach them that there are some rules here, that make it work better, flow more and round out. As with many things, they teach it backwards or prematurely.
    My three school age kids are ‘writers’ and it is because we home schooled without ‘language arts’ for so many years. When I sent them to school at the beginning of this school year, they were leaps and bounds ahead in the writing process. Why? Had they been writing more then their peers? Nope. They just love reading and writing. Learning and applying rules is easy when you already have momentum and you just need to adjust a bit. Like driving, you have to be in the car moving forward before you can learn how to parallel park and so on. You need to already be ‘writing’ or else it doesn’t make sense.
    I’m sure I’m too under-educated to be a ‘proper’ writer, but I’m a wicked fast learner because I want to learn.
    (Okay…now that I’ve had my say, feel free to correct my grammar and spelling 🙂 )

  10. Agreed. And your comments about the school system are close to home for me, as I prepare to take my oldest out of his Montessori environment and drop him into the stand-in-line listen-for-the-bell do-what-the-guy-in-front-of-you-does rigidity of public Kindergarten. That said, I’m putting him there because even though I don’t think that the current structure of the public school system is the best way for him to learn, it is absolutely critical that he learns how the system works. Because this is the system that our society applies to everything from public school to finding a job to, I guess, writing a novel. And though it isn’t right, and I will teach him at home to think for himself, he needs to learn that you don’t make much progress hitting your head against a wall. So as writers, I think, we figure out if want to write for the market — where Twilights and Shades of Greys are finding success — or for ourselves. I think I try to do a bit of both, reveling in the freedom to do either.

    Sorry. That was probably not a very helpful comment.

  11. I really didnt like the SAT model of writing an essay as well! i dont like it when there are parameters to blocks your flow and really dumbs it down…

  12. I shutter when I remember my undergrad college writing experience. Unfortunately, this writing-by-numbers trend has also seeped into some of the best MFA programs, producing only a handful of truly original contemporary writers. But even these few are not read nearly as widely as “Twilight” or “Shades of Grey”, so the ownership, I believe, is also on a reader. We need to cultivate readers with good taste.

  13. I have a teenaged son, and he’s in one of the best public systems in the nation. The kids have college textbooks, and take AP courses, and have hours of homework. But critical thinking? Creativity? Discernment? Constructive debate? They have no time for it in the classroom.

  14. This is sad, Wendy. I had a roommate in college that struggled with writing: one day I found her at her desk, staring at the wall and saying, “What I need is a really good topic sentence.” I sat down to help her, saying, “Forget that for a moment. What are going to write about? What do you want to say?”

    • Yes…that IS the starting point isn’t it – what ARE you going to say, what do you WANT to say? Creative thought, then structure and polish! Not in college, but much earlier, so when our kids sit down in college to write something, they are not so stressed about it.

  15. Prose is truly a dying art! Thankfully though, now we can publish our own work on a made to order basis without undergoing the scrutiny of a “paint by numbers” editor in chief- and without having to by 1000 copies. My good friend had written nine books; all of which were turned down by many publishers. She finally found that self publishing can pay.

    Like you, I look for the “Call me ishmael” beginnings. Moby Dick wil always be a part of my literary favorites collection. Unfortunately, many have never read the work.

    Personally, I write on my own highway… no speed limits; no rules. I choose to get to my destination for my own enjoyment and to study the boundaries of my imagination, Communicating in my voice, with my parameters, continually allows me to touch readers in a deeper way; at least deeper than that of a worn fable or fairy tale ending- Talk about beating a dead horse!

  16. Wendy, your children are truly blessed to have you so close at hand. As an English major in undergrad and a business writer by profession, I have shared with many young people the various writing genres and the MOST helpful has been that five paragraph ‘formula’. I am not as concerned about it since it has worked to keep them focused and organized. But it absolutely has no place in the creative process. Love this post!

  17. Not glad to hear, that school obviously still sucks and is just about grades – whatever they tell about ‘learning for life’ is just not true.

  18. Brilliant! Thank You! As a former teacher, I can attest to the dumbing down. My fourth graders were expected to follow certain rules in order to get the “right” score. Needless to say, I don’t teach any longer. I blog now and hope that my own children learn to love to write the way I learned as a kid!

  19. Wow! You apparently hit a chord here, with everyone in 100% agreement. So, I feel it my duty to play devil’s advocate.
    Although it would be ideal for college admissions officers to meet and evaluate each individual child, the reality is that this is not going to be the case. The “common app” makes it easy for students to apply to multiple colleges and universities – a single student applying to eight schools isn’t that uncommon. With so many applicants, schools need a way to narrow down candidates.
    One of many evaluators will be a test, which the creators say will measure students on proper use of grammar and a specified structure. The evaluation criteria are made clear before going into this test. In other words, you are asked to build a house. If you choose to build a barn instead, you will not be rewarded in the same way as if you built the requested house.
    Each child gets plenty of opportunity to display his creative writing in the plethora of essays that accompany both the common app, and the individual school applications. Equally as important will be how well the student shows community involvement and creativity. I can name a handful of students who got top standardized scores, and didn’t get into the college of their choice. Yet others, whose essays displayed a passion for something beyond the classroom, landed in schools that were considered a reach.
    So, teach you son to write with structure, when structure is required, and to exhibit his passion and creativity in his individual essays. His ability to do both will show how well-rounded and versatile he is.

    • I feel like this is the perfect response on this topic. I know for FCAT (the standardized test in Florida here) “readers” are expected to give a grade to the essay in something like 130 seconds. That is certainly not enough time to go over the nuances and judge the creativity of the essay, but it does allow for you to check off a list of *required* aspects for the essay. If they want to include a writing portion at all, it needs to be in some basic format so it can be judged quickly. It sucks that creativity isn’t expanded upon or encouraged enough in schools, but I don’t really see a viable alternative for something like the SATs anytime soon.

  20. My high school writing experiences were awful. If I didn’t use 5 paragraphs for the essay, I got an F. If I didn’t go “my thesis is” and “in conclusion” I got an F. And my SAT score was bad on the essay part because I used 7 paragraphs instead of 5. And in college, once I started using the 5 essay system, I started getting bad grades because it wasn’t as intelligent as they expected. It was a lose-lose situation and it makes NO sense. I hate it and definitely think it’s crippling for future writers, though not impossible to overcome.

  21. Wendy: I have ot say you surprised me with this post. I expected to see more lamenting on how teens write in text-speak, but your point threw me for a loop. I wonder how those tests are graded and what type of staffing is involved. Obviously humans are still in the mix if they have to weigh in on essays – it can’t all be scantrons, right? I wonder if time or skills of the grader have more to do with not allowing for creative differences in essays. It really is sad.

    What’s so troubling is as adults we have to unlearn much of the “5 paragraph essay” type writing to do something worthwhile creatively. So many of the old school rules don’t apply to novel writing, it really is a different bag. And then you wonder, why is all this effort going into basic academic style writing if all it is ever used for is academics?

    You’ve posed great questions.

  22. Thanks for that and I so agree writing, like anything creative, has rules you learn to then break and if it was only the amount of paragraphs that got the teacher bothered he really should sit down and question what he is there to teach … help others find their voice or create carbon copies of ideas?

  23. I have a 9th grade daughter who is a gifted writer as well. The system frustrates both of us! We recently read “The Giver” and discussed how there are some painful similarities between that “sameness” culture and our own.

  24. What a timely post! My high school junior is frozen with writer’s block whenever he has a 5 paragraph paper to write. It takes him hours to write an essay and last night’s attempt was no exception. He’s a decent writer who has difficulty getting his thoughts to fit neatly in the prescribed 5 paragraph format. Clearly there is a reason to teach kids how to write a 5 paragraph essay, in all its structured glory, just as there is a reason to teach kids how to write a poem or a newspaper article (see Marge’s comment above). However, the rigid and often formulaic method taught in most schools manages to zap the creativity and fun out of writing. Might as well do math!

  25. Frustrating. I really feel for you on this. Your right about Twilight and the silly Shades. All writing to a fomula that not enough people saw through. It’s quite depressing.

