I advise students to read plenty of examples of strong essays in advance of beginning any brainstorming or writing. There are a number of books on the market and websites to help. Then I like to choose a couple of those sample essays and have the student identify three things or traits that were revealed about the writer/applicant. For example, family is important as revealed by the catchy beginning that showed the writer/applicant having a deep discussion with an older sibling. Or the writer is profoundly interested in studying French and is willing to take on challenges outside her comfort zone as revealed by the reference to studying abroad in a full-immersion exchange program. Or the writer values community as revealed by the eloquent description of her role within the corps d’ ballet, and how she provides support to and draws on the strength of her fellow dancers. Then I ask, “what do you want to reveal about yourself that’s important to you?”
The focus on individuals is so entrenched, however, that even those who think they’re taking social factors into account usually aren’t. This is as true of Murray’s critics as it is of Murray himself. Perhaps Murray’s greatest single mistake is to misinterpret the failure of federal antipoverty programs. He assumes that federal programs actually target the social causes of poverty, which means that if they don’t work, social causes must not be the issue. But he’s simply got it wrong. Welfare and other antipoverty programs are ‘social’ only in the sense that they’re organized around the idea that social systems like government have a responsibility to do something about poverty. But antipoverty programs are not organized around a sociological understanding of how systems produce poverty in the first place. As a result, they focus almost entirely on changing individuals and not systems, and use the resources of government and other systems to make it happen.