Letters to the Editor

Longer Essays a Window to Creative Thought

In the September 25 edition of The Tech, Clare Bayley ’11 wrote an important opinion piece on a major change to the admissions application. This was picked up by other media including the massive internet technology news aggregator, Slashdot. I am writing to suggest that my fellow alumni join Ms. Bayley in urging the admissions office to reconsider watering down the application by removing the long essay requirement.

When I was a naive new professor, older colleagues warned that my use of essay exams in a large lower-level science course was simply too much work to grade, and I should give it up to use my time more efficiently. Instead, I stuck with that exam format because what I found was that the essays personalized each student to me even if I didn’t know them by sight yet and gave me valuable insights into their thought processes that benefited both my teaching and their learning. Conversely, I think that without the long-form essay in the admissions application, each student becomes slightly more generic, and therefore each admissions decision becomes less individual and less meritorious.

Having sat on admissions committees, I know firsthand how similar the scores-and-accomplishments part of an application can be from one student to the next. If there is no distinguishing work such as the long essay to humanize and personalize each application, then the choice of who to admit among a pool of extremely similar (and well-qualified) applicants becomes almost arbitrary. And although the combined word count of the new format is higher than before, the brevity of the short form inevitably generates greater similarities while discouraging creativity and ruminative exploration. Only in the long essay can a student generate a work that opens a window into her potential for creative thought and the ability to eloquently express it.

With the new application, MIT will still admit top-notch classes. But lost in that average, I wonder about the individuals whose applications were equivalent to those admitted but did not make the cut. Will we miss out on some of the most expressive and creative students because they had no chance to display that talent on the application? It is exactly those students that MIT should be most interested in, those who may have the greatest potential for innovation and discovery, and as a proud alumnus, I am saddened that the admissions committee has chosen to undervalue such an important quality. If this is a decision made for efficiency in the admissions process, I hope the admissions office will reconsider this decision and look for a different area in which to make changes to the process.

Brevity Is the Mark of A Good Essay

Regarding the MIT admissions essay and Clare Bayley’s article, “In Defense of the Art of the Pen,” dated September 25, 2009, I pondered the converse argument. While the school’s intent may be to simplify in the age of mediocre literacy, one student’s remarks suggest it may render a greater challenge. The individual wrote: “I kind of feel like I can’t get a really good thought started and completed in 250 words.”

With passive, drooling sentences like that, I wouldn’t doubt it. Film critic Stephanie Zacharek once wrote of the revered Pauline Kael: “She could take apart a movie in a paragraph the size of a shot glass. She could convince you of a picture’s brilliance in a sentence as long as a penknife.”

It’s true. It takes much more effort to concentrate one’s message into 250 words than 500, meaning emanating from every word. In my own writing, I strive toward substance rather than tiresome diatribe. This skill is as priceless in the commercial careers of your future graduates, as in the prose of poets and authors. To wit, Stephenie Meyer’s pages-long, flowery description of Edward Cullen in her Twilight series epitomizes banality.

As with other aspects of our misguided commoditization of education and knowledge, the shorter essay may result in a competitive market of well-written, concise and substantive pieces — mitigating opportunities for fluff. Out of that competition, someone may raise the admissions bar with an essay of compelling brevity.

…or not.

Editor and Publisher