When reading as a common reader, what were your responses?
Most likely you felt a variety of things: amused (but not in a good way), slightly offended (but only because the argument was so weak that it was hard to take seriously), and confused (what was the author really trying to argue?). Perhaps you did not trust the writer.
Note how quickly in this paper these responses as a common reader take you into the next way of reading: reading to get to know the writer. The elements that may strike you on a gut level as amusing or offensive or dishonest all have to do with who the writer is and what stance he is taking towards his topic.
For example, the writer begins with a sentence that is insensitive on a number of levels. First, in referring to African-Americans as "Black people" the writer is not only selecting to use non-preferred language, but he is using language that assigns this group to the category of "other." Then, in his phrase "America's enslavement and centuries of oppression of Black people," the writer uses language that is explicitly inflammatory. Why?
This sort of language leads us to believe that we are being rallied to the cause of the disenfranchised, yet reading further we quickly learn that the writer has another purpose in mind. In the middle of the introduction, via his reference to "really important professional schools," the writer allies himself with the values of a certain socio-economic class and discloses his antagonism towards affirmative action policies. This contradiction is probably the seed of our distrust of the writer.
This distrust grows throughout the paper and has various sources. One source is the writer's tone, which seems at odds with the writer's point of view. The writer is, after all, a student; he is talking about GPA's, test scores, professors attending their office hours, and fellow applicants. Yet, his language suggests that he is writing from a detached and somewhat superior position. For example, he refers to professional school applicants as "kids" - as if he is not one himself. In short, the writer is trying to set himself up as an authority, but his efforts seem inauthentic. The matter is further complicated by the manner in which he uses two outside sources without providing context, credentials, or rationale.
The writer's attempts to gain authority are also evident in the exalted prose he uses to pose his rhetorical questions. In particular, the rhetorical questions in paragraph 3 seem to hide the writer and his real issue - that he himself was rejected from law school and is trying, in this essay, to justify that rejection.
So, what are you going to say to this writer? "Gee, I'm sorry you got rejected from law school. It was probably that bad GPA you mentioned and not affirmative action, though."
Even though this remark hits the nail on the head, you'll want to craft a more tactful and effective response. But where to begin? One possibility is with the writer's use of rhetorical questions. These questions reveal many of the essay's problems. Not only do the questions - passionate and unanswered - reveal the writer's personal frustrations with graduate school admission policies, but they also reveal the essay's weaknesses as a piece of writing.
What are the answers to these complicated questions? How do we measure merit? What is the role of race in that measurement? What is the value of test scores, professor recommendations, and so on? Are these various means of measurement fair? The thoughtful writer would attempt to answer these questions.
The absence of answers to these questions reveals the essay's primary weakness: there is no argument, and what hints of an argument do exist are systematically contradicted. For example, the writer seems not to know where he stands on the issue of merit. He seems to believe that "merit" and not race should get one into graduate school, yet he discredits all measurements of merit, such as GPA's, professor recommendations, and so on. Noting this contradiction is another place where you might begin your response.
In the process of diagnosing a student paper, you'll note that each way of reading leads you to the next. Gut-level responses help you to make guesses about the writer, which in turn help you to better understand the paper, which, in turn, assist you in diagnosing a paper's particular weaknesses. You are now ready to consider the different ways of Responding to Problems in student papers.