Is this the end? Are Robo-Readers destined to inherit the earth?
Les Perelman, a director of writing at the , says no.
Mr. Perelman enjoys studying algorithms from E.T.S. research papers when he is not teaching undergraduates. This has taught him to think like e-Rater.
While his research is limited, because E.T.S. is the only organization that has permitted him to test its product, he says the automated reader can be easily gamed, is vulnerable to test prep, sets a very limited and rigid standard for what good writing is, and will pressure teachers to dumb down writing instruction.
The e-Rater’s biggest problem, he says, is that it can’t identify truth. He tells students not to waste time worrying about whether their facts are accurate, since pretty much any fact will do as long as it is incorporated into a well-structured sentence. “E-Rater doesn’t care if you say the War of 1812 started in 1945,” he said.
Mr. Perelman found that e-Rater prefers long essays. A 716-word essay he wrote that was padded with more than a dozen nonsensical sentences received a top score of 6; a well-argued, well-written essay of 567 words was scored a 5.
An automated reader can count, he said, so it can set parameters for the number of words in a good sentence and the number of sentences in a good paragraph. “Once you understand e-Rater’s biases,” he said, “it’s not hard to raise your test score.”
E-Rater, he said, does not like short sentences.
Or short paragraphs.
Or sentences that begin with “or.” And sentences that start with “and.” Nor sentence fragments.
However, he said, e-Rater likes connectors, like “however,” which serve as programming proxies for complex thinking. Moreover, “moreover” is good, too.
Gargantuan words are indemnified because e-Rater interprets them as a sign of lexical complexity. “Whenever possible,” Mr. Perelman advises, “use a big word. ‘Egregious’ is better than ‘bad.’ ”
The substance of an argument doesn’t matter, he said, as long as it looks to the computer as if it’s nicely argued.
For a question asking students to discuss why college costs are so high, Mr. Perelman wrote that the No. 1 reason is excessive pay for greedy teaching assistants.
“The average teaching assistant makes six times as much money as college presidents,” he wrote. “In addition, they often receive a plethora of extra benefits such as private jets, vacations in the south seas, starring roles in motion pictures.”
E-Rater gave him a 6. He tossed in a line from ’s just to see if he could get away with it.
The possibilities are limitless. If E-Rater edited newspapers, could say, “Remember the ,” Adele could say, “Give me liberty or give me death,” Patrick Henry could sing
To their , researchers at E.T.S. provided Mr. Perelman access to e-Rater for a month. “At E.T.S., we pride ourselves in being transparent about our research,” Mr. Williamson said.
Two of the biggest for-profit education companies, Vantage Learning and Pearson, turned down my request to let Mr. Perelman test their products.
“He wants to show why it doesn’t work,” said Peter Foltz, a Pearson vice president.
“Yes, I’m a skeptic,” Mr. Perelman said. “That’s exactly why I should be given access.”
E.T.S. officials say that Mr. Perelman’s test prep advice is too complex for most students to absorb; if they can, they’re using the higher level of thinking the test seeks to reward anyway. In other words, if they’re smart enough to master such sophisticated test prep, they deserve a 6.
E.T.S. also acknowledges that truth is not e-Rater’s strong point. “E-Rater is not designed to be a fact checker,” said Paul Deane, a principal research scientist.
“E-Rater doesn’t appreciate poetry,” Mr. Williamson added.
They say Mr. Perelman is setting a false premise when he treats e-Rater as if it is supposed to substitute for human scorers. In high stakes testing where e-Rater has been used, like grading the Graduate Record Exam, the writing samples are also scored by a human, they point out. And if there is a discrepancy between man and machine, a second human is summoned.
Mr. Foltz said that 90 percent of the time, Pearson’s Intelligent Essay Assessor is used by classroom teachers as a learning aid. The software gives students immediate feedback to improve their writing, which they can revise and resubmit, Mr. Foltz said. “They may do five drafts,” he said, “and then give it to the teacher to read.”
