Friday, May 19, 2006

Follow the rules

Last week, for the third year in a row, I served as a reader for a scholarship given out by my work to high school seniors. The scholarship is somewhat prestigious, though not a "full ride" by any means (I think it's $1500 a semester for 4 years), and every year an estimated 150 kids apply. It is only awarded to graduating seniors who must fit a certain academic profile, and we readers score them on several bases, including the application itself, an essay, letters of recommendation, and activities and awards.

I have learned in my three years of reading applications for this scholarship that there are vast differences in writing style and ability between high school seniors. Two of the essays I read this year totally blew me away and seemed as though they had been written by highly educated, well-written adults, not 17-year-olds (though it became obvious as I read the applications that they really WERE written by the students). All of the applications reflected kids who had obviously succeeded both academically and in the categories of service and leadership, but, as always, there were standouts and there were those who looked great "on paper" but reading between the lines one could tell that they were resume-padders, so to speak.

As a reader for this scholarship I am instructed to evaluate each application on adherence to the directions as outlined in the application, in addition to each application's content. It is so sad that every year I end up having to take away major "points" for things like having pages out of order, misspellings, and generic letters of recommendation. It's unfortunate, but it's one of the only fair ways to distinguish between so many highly qualified students. For instance, I took points away from one application because the student had a school-affiliated coach write the "community member" recommendation letter, when it clearly states that the writer of that letter needs to be unaffiliated with the school.

Applications are awarded different points to the different sections, and each one is given a total value. Each application is read by three different readers and the scores are averaged to reflect a final score. The top 85 or so got scholarships this year, and for the first time, I got a "results" email from the scholarship coordinator letting us readers know which students ended up receiving scholarships. As I read through the email, I was glad to know that my favorites all got the money - and the ones I thought were weaker or more "good on paper, no substance" kids didn't.

I also recently spent three days attending a "Grantwriting 101" workshop that I signed up for back when I thought my job was going to expand a little (unfortunately, it didn't, but there were still valuable things about the workshop). I considered ranting about how awful the workshop was in this blog right after I attended the workshop, until I realized that the things I learned could be applied to other areas of my life (Plus, I got out of work for three days and got to actually interact with people who weren't all menopausal women, so that was good. And it was a room full of do-gooders with mostly interesting jobs and causes, so that was cool, too). While I read through the scholarship applications last week and assigned point values, I thought about how much the process mirrored a grant evaluation. One of the things that the instructor harped upon was that companies and organizations that administer grants want you to follow their directions to the letter - and if you don't, you aren't likely to get the grant. Whether it's a grant or a scholarship or some other instance where you're asking someone for money, there's always a process of weeding out the good from the bad - and then weeding out the good that followed directions from the good that didn't.

For better or for worse, I have always been a rule-follower. I was the goody-two-shoes who didn't break any rules when I was a kid; I sucked up to teachers and authority figures; I've always respected my parents (for the most part) and never cursed at them or told them "I hate you!" As a child, seeing someone litter or write in a book made me mad - and I still get mad at people who break rules (like drivers who don't allow pedestrians right-of way, for instance). I am good at things like editing and proofreading and finding the little bits in the language that don't fit within the prescribed rules. Even my current job involves a lot of rules, and part of my job is to train other people how to do their jobs (run the program locally) and follow the rules of the law that allows this program to exist.

I am uncomfortable in situations where Rules are Being Broken, and there are very few laws I'll break (jaywalking notwithstanding). I have always been jealous of people with devil-may-care attitudes, who could just write in the book or drink at the river in high school or look at a printed newspaper and not want to pull out a red pen to mark it all up. Because I just can't. For better or for worse, I've always been one to follow the rules - and it has usually made my life easier.

Experiences with friends, family, and significant others has taught me that many people don't want to follow rules. They'd rather be stubborn, do things their own way, and make life much more difficult for themselves - but that's their thing. And sometimes I envy it, because deep in my heart I know I'm not a bureaucrat or a brownnoser and following the rules is the easy thing to do, so in living my life I'm sometimes taking the easy way out. I often wonder what I would have been like had I grown up in the time that my mom did. Would I have protested the war? Burned my bra? Raged against "the man"? Or would I have still been the goody two-shoes in sensible clothing, telling my peers that they should just follow the rules?

Sometimes following the rules is the only way to get something you want. Sometimes it's a lifelong pattern that makes everything easier. And sometimes it's suffocating to do everything according to what "they" say to do because it's what you're "supposed" to do. I guess the important thing is to know the difference between those times.


Anonymous said...

I totally could have written this. But you put it all so well, I don't really have anything to add. :)

Yank In Texas said...

I used to be a huge rule follower. I've relaxed a little bit though. Not much, but some.

Dale said...

Interesting post. I follow most of the rules most of the time.

I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the applications for the scholarship. I once helped a friend who owns a business sift through a pile of resumes and that was a real eye opener. About three quarters immediately went to the shred pile based on simple but glaring errors.