We introduced recently the model of The Four Stages of Learning.
Today we will remind you that learning something new is hard.
In the essay-writing process, Stage 2: Consciously Incompetent is very painful for many people.
Why is that?
It’s because you THOUGHT you knew how to write an essay, and you wrote what you THOUGHT was a good one — and now you’re faced with this very shocking new information that no, you don’t know how to write an essay.
It’s almost like telling you you don’t know how to breathe.
It rips the rug from under you.
If you don’t know how to breathe… PANIC! What do you do!???!
There’s often a progression similar to what people go through after losing a loved one, described through what is now known as the Kubler Ross model: The Stages of Grief, here depicted in a Grief Wheel which we think some BSers may be able to relate to:
What you’ve lost is the belief you knew how to do this thing called ‘write an essay’.
What frequently happens with BSers we work with is, the first reaction to reading our feedback is shock. They might even feel numb or frozen, or they close down.
Then, often, and frequently almost immediately, the experience is a big “NO.” They resist and refuse. They argue (maybe in their own mind only, maybe in a post to EssaySnark) about how we are wrong, that the draft they wrote is actually good, that the things they were saying have value and are correct.
Another word for that is “denial.”
Sometimes they’re even quite angry in this stage. It may take the form of “protest.” This is where EssaySnark often receives very long and involved and often incredibly detailed explanations and arguments for what the BSer was trying to say, or how we didn’t understand what they meant. BSers frequently spend a lot of time crafting these responses, which is actually still a valuable part of the process of developing their essays, since they’re working with the material directly again, trying to make an argument for it. They’re sifting through and examining it in an attempt to prove us wrong.
An argument, after all, is what your essays need to be. You’re trying to convince your adcom reader that you’re a good fit to their program. So exercising your abilities to construct a valid argument isn’t necessarily so bad. The only way that this phase is not useful is due to the fact that if a BSer is still in the defensive crouch, trying to justify why their essays were good, then they’re not being open to the feedback and looking to understand where they need to change. As long as the BSer is polite, we have no problem in working through this stage with them. It’s not fun when they’re so emotional about it that they’re unwilling to hear another perspective, or when they forget that they PAID US to give them the feedback in order that they could improve.
Mostly BSers work through this stage fairly quickly, though, and then there’s a chance of some real forward movement.
But first they have to get through the disorganization phase.
This is really real, too, and it was so interesting to see it in the Wheel of Grief graphic, since we know that many BSers have a challenge at this point for which there is no better word.
Once you accept that yes, these first essays actually weren’t so good, and yes, there are changes that need to be made… it can be totally overwhelming to figure out where to start. This is when you’re at the tippy top of the level of Conscious Incompetence, about to break through into Conscious Competence — if only you knew how. This part tends to be not so much painful, the way the stages of Denial and Protest are, but also not easy. You know you don’t know… but you don’t know how to know. You understand you are clueless, but you don’t know where to get a clue.
This is when most people either get really motivated, or they give up. We unfortunately see one or two BSers each year just wander off into the sunset at this stage. They’re not willing to deal with the uncertainty of not-knowing. From what we can tell, this is either the person who’s skated through life on their natural ability and good looks and not had to actually work for anything before, or those who just haven’t learned the tools of managing ambiguity.
One great way to deal with ambiguity is you a) do research, and then do more. (Pro Tip: This is one reason why we frequently respond to questions from BSers at this stage with “Have you read the blahg on this topic?”) Pretty soon, things won’t be ambiguous, because you will have increased the knowledge in your head that you can apply to the task. You won’t realize it consciously, necessarily, but you will no longer be clueless. A clue will get installed along the way. And/or b) You have faith in the process and know that it will work out if you just keep moving forward. You recognize that being frustrated is part of learning a new skill. Watch any baby learning to walk and you’ll be reminded. This is a little like Indiana Jones taking a step on that invisible bridge that’s crossing the chasm.
The other key thing to remember is that EssaySnark is on your side. We WANT you to succeed. We are only giving you this feedback so you can get better. It’s not because we get our jollies ripping essays to shreds. It is MUCH more fun and way more gratifying to read essays that are GOOD, that we don’t have to leave 15 comments in every sentence about all the problems. If you plunk down your cold hard cash and you send in your first drafts and voila, they really are good, we will GLADLY tell you so! But don’t hold your breath. 😉 That hardly ever happens, and almost never on the very first drafts.
We’ve been doing this a looooooong time. We know what a good essay looks like, and we definitely know what each of your target schools cares about. Even more important, we have developed the skillz in critiquing essays, so that we can point out the issues and identify where they’re a problem. We embed tons of guidance in each critique we send back, showing you the weak spots and explaining why they’re weak.
And then it’s up to you!
And no, it might not be fun!
But learning a new language is not fun, definitely not at first. Learning to program a computer is not fun, it’s really hard. Learning calculus is also not fun, not when you’re new to it. Learning accounting might not be much fun, if you’ve never been exposed to it. These are skills that you’re interested in acquiring, that will stretch your mind and make you smarter. The difference? You know ahead of time that you don’t know how to do that stuff. You expect it to be hard. Your expectations are in line with reality. If you don’t expect it to be fun, then it’ll be easier to move through the hardest parts of the process.
The other thing that’s different with this is that it’s about you. When you write an essay, it’s PERSONAL. You’re answering questions about yourself and your life. You’re putting it all out there – and then some snarky entity comes along and says “Nope.” So you feel attacked. You think you know what you’re doing (“how hard can it be to write an essay??”) AND you wrote about stuff that’s all about YOU (“how can they say that what I’ve done in my life is no good??” — which is not what we’re saying but we know that that’s sometimes how it’s interpreted). Some people see that as a complete and total insult. They don’t take it as the clinical process that it is: evaluating words on a page, to see what they communicate. We’re not saying your baby is ugly. We’re saying that the writing in this draft is not where it needs to be to get you in to the schools you are targeting.
We’re not sure if anyone ever gets to the Unconscious Competence stage of essay-writing in the course of an admissions season — and we almost would hope that nobody does, ‘cuz that would mean you’re writing way too many essays than we’d ever wish on anyone! However, it is totally reasonable to expect to get to the Conscious Competence stage, where you know how to do it, and if you work through the steps and apply that new knowledge, you’re able to tackle new essay questions with less difficulty (and you can get feedback back from EssaySnark without experiencing so much angst).
Hope this helps to demystify the process, and further put that Stages of Learning thing into perspective, so you know what to expect and can navigate through it efficiently.
We try to explain this phenomenon every season here on the blahg, however today’s post has diagnosed the issues the best (in our opinion, at least). If you want to hear some prior-year exhortations on this subject, you can read about them here: