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As spell-check replaces proofreading, students learn the hard way that mistakes can really matter.


Debra Chermonte, the admissions dean at Oberlin College in Ohio, reads a lot of college essays. But one stands out in her memory: An applicant wrote about her admiration for Julie Taymor, an Oberlin graduate who created The Lion King on Broadway. Chermonte recalls the essay's passion--and its fatal flaw: The writer kept referring to "The Loin King."

College admissions officers, teachers, and employers all tell similar tales of reading applications and homework assignments littered with misspellings, grammatical mistakes, or worse. And they say it's happening more and more in this age of texting, tweeting, and Facebook, when the simple art of proofreading may be falling victim to today's emphasis on casual communication.

Cynthia Markoch, a guidance counselor at Eastside High School in Gainesville, Florida, says proofreading is a declining skill among today's students, who increasingly rely on spell-check software to catch their mistakes.

But spell-check misses a lot. Mary Karen Vellines of the international recruitment office at Union College in Schenectady, New York, drives home that message when teaching writing workshops to high school students, by citing this real-life example: "I love to turn on soft music and light scented candles because I love the smell of incest."

Computer software also has trouble telling when an overreaching writer is misusing a word, says Rich Avitabile, who spent 11 years in New York University's admissions office and is now a private admissions counselor in Westport, Connecticut.

Last year, Avitabile says, a student wrote about searching for a campus "where I feel safe, inspired, and apprehended." Another urged a life of compassion and "being apathetic toward others."

Avitabile says a few typos or a misspelling won't derail an application. But a pattern of mistakes, he says, makes colleges wary.

They also raise a red flag for employers, even for entry-level jobs. Jon Garrison, owner of Lilly's Pizza in Raleigh, North Carolina, says, "If you can't spell or punctuate, I wouldn't be interested." For him, that kind of sloppiness on an application indicates that a candidate won't be able to handle the high volume of orders coming through the shop's computer system.

And, of course, proofreading matters for regular class assignments too, says Eastside High School's Markoch. She encourages students to review their papers for typos (but is quick to point out that error-free essays are not necessarily great ones; substance and ideas matter).

Be careful too when copying and pasting text among multiple applications. One admissions officer says he once came across an essay that said, "It's my dream to go to Boston University."

Nothing wrong with that sentiment-except that the essay was sent to Cornell.

Dave Marcus contributes to The Times's education blog. Additional reporting by Veronica Majerol.
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Title Annotation:EDUCATION
Author:Marcus, Dave
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Date:Dec 13, 2010
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