From China to EHS: The Comparisons of the Essay



A universal activity, writing cannot be more widespread and common in our lives. When we go to school, we write essays; when we go to college, we write long papers; even when we go to work, we still need to write reports, emails, and work summaries. In high school, writing an essay is a tool to measure your logical thinking skills. As we all know, cultural differences cause a lot of differences in how essays are written. In order to compare the difference between American essays and Chinese essays, I asked my English teacher, Mrs. Jennifer Wolf, and my Chinese friend, James, about their views on essays. And their answers are quite different, which I expected, but they were also, at some points, pretty similar.

Question 1: What is your definition of an essay?

Mrs. Wolf–  The purpose of an essay depends on what the writer is hoping to accomplish–to persuade, to entertain, to express, to analyze, etc. The joy of writing is that each time you write, your work can fulfill so many purposes. The essay is another way one can express themselves as an artist.

James– In high school, essays always require students to talk about different topics, with the purpose of testing students’ ability to think critically, to organize opinions, and to use advanced language. 

Question 2: Why do you think we need to write essays? Do you think it is helpful? Why? 

Mrs. Wolf– Writing is a fantastic way to help young people develop a strong sense of themselves as they make choices about what they want to write. When students write, they often decide on a viewpoint or research something new to them.   

James– It is helpful because the written information can clearly demonstrate our opinions and logic, so it can assist to persuade others and reach our goals:  business or political ones. Meanwhile, the writing itself also helps to promote our thinking and helps clarify our logic. In high school, to write excellent essays, students will need to spend a lot of time learning and memorizing others’ outstanding essays, a process that sometimes may limit students’ own thinking but also greatly promote their horizons and knowledge of unfamiliar subjects.

Question 3: For example, as a teacher, what kind of essay would you prefer for a quarterly exam? Which kind will you give a higher score? Why?

Mrs. Wolf– The best way to achieve a high score on the quarterly exam is to closely study the rubric for each exam. Carefully reading the rubric ensures that you are providing the teacher with all the necessary requirements in your answer. Teachers also usually provide a practice of the type of exercise you will be asked to do on the quarterly. Put your full effort into the practice and learn from any mistakes you made on this practice exercise. Your teacher will always be happy to review any mistakes and answer any questions you have. Finally, each quarterly set of skills is repeated, giving you the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and build on your strengths. The essay for marking period one is repeated for marking period three and the close reading/multiple choice for marking period two is repeated for marking period four.

James– I personally would prefer essays with strong logical thinking, creative ideas, and powerful supporting evidence.

Question 4: When you were in high school, how did you write your essays? 

Mrs. Wolf– As a high school student, I enjoyed writing. My best advice is to start early and break an essay down into steps to accomplish each day or minutes you can devote to it each day, so that you don’t cram. Cramming really leads to sloppy work.  

James– I spend much time analyzing the structures and opinions of others’ essays. When I was reading my own essays, I spent about 50 percent of the given time to brainstorm my ideas and plan the structure before I began writing.

Essays, no matter the language they’re in, are fundamentally the same, because just like James said, “writing itself also helps to promote our thinking and help clarify our logic.”

As a Chinese transfer student, I have learned these two types of writing. In my opinion, teachers in China prefer essays that focus on frames, especially when you are taking an exam. When teachers are giving points to students, they follow exam standards, so some students who are not good at writing might feel limited. In Chinese exams, there will usually be three parts: reading, scored out of 70 points; writing and grammar, scored out of 20 points. The similarity between them is that they are hard to make the answers absolutely right and some of the literature is hard to read due to the ancient Chinese. But the essay, scored out of 60 points, plays a big role in the exam, and it’s easier to get points here (students will have a base point of 25, even if they don’t finish). The essay is very important to students. So if you write a proper essay, meet all the standards required, it is a “piece of cake” for you to get a high score.

Actually, there is a set pattern for the essay–first of all, use a succinct introduction sentence to describe what are you going to talk about next; then, for the body paragraphs, list your opinions of the topic, usually you will need three points, and you must detail the contents to make them more persuasive; at last, conclude your essay and restate the theme. Thus, a highly scored essay is born.

Therefore, something called the “perfect example” appears. These examples usually will have clear structures, logical sentences and paragraph arrangements, and elegant words, which perfectly match all the standards. Generally, after the exam, when the class is reviewing the essays, teacher will offer examples for students to study, to refer, and even to transcribe. That will help some students who are not good at writing to get more confident about their essay.

The method I just mentioned in the last paragraph is a common phenomenon in China, but during my three months experience in the US, it is quite rare. I think it is due to the different mode of exams. Although I just passed the quarterly exam of marking period one, I found that most American English exams (except the SAT) will just provide an essay to write, and don’t have as many guidelines as Chinese. American essays focus more on students’ own thoughts, trying to inspire their creativity. Although it is a part of the SAT, students are not required to write an essay for the SAT, which leads to less value put on essays. On the other hand, Chinese students must take the essay during Gaokao, China’s college entrance exam, making the essay more important. There is a saying in Chinese students’ community, ”if you are good at essays, you nailed the exam; but if you are a terrible writer, then bye bye.”

The differences do exist, but the resemblances also cannot be ignored. Whether Chinese or American, both types of essays care about the analysis, the logic, and the structure of the essay. The common purpose for students taking the essay is to train their logical expression, to convince others, to help them improve themselves. And the prompts are similar too:  they both offer a short text and ask the opinions of students.

All in all, cultural diversity changes things. In spite of the differences, we can still see that the fundamentals are the same. After all, writing is a wonderful medium to use to express ourselves. If you noticed the hallway notes about “why you write”, you will see almost ninety percent of them said, “writing helps me express myself,” and that is the main purpose of writing. As Virginia Wolf said, “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”

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