Last week, I met with an Executive Director of Admissions at a liberal arts college. As our meeting ended, he mentioned that he was off to read his final batch of Regular Decision applications. Always curious, I asked, “How are the student essays this year? Any feedback to share?” He looked up with a pained expression and commented, “Someone needs to teach these kids how to write!”

I wasn’t surprised. Not even a little. As a private college consultant working with high school students, what I’m seeing is distressing. Teen writing skills are plummeting. And yes, it feels like a crisis. 

I’m not referring to average and remedial students. I primarily work with high-achieving teens who are enrolled in Honors and AP English. 

I have spent years helping student prepare their college applications, and right now, their lack of skills is glaring. Granted, I’ve always had my “great writers,” my “decent writers,” and frankly, my “terrible writers.”  But why are so many students suddenly falling into the rapidly growing “terrible writer” category?   

Every summer, I work with my motivated, ambitious rising seniors on their essays. We brainstorm a unique topic for their Common Application essay, and then the student begins to write. 

I expect the essay to go through multiple rounds of editing as the student fine-tunes their thoughts, ideas and style. In the past, my comments down the side of the paper included critiques such as:

I’m not understanding the purpose of this paragraph—how does it relate to the prompt and the rest of the essay?

Show, don’t tell your story. Let the reader come to their conclusions based on what you are describing.

This sounds like you are trying to make your essay into a resume. This is not the place in your application to list your activities.

Are you using a thesaurus? Write in a conversational way. Nobody should have to look up words in a dictionary in order to understand what you’re trying to convey. 

These comments are expected. Learning how to craft these essays takes practice, and the student needs to fine-tune each draft until it becomes their own masterpiece. 

But over the last two years, my comments have shifted. I find myself increasingly writing, “This is not English.”  Or stating, “You are using the wrong word.” 

To reiterate, the students I’m working with are top high school performers. Take a look at some examples of what they wrote this year: 

The group of students struggling over the math problems caught my eyes. 

I had went to a small middle school and high school.

Young voters have an indispensable responsibility to understand the government and the constitution.

He had never stopped to amaze me of his incredible math skills.

On my hands and knees, I erected myself when I heard the door open.

These aren’t typos; they are actually the way the students thought the sentence should be written. They are selecting incorrect words, misusing idioms, making capitalization and punctuation errors, and ignoring other grammar rules. 

So what’s going on? 

My students are telling me that they aren’t being asked to write many papers in high school. That’s a problem; without having a teacher to correct mistakes, how will they hone their writing skills? 

Some also relay that their teachers grade on their content only, not on their writing ability. Without feedback on their writing, how can they improve? 

And what about cell phones?  Students are glued to their phones at an earlier age and spend less time reading books. When teens don’t read, their writing suffers.  

In addition, teens text constantly using their own form of English which includes “u” for “you” and “i” for “I.” Obviously these abbreviations would never be considered acceptable in formal writing, but errors are ignored since texting speed is the all- important factor. They certainly don’t spell/grammar check or worry about their level of writing.

Many of our brightest teens are writing below their level.  They are entering higher education without the written communication skills necessary to succeed. How will they do well in college and beyond?  

Some suggestions to help students become more proficient writers:

  1. Urge your students to read, read, and then read some more! Reading boosts their vocabulary, enhances their comprehension, and increases their speed.  All of that is terrific for standardized testing. But the greatest benefit is that these students become better writers!  It’s easy to identify the readers versus the non-readers. 

  2. Encourage your students to meet with their English, history, and other humanities teachers to go over papers they write for class. They should ask whether their writing is clear and concise and how they can improve.  

  3. When assessing students’ essays, take the extra time needed to explain basic errors. If a comma is mistakenly used instead of a semi-colon, add a comment that explains the rules. If “English” isn’t capitalized or “math” is capitalized, don’t simply fix it—include an explanation. If you’re reviewing an email that starts with, “Hey Ms. X,” explain that “Hey” is not the appropriate way to address an admission officer. 

  4. Remind your students to read EVERYTHING out loud. That way they can train their ear to hear repetitive words, unclear thoughts, and rambling sentences. Once they get in the habit of editing while reading aloud, their writing improves.

  5. Of course, if they’re amenable to the idea, suggest they enroll in a reputable writing class. Who knows, as they begin to improve and learn various techniques, they could even start to enjoy writing!

This article is written and provided to us by our educational partner - Laurie Kopp Weingarten (CEP)

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