PrepWell Podcast


Ep. 217 | Duke No Longer Grades The College Essay. When will It End?

Duke dropped its grading system for college essays. The only thing that matters now is the story. Why did they do this and what does this mean for the future of college admissions?

In today's episode, I discuss Duke's recent announcement that they will no longer assign points to the college essay.

They used to grade essays using a point system (1 - 5). Strong essays received high scores. Weak essays received low scores.

Not anymore.

Students no longer get credit for using proper punctuation, grammar, spelling, syntax, diction, etc. None of that matters anymore.

What matters is the "story".

Why is Duke doing this?

How many other colleges will follow suit?

What does this mean for your child's application?

Show Transcript:

Hello friends, and welcome back to the PrepWell Podcast. The world of college admissions continues to be very chaotic. I have a whole slate of important podcast topics to discuss, both strategic and tactical, and I keep putting them off and getting diverted by these announcements every week. That just cannot be ignored because they give us a window into the direction that college admissions is going.

And in my opinion, it's important that you are kept apprized of these developments. For the last few weeks, I've been highlighting changes to the now deeply entrenched test optional policies by several well-known colleges, namely Dartmouth and Yale, who are now reverting from test optional to back to test required. But instead of a stampede of other schools doing the same thing, which many predicted, most colleges are sticking to their guns, or they're delaying their decision about what to do with test optional policies for another year or two.

And I reviewed some of the reasons behind this intransigence in last week's episode, and I'm not going to repeat them all now. Suffice it to say that a test optional policy for the SAT and ACT is precisely what many colleges want, and they're going to go to great lengths to keep that in place. In fact, test optional policies are so deeply embedded by now that some colleges have already moved on to defang yet another important part of the college application.

The college essay. One of the very last places where students can differentiate themselves by the quality of their writing and the compelling nature of what they have to say. Well, Duke University this week announced that they are no longer assigning points to the college essays. It used to be that Duke would grade the college essay on a scale of 1 to 5, one being the worst and five being the best.

And that would impact the overall score for the application. Pretty basic stuff. Every college typically has their own grading rubric when it comes to college essays. Well, Duke has decided to eliminate the scoring system. Translation they will no longer be paying attention to or grading grammar or diction or syntax or spelling or craft or style or efficiency punctuation.

None of that matters anymore. The only thing they care about is your air quotes story. I'm not going to get into the weeds on why they're doing this, per se. It certainly is a lot easier to reach their their DTI targets, their diversity equity and inclusion targets. If they don't have to pay attention to the writing skills of the applicants.

That makes their lives a lot easier. In fact, if you haven't been tracking this that closely, that was one of the main reasons why the essay section of the SAT and ACT was eliminated years ago. Because it turns out students who turned out to be better contemporaneous writers on the actual test day were not the students who many of these schools sought out to admit they were not the D-I students.

So to clear the decks and open the floodgates for more D-I candidates and presumably to save some money, they simply eliminated the essay section of the SAT and ACT. That's why today, when you take the SAT or A.C.T. and you're a poor writer, no one will ever know. There's no writing sample. But that wasn't good enough. What about that pesky 650 word Maine college essay and those supplemental essays in the Common Application, where students have months and months to prepare a strong piece of writing?

Well, apparently that has to go as well. Why? Because it was becoming too easy to differentiate the good writers from the bad writers. And the Duke admissions officers apparently didn't like that fact. The stark differences in those who could write in English and those who couldn't, which was reflected in the number of points assigned to the essay from 1 to 5, held them back from picking the candidates that they really wanted the D-I candidates because their overall scores went down when the essay scores were factored in.

So they just eliminated the scoring system altogether. Problem solved. Other factors that muddy the waters here are the use of college essay consultants, of which I am one. Not every student has the resources to hire someone like me to help them brainstorm an outline and draft and edit their college essays. This inequity was deemed to be unjust since everyone doesn't have the same access to the same resources to help with the essay.

We should just eliminate it. This helps to hide or at least obfuscate the poor writing competence of the student who one doesn't have the resources to hire someone like me, or two who just doesn't really care very much about how well they write. These students get a pass. Unfortunately, this doesn't help the students who also don't have resources to hire someone like me.

But they do take it upon themselves to train themselves to become great writers by reading and writing and starting four months ahead of time and doing ten rough drafts and asking their English teacher for feedback until it's just right. That student doesn't get any credit for all their hard work and discipline and grinding because the essay is no longer graded.

And now to confound things even more, presumably because of the rampant use of chatter, GPT essay readers are reporting that the baseline level of writing has jumped up to a solid B level with little to no work on the student's part basically overnight. In other words, chat GPT has made every single student a B-level writer when it comes to grammar and punctuation and spelling and subject verb agreement.

That doesn't mean it's necessarily a great essay, but it hides the true writing ability of the student and the admissions officers are catching on. The incompetent writers are just using chat GPT to crank out a slightly above average college essay with just a few inputs. And so nearly every essay that chat GPT churns out is getting assigned a grade of three points or better.

So what's the point? What does Duke mean when they say that they will no longer take anything into account in the essay except the quote unquote story? They don't care about grammar, spelling, punctuation, diction, syntax. Well, maybe it means that if you write about some wild aspect of your life and that story aligns well with the type of people that they're targeting, then you will be elevated in the admissions process.

