Students Can’t Write Well, and It’s No Mystery Why

The cost of students’ poor writing skills is showing in their job applications 

Recently, a neighbor who works in finance told me this story. She needed to hire a new person for any entry level analyst position. Her firm received nearly 500 applications, all from college graduates, many from students who had attended Ivy League schools and other elite colleges. About a fifth held graduate degrees.

Each candidate was asked to write a one-page summary of the previous six months’ reports. Only one wrote a satisfactory summary and she got the job.

She told me she felt lucky this time. More often than not she complained that the search can go on for far too long as her company struggles to find applicants who can write clearly, concisely, and correctly.

The biggest problem, as my neighbor realized, is that the applicants’ poor writing skills evidenced something even more critical: a lack of critical thinking skills.

How can this be? she asked.

The answer, unfortunately, is not hard to find. Students simply aren’t taught to write. In fact, they are rarely asked to write anything in high school. We’ve been writing about this for years. That means that teachers are not asking students to learn to explicate, analyze, synthesize, or summarize. And we’re certainly not asking them to learn to represent all that good thinking with insight and the rhetorical skill needed to evidence clear thinking.

Think we’re kidding? Recently, we worked with Arvid, a wonderful student who had first approached us in ninth grade for help with an English assignment. Arvid attends one of the top three public high schools in New Jersey and was working on his college application for Princeton University. As many college-bound students know, during the past few years, Princeton dropped the SAT essay requirement and instead now asks applicants to submit a graded essay written in high school. But the problem for Arvid was that he hadn’t been assigned an essay since the one he approached us about in ninth grade. After that, he had never been assigned a writing assignment to be done at home. Instead, he only received timed-writing assignments written in partial satisfaction of a test. Arvid rightfully worried that submitting a three-and-a-half-year-old essay to Princeton might not be in his favor; after all, he had gained a great deal of intelligence and maturity during those years. But given the circumstances, he had no way of representing those critical thinking skills and writing skills to Princeton, unless of course he submitted the essay written in ninth grade.

Writing has been called a craft, and while we’re not sure that’s the most apt way of describing what writers do when they write, we do know that as with any craft, to develop good writing and thinking skills you need to practice and practice and practice. It takes time to teach students to reason well and write well. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that present-day teachers don’t teach writing. Perhaps they simply haven’t time or perhaps they haven’t a way of fitting writing instruction in around the demands of our highly standardized approach to learning. 

Whatever the reason, the lack of writing instruction takes a toll after graduation.

Why? Because business leaders realize that good writing and thinking skills are fundamental to many other kinds of valued cognitive activity and they know that employees’ poor writing skills waste a tremendous amount of time, decreases productivity, damages companies’ brands, and decreases credibility.

And that’s the bottom line.

Want help advancing your child’s writing skills?  Call me! We’re always ready to help your child succeed in school and life!

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world via Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, phone, and Google docs to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized curriculum for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and college aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and win admission to the Ivy League and other competitive colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.

Your approach was so comprehensive, well-structured and delivered so masterfully, that we’d never be able to fit all we loved about working with you in one email. The process of developing the story, voice, etc., for the Common App essay was just amazing and even therapeutic for Ari. Your knowledge, experience, sense of humor, personal attitude, charisma resulted in powerful essays, and with Ari feeling better about how he is as a student and a person. Thank you!

Eugene K., Irvington, NJ

 I cannot thank you enough for how well you supported and prepared Nathan. Despite his ADHD, he got in everywhere he applied and all the schools offered excellent merit aid. He’s also received another independent scholarship which he tells me involved remixes of the writing you did together and more are pending. Thank you! Please know I am happy to give you the best recommendation to other parents. Having you as part of our team through this process was priceless!

Carolyn B., Hopewell, NJ

Your approach was a breath of fresh air. Helping Vivek write his story with humor and empathy, and with lots of encouragement brought out the best from him; after working with you, he ended up being a more confident and positive person, and a proud member of Cornell’s Class of 2025! Thank you!

Suparna S., South Lake, TX

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