  26. I wish I could say I can’t believe this… unfortunately I can’t.

    I’m positive the tests were not that insanely restrictive when I had to take them, but it has been a while.

  27. This was the most frustrating thing for me in high school, being expected to follow a formula that as far as I could tell just didn’t work anyway. I had hoped college would be different, but it’s not. They’re still teaching that writing academic level papers requires a specific completely obvious formula. It’s not just five paragraphs anymore, but it’s the same annoying and disheartening principle.

  28. Dear Wendy, as a retired Headteacher, let me play devil’s advocate for the SAT’s marker in order that your son may take something positive from his recent experience. Your son has not flunked; rather he has been given a valuable learning opportunity.
    The purpose of statutory education is to provide young people with the skills, knowledge and understanding they will need to lead fulfilling and productive lives. This is not only for their personal development, but also that they may become useful members of the local, national and global community of which they are a part.
    Because of his own nature, your nurture and the education which he has received so far, your son is well on the way to achieving these goals. Now he needs to acquire the experience and maturity which will enable him to reach his true potential and put it to use for his own happiness and the good of society.
    Let me give a recent example from my own life to illustrate my point. My husband requires dialysis 3 times a week. He is blessed with a team of caring and professional nurses at the unit he attends. They have all the technical and personal skills they need to keep him alive. Recently a new provider took over the unit and they replaced all the machines. The machines looked the same but there were some important differences. Unfortunately the nurse attending to my husband was not aware or alert to this fact and did not adapt to the new machine. Luckily my husband was alert and stopped her before she switched the machine on. She had followed her training and her previous experience and connected the pipes in the usual way. If she had switched the machine on cleaning fluid would have been into my husband’s body, instead of blood being drawn out of his body into the machine to be cleaned.
    The Sats is a very safe, though harsh, way of teaching young people that statutory education has a higher purpose and a concrete goal. In order to be successful in it, and in life, the pupil needs to be aware, alert and adaptable to what is required and appropriate in the situation they find themselves.
    Given a good education, an openness to learn from every experience, and the encouragement and nurturing of talent that you are providing, I pray that your son will go on to have a happy and successful future as a valuable member of society. Congratulations on what he has already achieved and I wish him well in the future.

  29. Wow! So many comments!
    I absolutely agree with you, as in England the education and testing systems are equally anal. Let’s hope that the strength of opinion on the subject will have an impression on the people who can change things for the better.
    During my time in education I was painfully aware of how creativity was encouraged within the confines of a specific structure. Whilst guidlelines have their place, if applied excessively surely they ultimately place ceilings on potential.

  30. What I really hate about the five-paragraph strucure is that it leads to some enormous paragraphs 😛 That’s how I really learned to break away from it, actually, because when my paragraphs started going over more than one page I decided it was time to reassess them.

    I think the five-paragraph format has its place in teaching students to write essays, because it teaches the importance of having a coherent argument, several points backing up that argument, and a cohesive conclusion. As it was taught to me in Canada, we learned it in grade 8, but by grade 10 were being encouraged to experiment more. In my opinion, in this way it fulfills its purpose of forming a baseline for understanding how to format an essay without being restrictive. As all writers know, rules are meant to be broken, but those rules must be understood in order to be broken. Thus the 5-paragraph rule should be broken, but only once you understand why you’re taught to format essays like that. Frankly, I’m shocked that prospective university students are still expected to write in such a strict format, as while uni essays still expect the basic structure of introduction and conclusion enveloping the supporting arguments they’re also meant to be far more in-depth than the five-paragraph essay allows for. You simply can’t write a 2000-word essay in five paragraphs if you want it to be either readable or sufficiently thoughtful.

  31. Yes it is true that the North American “Teaching System” is biased towards training students to follow rules and write tests. When one accepts that is the bias then things like the SAT are easy – since they are all about reading the rules and applying the rules. There is no thinking involved only knowledge. Perhaps we will one day implement an “Education System”. The difference between a Teaching System and an Education System being one of focus – in a Teaching System it is all about the instructors and their needs. An Education system focuses on the learner and their needs. An Education System is much much harder to get right.