That means you can no longer write a thoughtful, witty, clever, funny, creative essay with strong vocabulary and economical word usage about how your sweatpants symbolize all that is good in the world. That's not going to fly anymore, presumably in the spirit of D.I. Their idea of a compelling story revolves around persecution and oppression and overcoming bullying and identity challenges and gender confusion and the rest.

These are the stories. It appears that Duke will be looking for and elevating. Now, maybe this is a one off. Maybe Duke will be the only school that makes this dramatic change to eliminate giving any credit to the quality of the essay. If this is an isolated case, then maybe we'll be okay. However, if this trend continues and metastasizes and gets adopted by other schools and becomes the norm like test optional policies did, then we'll have to make some serious adjustments to how we approach the essay and the entire application for that matter.

And I'll have plenty to say if and when that time comes. My guess is that some schools will probably follow suit now that Duke has broken the seal and we've seen trends like this gain more and more steam every year. It's getting to the point where today's admissions process is nearly unrecognizable to what it used to be. In fact, for those of you new to this world of college admissions, let's take a quick trip down memory lane.

Remember how students used to take several one hour SAT subject tests to show their mastery of high school classes? These were the tests that gave students the chance to prove that they actually learned the material and they weren't getting A's because of grade inflation. Well, those tests were eliminated five years ago. Remember how the SAT and ACT used to have an essay section at the end of the actual test to see how well you could write contemporaneously without the use of spellcheck or grammarly or writing tutor or mom and dad or, God forbid, chat.

That essay section, as we've talked about, was eliminated four years ago. Remember when an S.A.T. and an ACT score was required to apply to most selective colleges? That was effectively eliminated four years ago, and now only a handful of colleges require that test anymore. Remember when the SAT or act were a little over 3 hours long? Now they're barely 2 hours long.

Remember when you had to read a one and a half page passage before getting to the seven or eight reading comprehension questions? And then you had to go back and find the relevant information from that page and a half passage. That doesn't happen anymore. Those long passages have now been broken down into 1 to 2 sentence blurbs with an associated reading comprehension question.

After each 1 to 2 sentence blurb, there's no more searching through a full passage for an answer. Remember when you had to solve math questions on scratch paper to get the answer because calculators were not allowed? Well, the new S.A.T. allows for a calculator to be used on every single math question. Remember when colleges actually cared about your GPA because it showed how well you performed in actual classes where you spent most of your days over an extended period of time?

Well, with grade inflation running rampant since COVID 19, colleges barely even consider GPAs anymore. Because when everyone has a four point something, there's no way to differentiate students. Remember when you tried your best in all of your 11th grade classes so you could get a stellar letter of recommendation from a few of your teachers? Well, if you live in California and you apply to a U.S. school, University of California school, they no longer accept letters of recommendation.

So why waste the effort? Why build relationships? Remember when you busted your ass making SAT vocab flashcards and taking practice tests over and over and over to improve your score? Why bother studying? Why bother with flashcards or even taking an SAT or an AC anymore? As we've discussed, for most schools, these tests are optional. And for U.S. schools, University of California schools, they aren't allowed to see your score, even if it's perfect.

Their test blind. Remember when every student would actually prepare for and take AP exams because that was the way you could prove your mastery of college level material in an objective way without the influence of a grade inflating teacher. That doesn't happen a lot anymore. Lots of students take AP classes to get the bump in their GPA, but they decide not to take the final AP exam or they take the final AP exam halfheartedly and fail it and then just choose not to submit their score.

After all, submitting AP exam scores is optional. So why sweat it? Remember when you would work for weeks, sometimes months, thinking about your college essay topics, writing rough drafts, refining your thoughts, tightening up redundant language, looking up words to make sure they're spelled correctly. Eliminating fluff. Well, if you're applying to Duke, don't waste your time on any of that.

Just come up with a story that will play well. Some kind of a repressed story. Enter a few inputs into a chat GPT and submit whatever it spits out. There's no downside. Unfortunately, this is the direction that we're headed. Friends. So what can you do? Well, number one, let's stay informed. Make sure you and your child know what you're up against.

Number two, keep an open mind about why your child is even going to college in the first place and what they'll be apt to learn when they get there and whether this is going to harm them or help them. Number three, try to get an early read on what your child might be interested in so they don't just blindly apply to 15 recognizable brand name colleges with no idea about what they might want to major in or do with their lives.

The old days of just showing up at college and hoping for the best are over. You need to go in with a plan, especially if you're spending $100,000 a year. This is not something to take casually anymore. And lastly, number four, keep listening to this podcast. Keep listening to the weekly lessons that I deliver inside Prep Academy. Schedule a Zoom call with me.

Or if you want to get into the particulars or if you have specific questions. And let's take this process more seriously. That's all I've got for you today, folks. Thank you for tuning in. Thank you for your continued support in case you didn't know. This podcast supports Prep Academy's online mentoring program, where high schoolers and their parents receive weekly videos from me, where I break down important topics and give timely advice about college admissions, particularly for top tier colleges, service academies, and for ROTC and athletic scholarships.

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Podcast Host:

PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank (2X), etc.

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