Last Saturday, the College Board served up a mega-curveball for high school students across America: it asked them to write an essay about reality television. The question, one out of three possible essay topics distributed at random, described reality television as programs "which feature real people engaged in real activities rather than professional actors performing scripted scenes" and then asked whether "people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?"
Definitely not what kids who have spent countless hours brushing up on their Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Dickens had expected.
These are the kids that are too busy studying, playing soccer, or taking piano lessons in the hopes of receiving an acceptance letter to a great college — they don't have the time to watch or interest in the comings-and-goings of Jersey Shore's Snooki and The Situation. These are, not surprisingly, the same kids who are complaining of the question's 'unfairness' – many of whom have lamented on online forums such as College Confidential that they don't watch any television, let alone reality shows.
The College Board, in response, has defended its prompt; saying that it was an attempt to "engage students", and that "everything a student needs to write a successful essay is included in the prompt itself." Meaning, they're not grading students on how well they can opine about the Kardashians, but rather how well they can structure an essay.
It shouldn't come as a tremendous shock that in a society that places extreme value in technology and in novelty, basic skills like reading and writing are steadily declining. A 2006 study reported that "nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of incoming high school graduates are viewed as deficient in basic English writing skills, including grammar and spelling." The controversial SAT question aims at the real meat and potatoes of the issue at hand: how well can American students write? And, perhaps more importantly, how well can American students navigate a challenge?
How, if at all, does this have relevance in the workplace?
In my not-so-distant past, I was one of those kids sitting in silence with a number-two pencil, theorizing about the importance of hard work, or some equally tepid subject matter, my hopes of an NYU acceptance letter riding on one crucial test. But in my seventeen-year-old opinion, there was nothing further from real life, from the real world, from the working world, than the silence of my testing room and the click-clack of the teacher's heels.
And, to some degree, I was right. My bosses have never asked, nor have they cared, about my SAT scores. In my limited experience of the working world, you get things done well or you don't. You aren't always served up a fastball down the pike, and you don't always knock it out of the park. Things aren't black and white, right or wrong. You get an assignment and you often stumble through it, feeling ill-prepared at best, incompetent at worst – even with a degree from a prestigious university. There's no quantitative measurement of your success; success is defined as your ability to perform the task at hand to the best of your ability. For some, this lack of structure is exhilarating. For others, terrifying.
The question asks rigid test-takers to simply adjust, a skill that's necessary, I've found, for post-grad life. What are you going to do when your boss tells you that you need to do something that's completely out of your comfort zone? Something you've never done before and haven't learned in a classroom? The real world comes without an instruction manual, without a step-by-step guidebook like the illustrated directions that come with Ikea furniture. There's no Kaplan (NYSE: WPO) course that you can take to give you an edge over your coworkers. Are you going to panic because you don't know what you're doing? Are you going to freeze? Or are you going to trust yourself and adjust accordingly?
People who are successful don't put limits on themselves and their thinking. They don't say, I'm good at these things and only these things or I only read James Joyce, I don't watch MTV (NYSE: VIA) so therefore I can't answer that question. Rather, they say, A challenge? Cool! Let me have a go at it. The prompt is gauging how well students respond to a simple challenge and, by proxy, how well they'll respond to future challenges.
The kids who are in high school and college today are going to be running the country, transplanting organs, and formulating algorithms at Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) tomorrow. Leaders have to think on their feet, they can't be crippled by rigidity and inflexibility. There's going to come a day when there are no fish left in the oceans and Al Gore isn't going to be around to solve it. Who is going to be up to that challenge? It's not going to be the person who runs in the opposite direction, crying in fright because it's "too hard." It's going to be the person who makes adjustments, who can think clearly on his or her feet, and who can come up with a workable plan to tackle even the most challenging of adversities.
How do you think you would fare on the reality TV writing prompt? Weigh in below.
Thanks to Katie Phillips / Blogs Forbes