  32. This is so disheartening. What’s happened in our school system? I had a professor in college who made us write or draw for fifteen minutes before each class, even though it was a media topic. I thought it was silly at first, but then she explained her research about the slow decline of creativity in school children based on the fact that they don’t have the support they need to continue being unique and artistic. Instead, we are pushed toward math and science because the creative, fun jobs don’t pay.

  33. I could not agree with this more! I’m a high school student and am frustrated with how they make you test! I’m homeschooled, and though they do have guidelines for my writing, my parents encourage creativity and originality in my writing. You shouldn’t have to conform your creativity. It’s almost an oxymoron. Not looking forward to the SAT this fall… :/

  34. Case and point, my two oldest just wrote HLATs yesterday, their first experience with them, (Highest Level of Achievement Test, the name alone makes me wretch) because of the laws where we are, home schoolers could legally opt out if they wished so we always have. They had been hearing how brutal they are by the other kids for days. It was story writing. They both came home shocked that that’s what kids in their classes were dreading. They both, even my dyslexic(?spelling) one, said it was super easy. And the test is not for your kid, but to rate how well their school is doing. Ironic that the kids who are fearless from not being tainted by school will probably be two of the ‘Achievement’ boosters for it.

  35. As a high-school student, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve thought about this many times, and agree that most students not only don’t know how to, but literally cannot write creatively because they haven’t been taught a formula. But writing, IMHO, is more than following a proven way. It’s about discovering magical and incredible things that you didn’t know about yourself and your voice, and trying and failing and failing and failing and finally succeeding. On the other hand, it means that kids who don’t fall into the helpless category (such as yours truly) will probably have an easier time breaking into the writing industry.

  36. While I agree that students need encouragement to write creatively, I respectfully differ with much of your post. The assignment was to write a 5-paragraph essay to a prescribed format. Your son apparently did not do that. Why do you think he should have passed?

    I hate to sound like a “rules is rules” type, but in certain settings you have to just put your head down, grit your teeth and follow the rules. If you are being judged on your ability to follow specific rules, then you cannot object when you are penalized for not doing that.

    There are many other places he can use and enhance his creative-writing skills. It sounds like your kitchen is one of them, and it sounds like a wonderul place to be.

    I’m sure your son still has a bright future.

    • Sorry, I’m not familiar with the SATs, but the original post didn’t specify whether or not the test actually says ‘write a 5-paragraph essay’. Does the SAT usually? If so, then while I think it’s a stupid way to test abilities in this case I’d’ve done as I was told to get into uni; I’d rather protest the testing method *after* I have an acceptance letter in-hand.

      If it doesn’t specify, though, it’s not only unfair to mark someone down for it but it speaks volumes about what the Powers That Be think of high school students’ writing abilities, in that they assume they only know how to write a five-paragraph essay and won’t deviate from the formula.

      • The post did not use those exact words but I inferred it from this:

        “Where he messed up was that he didn’t write a 5 paragraph essay. . . . Instead what they saw was a more-than-5 paragraph essay that didn’t follow the rules..”

        It’s an academic-writing test, not a creative-writing test. How does one measure creativity on a standardized test? As another respondent said, if I ask you to build me a house and you build a barn because it pleases you more, don’t object if I don’t pay you for the barn.

      • I agree with you on the academic-writing over the creative-writing, but there’s plenty of room for creativity in academic writing.

        My inference from that is that he wasn’t told specifically to write five paragraphs, but that’s what they were looking for because that’s the ‘proper’ way to write an academic essay and they didn’t expect students to be aware that you don’t have to do it that way. Maybe I’m being overly cynical, though.

      • I’m been following all of these comments and some of them raise good points.

        For clarifications sake – the test never says write a 5 paragraph essay (so the barn analogy does not quite fit) what it does say is to “discuss.”

        If your English teacher does not understand how to construct a 5 paragraph essay or if you are home-schooled and you may not have been exposed to this, you can write the world’s best essay but if that topic sentence is not the last sentence in the 1st paragraph, if your second paragraph does not contain at least 5 facts, if you don’t restate your thesis as your last sentence – you are out of luck.

