The right stuff

  • What top American universities look for in students
- Thomas (Tom) Robertson, Kathmandu

Jan 27, 2019-

Many Nepalis ask me what it takes to get into and succeed in American universities. Only the best students get accepted and, of these, only the cream of the crop win scholarships. In addition, acceptance is only one hill to climb, doing well once accepted is an entirely different mountain. These ambitious folks hope to top their classes and get great jobs.

People ask me these questions because I was a professor at a university in the United States for 10 years and because I currently direct the Fulbright program and USEF EducationUSA Advising Center in Nepal.

My answer usually surprises people: learn to write. By this, I mean all kinds of writing but especially essays, and especially argument-based essays. American universities want strong writing skills, even in science and engineering. They want students who can compose clear, logical, well-organised, evidence-based, concise, and persuasive essays.

This answer should not be surprising. The SAT and ACT exams—which many American universities use for admissions and scholarships—offer essay writing sections. Similarly, the GRE and GMAT tests—the exam that most US graduate schools use—require essay writing and analysis of writing.

Why do US universities stress writing skills? Why do the most competitive universities require writing courses for all first-year students? Because writing skills are essential for a solid education and career success. If you can’t write clearly, chances are you are not thinking clearly. Writing is thinking.

U.S. universities know that employers value writing skills. That’s true even for technical fields. Consider this advice from Norm Augustine, the chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, one of America’s most successful airplane companies. CEO Augustine employed tens of thousands of people, including thousands of engineers.

 Here’s what he had to say in a 2011 interview with the Wall Street Journal:“In my position as CEO of a firm employing over 80,000 engineers, I can testify that most were excellent engineers—but the factor that most distinguished those who advanced in the organization was the ability to think broadly and read and write clearly.”

All of Augustine’s engineers could do the math. But not all could “think broadly and read and write clearly.” Those who could won promotions and moved up the ladder.

Unfortunately, most Nepali schools don’t emphasise writing essays, except maybe at the best of the best private schools. In both Nepali and English class, Nepali schools stress grammar, not writing. These are very different things. Grammar is important, of course, but it’s ultimately only a minor skill. Far more important is learning to craft logical thoughts and build arguments. What is the point of capitalisation and commas if not to make clear sentences and communicate powerful ideas?

Grammar does, however, lend itself to test-driven rote memorisation. But that’s not real learning. On the other hand, writing demands higher-level thinking—analysis, evaluation, clarity, interconnection, claims and evidence, and analogy.

Sadly, some Nepali students go through years of schooling without ever having to write a real essay. I’ve met many Nepali master’s students who, having never written a short paper, suddenly face the task of writing a lengthy thesis. I feel bad for them: They are set up to fail.

I should emphasise that writing skills differ from English skills. Many native and near native English speakers have trouble with writing. It’s really a problem of organisation and clarity. Even writing in Nepali, many Nepalis have difficulty creating logical and 

concise writing.

American students also have trouble writing. Everyone does. Writing is extremely difficult. But it’s not impossible; it just takes lots of focused practice.

In my own life, I was lucky to study under teachers and professors who cared deeply about writing. A favorite high school teacher taught me essay structure. A brilliant college professor showed the import of precision with words. My graduate school advisor stressed clarity and conciseness—and showed me they were far more important than fancy language. All pointed out that writing could not be divorced from thinking, and that writing skills would help advance my career.

I’ll never forget my 11th grade social studies teacher. He organised our entire course around argument building and essay writing. We never had a regular test. Not once. All we had—every 3 weeks or so—were essay tests. Upon arriving in class on test day, we’d be given an essay question and have 45 minutes to construct an evidence-based argument. Our entire class grade was based on those essay exams.

The goal of these essays was organised analysis, not piling up information. One time I wrote and wrote and wrote, creating the longest essay I had written that year. I got a low grade. The problem: I hadn’t created and defended an argument. The goal was building a logical structure and providing just the right examples, not “brain dumping.”

Some may say that writing can’t be taught. People are either born with writing skills or not. That’s hogwash. Specific skills can be taught. I’m living proof. I did poorly in language class as a kid. Words still don’t come easily. But over the years, I have picked up many writing tricks, and I’ve passed them on to hundreds of students. I’ve seen their writing improve. Like anything else, progress is possible but it takes careful practice.

I have looked through Nepal’s Nepali and English textbooks. There are numerous writing exercises. These are helpful. But far more attention is needed on opinion or argument essays, where students have to take a position on a question and defend their case with evidence. Students need repeated practice making clear, logical, evidence-based arguments.

Ultimately, the reason for teaching writing skills is not just to get into a good university or to get a promotion—although those are important. There’s another far more important reason:Making an argument and defending it with evidence is a crucial democratic skill. To have a voice in public affairs, every citizen must learn how to express his or her views clearly and logically, and back them with examples. They must know how to identify the holes in other people’s arguments. Few things teach this better than essay writing.

In Nepal, the Ranas prevented schools so Nepalis would not learn to think independently. Panchayat schools stressed rote memorisation so Nepalis would know little except how to follow the orders of a king. Nepalis deserve schools that teach the building blocks of democracy.

Robertson, Ph.D, is an historian and the executive director of the Fulbright-Nepal office in Gyaneshwor. His views are his own and don’t reflect Fulbright program policy.


Published: 27-01-2019 07:28

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