Rethinking the formula

It’s time to change the expectations of academic writing to encourage creativity

Every year, university campuses across the country host fall and spring open houses. These events are intended to give prospective students an opportunity to learn about the school’s academic programs, student life, and residence plans. As a former attendee of and ongoing contributor to U of T’s open houses, I have found that one of the most frequently asked questions prospective students ask is: What does the admissions office look for when evaluating an applicant’s file? In other words, students are saying: the university has all of these great opportunities — now what formula do I adopt to ensure that I receive an acceptance letter?

Any student who has been through the application process will have come across the age-old admissions office adage — we look at the applicant as a whole. University admissions offices consider applicants’ academics and extra-curricular involvement, the qualities that make them unique thinkers, and their capacity for being effective contributors to the university environment.

Yet, in listing the variables that define successful applications, haven’t we inevitably ended up providing students with an admissions formula? The math is simple: a high school student needs to have a high academic average, play on a sports team and support a social justice cause, write a creative statement of intent, and promise to continue being involved both inside and outside the classroom. Following a straightforward formula should result in the much awaited acceptance letter. So, as much as universities shy away from the idea of formulaic candidates, formulas drive outcomes at the post-secondary level.

Essay writing is an area in which this is evident. As a political science student, my assignments are primarily argumentative or research essays on topics ranging from justice according to Hobbes and Aristotle to whether the modern American presidency is a threat to representative democracy. I relish the writing process because the eventual product is a representation of myself. The hard work accomplished thanks to late night coffee runs and ramen is a product of my agony and ecstasy and is something to be proud of. What frustrates me, then, is the fact that students’ creative exploration of these topics is severely restricted by the expectations of formulaic academic writing. Instead of allowing students to take the road less travelled, the path to academic success in university is predetermined by professors, teaching assistants, and the university.

In a first- or second-year social sciences tutorial, a teaching assistant breaks down the essay writing formula. You have heard it before — an essay consists of an introduction with a thesis and a roadmap; body paragraphs with topic sentences and supporting evidence; counter-arguments and counters to counter-arguments; and a conclusion. Moreover, those marking the papers are looking for specific requirements. The thesis sentence begins with the ubiquitous “This paper will argue that…” and appears in your first paragraph. Counter-arguments are presented, and undermined, within a strict organizational format. Add it all up and an A grade is sure to follow. Students who follow this formula succeed; those who don’t receive poor marks.

Precise academic writing should make effective use of these variables. Important academic writing, however, must not and cannot exist solely within the confines of these stringent demands. While I recognize the merit of introducing structure into essay writing at the high school level, the demands of the undergraduate experience are intended to be very different from those of secondary school.

An undergraduate degree is meant to be a time of exploration, both personal and professional. If we hope that this generation and future generations alike will be explorers, pioneers, and navigators, continuously unveiling new ideas and pushing society forward, that process of exploration needs to be nurtured and encouraged. It can begin by allowing students to respond personally, rather than formulaically, to academic assignments and then evaluating them on the substance of their arguments instead of the structure of their paragraphs.

If the function of university classes and assignments is to produce cohorts of professionals who can write formulaic essays, perhaps the exploration that universities once encouraged is at an end. Instead of allowing future pioneers, dreamers, and thinkers to express ideas freely and creatively, post-secondary education is hampering what should make learning special — personal engagement with, and a thoughtful response to, academic material. At the macroscopic level, the imposition of formulaic demands on prospective undergraduates means that post-secondary institutions are in search of the ‘ideal’ student rather than the ‘unique’ student.

If there is any hope of educating a generation with the belief that they will dare to aim higher, to break barriers, and to go further, exploration must be cultivated and promoted both within and without the classroom. It is time to ditch the formula-driven approach to academia. We will surprise ourselves at just how exciting the consequences can be.

Aditya Rau is the male head of arts at Trinity College. He is a third-year student studying political science.

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