        When I taught the essay writing class this week for my son and his buddies, during a discussion where we dissected a sample essay, the kids told me that their teachers had told them that if they didn’t know a fact or reference – to make it up “just make sure it looks credible.”

        That’s because you get points for using certain “tricks.”

        That’s what I object to. It’s not the following rules part (heck, I used to be a tech writer, I know about following rules) it’s about creating an unfair measurement of writing that when you come down to it, measures how a kid can manipulate the system more than how he can compose a thought.

      • Thanks for the clarification, Wendy. In that case I think it’s certainly problematic to fail for not writing a 5-paragraph essay, because if you’re told merely to ‘discuss’ you should be evaluated on how well you do so. Structure comes into this, of course, but it doesn’t have to be the rigid 5-paragraph structure.

        As for the ‘making it up’ bit, can I just say ‘WTF?’ You’re right, it’s about measuring how good they are at manipulating the system, not their actual writing abilities or their university suitability.

  37. I agree with some of the people who commented on the value of teaching students to follow rules and adapt to requirements. However, it seems that these lessons, especially when it comes to creative expression such as writing, are best left in the classroom and not on college admissions exams. If a student earns decent grades, takes the SAT, and takes other steps to attend college, they are already proving their ability to “play the game” as some have suggested they need to do. Your post identifies a flaw in our education system, and one that stifles the creativity and individuality of young people.

  38. The inevitable issues, I suspect, of jamming square pegs into round holes. My own recollection of school – certainly in New Zealand – was more to do with forcing conformity by humiliating and punishing those who did not meet a very dull and mediocre norm, than it was with education. Joyous creativity was a capital offence. I never learned writing there; I was actually sent elsewhere for the purpose by my parents. Those lessons served me in good stead. It wasn’t unusual in a world sense, I suspect. I get the impression things haven’t changed too much in the years since.

  39. I appreciate so many things about this article One thing that stands out is that as a parent you recognized your son’s skill and potential when those who evaluated him did not. I hope that lesson isn’t lost on him! 🙂

  40. Dear Wendy, I used to work for The Princeton Review teaching the SAT, so I understand your frustration completely. Sadly, the SAT doesn’t measure what really means to be a human being: creativity, spontaneity, and imagination. The test is seriously flawed in every single section (side note: the SAT started out as an IQ test in California that failed…brights kids tanked it; average kids tanked it; pot-smoking kids tanked it; so what parents and kids now are dealing with are the remnants of an incredibly flawed test.) Plus, it has been proven several times that performance on the SAT has no correlation with success in later life. I mean, Steve Jobs’ GPA in high school was 2.6. Finally, you should know that the people who grade the essay spend on average 45-60 seconds on it. That’s it. Why? Because there are 2 million essays to read. What the SAT is looking for is a 5-paragraph essay: 1st paragraph: state your thesis and the three examples you’re going to use to support it; 2nd, 3rd, 4th paragraphs: expand on one of the three examples in each; 5th paragraph: wrap up your essay and show you how proved your thesis. That’s it. It is so seriously uncreative and inhuman, that it’s just ridiculous. Good luck to you and your son!

  41. I had to do the same thing in college. I never got a higher mark than “B” in college English, even though I knew more than the grading assistant (never a real professor!) teaching the course (usually for the first time in her career) and once I met one in an elevator semesters later and she confessed, “I never knew what to do with you.”

  42. great post. Wendy do you have any idea why I can’t get tp your chicken project? When I click on the link it tells me there is no such thing. I would love to read it, I have chickens too 🙂 paz, Abby

  43. Wendy, I am SO regretful that your son (and you!) have had to go through this unfortunate SAT essay experience. But having worked as a technical writer in the military, the legal and legislative world, and with PR for commercial enterprises, I can tell you that PRECISENESS is worth a lot more than it first appears. I know you are very frustrated at this point, but look at what happened to Kathryn Stockett with The Help. She failed to sufficiently change the actual name of one of her characters from the real-life name of the woman it was based on (and who is still very much alive!). Ms. Stockett then was faced with a big lawsuit. I reallly believe that in the future, you and your son will be glad that he learned this lesson about precisely following “the rules” when he was still young.

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