Ardour than I thought

How far should I go? It's a question that comes up time and again if you are a teacher. To what extent is it legitimate to give help to your students?

Undoubtedly it's a key part of the job: to help them to greater knowledge or expertise. But there comes a point when helping is in danger of tipping over into actually doing it for them. This is a dilemma I'm currently facing, in the midst of the university applications season. Our students have until 15 January to get their details safely lodged in the Ucas database.

One key part of the process is the personal statement - a page or so of peerless prose that every applicant must write in order to sell themselves to admissions tutors. But isn't the clue in the name of the thing? It's a personal statement, one for them to write. If they can't manage that without teacher hovering in the background, should they be thinking about going to university at all? After all, it's only 600 or 700 words, barely longer than this column, and on a topic they should know something about: themselves. If that's too taxing, how are they going to fare a year or two down the line when several thousand words are required on Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus?

It's an argument which, given a level playing field for all applicants, would be hard to resist. But there's the rub. My students - hitherto underachieving young adults from the inner city - tend not to have parents versed in the system to assist them. So if I don't "help" them, who will? And help they certainly need! In this regard The X-Factor has a lot to answer for. Half my students seem to think it's Cheryl Cole they are pitching to, rather than some nit-picking academic whose TV set probably doesn't even have a button for the "commercial stations".

I tell them that what they need to demonstrate is commitment, intellectual curiosity and an enquiring mind. They write about love and passion for the subject. I suggest to one student that a good reason for studying psychology might be to find out more about the workings of the human mind. Her statement starts: "Studying for a degree in psychology will be the first step towards fulfilling my dreams."

Some of the nuances of the language are clearly lost on them, too. Pedant that I am, I think that when it comes to their studies there is a clear difference between ardour (good) and fanaticism (bad). But attempts to persuade a student that writing "I am exceptionally fanatical to study sociology" is a seriously bad idea are met with the most sceptical of looks. It's in the thesaurus, he says, so it has to be right.

Exactly how far, then, should I go in "helping" my students with their oh-so-personal statements? Far enough, would be my answer, to squeeze out this little gem I came across only yesterday: "On my current course I am constantly embracing myself in preparation for my chosen career."

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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