Rethinking the Culture of Praise

Recently an admissions officer I know invited me to read through a pile of application essays and letters of recommendation. After an hour, I was exhausted: There were just too many superlatives. Bright, sparkling, polysyllabic superlatives. Surely some of those students were great in one or more important ways. But all of them couldn’t be totally super-awesome in every way, could they?

I recalled this experience today while reading Janice D’Arcy’s On Parenting blog, which she writes for The Washington Post. Ms. D’Arcy linked to a January 15 article, written by the Post’s Michael Alison Chandler, about how more K-12 teachers are ditching “empty praise” in favor of more-precise language that helps students overcome mistakes and seek out new challenges.

“A growing body of research over three decades shows that easy, unearned praise does not help students but instead interferes with significant learning opportunities,” the article says. “As schools ratchet up academic standards for all students, new buzzwords are ‘persistence,’ ‘risk-taking,’ and ‘resilience’—each implying more sweat and strain than fuzzy, warm feelings.”

If you work in admissions and/or worry about kids these days, this article’s worth reading. If you’ve ever dealt with those confident creatures known as Millennials, you should also follow Ms. D’Arcy’s link to a recent Saturday Night Live skit called “You Can Do Anything!” It’s mean, but meaningful. And if you’re really, really fascinated by the culture of praise and its potential downsides, I’ve written about research conducted by Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, here and (at much greater length) here.

Back in 2007, Ms. Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before, told me that “we have to stop telling kids they’re special all the time.”

But what are applicants (and their teachers and counselors) supposed to tell admissions committees? When they fill up their applications with the great-in-every-way prose of praise, are they operating under some dangerous illusion of specialness? Or are they just doing exactly what colleges have asked them to do?

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