I thought about good old Mr. Bulwer-Lytton, the art of fiction writing, and making up bad stories when I read about the new admission requirements for students who wish to be accepted for the University of California. Since 1983 several English professors at San Jose University have sponsored the annual Bulwer-Lytton Contest for “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” The contest is named in the memory of the English writer Edward George Bulwer-Lytton who actually began his novel Paul Clifford (1830) with the line “It was a dark and stormy night.” Every amateur fiction writer probably begins “The Great American Novel” with some variation of Mr. Bulwer-Lytton’s now famous first line.
Last year’s Grand Prize Winner was Rephah Berg of Oakland, California who wrote “On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky; not quite roller-coaster but more like when the toilet-paper rolls gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into a shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained.” That’s pretty bad stuff. For those of us who don’t expect to win the Nobel Prize for Literature or a Pulitzer anytime soon, the professors who run the Bulwer-Lytton Contest say that contributors must submit their worst first line of a novel by April 15, “a date Americans associate with painful submissions and making up bad stories.”
So how does all this have to the UC admissions process? Last year, the UC Board of Regents threw out the long-standing requirement that each UC campus accept 50-75% of students based exclusively on grades, test scores and course work and instead substituted the so-called “comprehensive review” policy, which permits campuses to also consider a student’s participation in extracurricular activities and the overcoming of “life challenges” and hardship for admission.
Acceptance to UC is very competitive. Only the top 12.5% of students in the state are eligible and each campus receives thousands of applications that must ultimately be rejected. I can’t help wondering if the new “comprehensive review” admissions policy may tempt some high school students to, in describing in their personal essay the “life challenges” and hardships that they have overcome, engage in a little creative writing. Some students probably won’t go as far as comedian Steve Martin who begins one of his bits saying “I was born a poor black child.”
Are all students being treated fairly? “It kind of says if you are in a stable family and a strong school you are penalized,” said Diana Schmelzer, Principal of University High School in Irvine. According to Principal Schmelzer, “kids are trying to think of some big tragedy they’ve had in their lives to put on the application.”
Acceptance to UC should be based solely on objective methods of assessing whether the student is likely to succeed in meeting rigorous academic demands. Over the years, it has been shown that a student’s high school grade-point average, completion of Advanced Placement courses, and scores on the SAT I (math and verbal reasoning) and SAT II (3 subject tests) is a good predictor of success at UC. When the UC Board of Regents altered their criteria with this new subjective method of judging a student’s academic potential by his or her description of hardship, the risk has been increased that some students will ultimately drop out of college. The new comprehensive review policy also creates the need for UC admission officials to randomly intrude into the privacy of student applicants to do a background check as to whether the student’s essay and self-described hardship is fiction or fact.
The great composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who managed to overcome many obstacles in his life, said, “the barriers are not erected which can say to aspiring talent and industry – This far and no farther.” We need to remember that whether a student is accepted or not to UC will not necessarily determine his or her success in life. Ultimately, their character will be their destiny. The larger and more important educational issue is about rewarding honesty and hard work. We need to ensure that no one will be able to exploit a loophole, write a little fiction, and gain a temporal benefit at the expense of the great majority of young people who are honest and capable. This lesson will last a lifetime. Let’s leave fiction to the great novelists like Charles Dickens whose first line in A Tale of Two Cities begins “It was the best of times and the worst times.”
Published in the Auburn Sentinel on January 30, 2003.