As for good writing being long writing, Mr. Deane said there was a correlation. Good writers have internalized the skills that give them better fluency, he said, enabling them to write more in a limited time.
Mr. Perelman takes great pleasure in fooling e-Rater. He has written an essay, then randomly cut a sentence from the middle of each paragraph and has still gotten a 6.
Two former students who are computer science majors told him that they could design an Android app to generate essays that would receive 6’s from e-Rater. He says the nice thing about that is that smartphones would be able to submit essays directly to computer graders, and humans wouldn’t have to get involved.
In conclusion, to paraphrase the late, great : Mares eat oats and does eat oats, but little lambs eat ivy.
A kiddley divey too, he added, wouldn’t you?Continue reading the main story
The essay should not be the most dreaded part of the application process for any university. Maybe these tips will help you find that you can do this writing task with ease.
1. Tell Your Story In Your Own Voice.
Now is the time to market yourself to the best of your ability. Your college essay gives our admissions officers an insight into what makes you unique beyond your high school grades, test scores and extracurriculars. Your essay tells us how you will add something to UF’s freshman class, what you can bring to our community of leaders, learners and thinkers, and what sets you apart. This is the story of YOU!
2. Does the Essay Matter?
UF will receive more than 30,000 applications for the approximate 6,500 seats in the freshman class. There will be many outstanding students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. Your essay helps us learn what makes you unique from other equally talented students.
3. Who Reads ‘Em?
Various officers throughout the UF Division of Enrollment Management are trained to read essays, and each essay will be read at least twice by randomly assigned readers. Keep in mind that these individuals may read more than a thousand essays, so it is important to try to catch the readers’ attention quickly with the most interesting example or point at the beginning of the essay. Here’s an example:
When I was in high school, I played the violin in the high school band. It was my favorite activity, and I never missed a practice or a performance. But one day, to my horror, I left my thousand-dollar violin on the school bus…
(from the book, Heavenly Essays)
4. Make the Story Unique to You
If you believe 10 or 20 or 100 students could write your exact essay, then it’s time to rethink your topic. Work on being distinctive. Here are some overused topics that essay readers have seen many (many) times:
- Winning or losing the big game
- Loss of friendships or relationships
- Critiques of others (classmates, parents)
- Pet deaths
- Summer vacations
Think about what you would say in three to five minutes to a total stranger to impress or inform them about your terrific qualities or unusual experiences.
5. Show and Tell—Be Vivid with Your Words
If you recall show and tell at school, your essay should follow the same principle. Remember when the student went to the front of the class with something of interest inside the plastic sack? You hear the story. You see the object. With essays, you need to draw the reader out beyond the straight text and use words that trigger imagery and the senses.
6. Big Words Are Just Big Words.
Impress us with your content and who you are; not your ability to use a thesaurus. Most of our readers would prefer if you wrote, “I hung out with a group of friends” instead of, “we congregated as a conglomerate of like-minded individuals”.
7. Don’t Repeat.
Don’t repeat what you’ve already supplied in your application—grades, test scores, etc. Your essay serves to fill in the blanks beyond what you have supplied.
8. This is your essay, not your English class.
We will be reading your essay more for your words and information and less for your grammar. We know you’ve learned to limit use of contractions, eliminate sentence fragments and not to split your infinitives. However, no text-lingo, such as “lol” “ttyl” “kk” etc. We won’t judge you heavily on grammar, but we ask that you keep it appropriately professional. Pick up a best-selling book, and you’ll find that many authors no longer write by the rules. It’s your story that counts!
9. Have Someone Else Read It.
It’s always wise to have someone else read your draft before you submit your essay. You’ll be much more relieved knowing you submitted your very best work.
10. Now, go fine tune your drafts, tell us your story and be confident in your submission.
If you follow these tips, they will take you far on the UF application.
University of Florida’s Current Essay Topics
- Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
- Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
- Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
- What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
- Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.