There are a couple reasons why I brought in the med school application essay to our class this week. Of course, it is the season of this kind of writing, so I’m hoping to get you more familiar with the conventions of this kind of writing and strategies to help students. But, I also think application essays are a deeply personal kind of writing—much like the literacy autobiography you are all drafting now. And, when we work with personal writing, I think we have to be especially sensitive to the writer’s ego and feelings. It takes courage to share any paper with another person, but I think it takes even more courage to share something so personal.
Thinking back to Ben’s first blog entry on the challenge of not slipping immediately into red-pen-wielding editor mode, I think that mode is even more problematic when the writing is personal. Likely the process of revealing oneself on paper (especially in 500 words or less!) has been pretty painful, and the writer needs some support and encouragement before getting into the things we find problematic or unclear. So, Jason is right on that re-telling facts that are elsewhere in the application is a problem (wasting valuable space that could be revealing more about the writer as a person), but starting there is likely to make the writer defensive. So, at the risk of stealing a little more of Rick’s thunder for our discussion next Tuesday, I think we do need to “learn to praise” (something that Ben’s editors and probably most of our teachers didn’t model very well for us). And, as Mitch said to me when he read the article the first time, it might better be called “praising to learn,” since without praise and encouragement, writers aren’t open to hearing either probing questions or suggestions for improvement.
I liked hearing on Tuesday your critiques of the sort of classic expressivist model of consulting, which assumes that the student’s voice just needs to be freed and that the consultant and tutor are on an equal power level (which, as you rightly say, they aren’t). However, another way to think about “peerness” is to think of that more as a rhetorical stance you are choosing to adopt at appropriate moments. Yes, I’ve read a lot of personal statements, read books about them, and talked to grad school committee members, but in an initial conference with a writer, I’ll often try to put that “expertise” aside and just give an honest reader response: “I’m very interested in hearing more about your football injury, since that seems to be such an important influence on your decision. Can you tell me more about that?” Forcing myself to withhold judgment and to resist the desire to point out problems or give suggestions, I often learn a lot more about what could be in the essay than what is actually on the page. So, I encourage you not to dismiss the power of non-evaluative talk. I’m struck again and again in sessions by how much I learn when I put the paper aside, something North reminds me to do.