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Zinsser’s Classification-Division in “College Pressures”


A classification essay is used to find common denominators among categories, while a division essay breaks a thing into its components to find out how it works or why it does not work. William Zinsser’s 1978 essay, “College Pressures,” is a division essay which analyzes a group of students within the context of Yale University in his day. His main concern is that students see university as nothing more than a means to the end of a successful, profitable career.

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He uses the technique of division to show that the students’ strategies for getting through university in conflict with their own needs and desires. In other words, within that division students are torn between what they want to do and what they feel obliged to do. In analyzing student strategies, Zinsser shows why students are failing in spite of working harder than ever before.


He begins his analysis of that division by stating that students routinely overload their schedule with difficult courses, not for the sake of gaining more knowledge but to enhance their transcript. Zinsser reproduces some of the notes left under the dean’s door at all hours of the night to illustrate his point. These notes, he says, are the “authentic voices of a generation that is panicky to succeed.” Students do not want to take any chances with their future, they want to secure every aspect of it including “a pre-paid grave” (Zinsser PAGE). As a strategy this backfires by producing so much anxiety that students fall hopelessly behind in their work.

One reason why students’ strategies are counterproductive is that students attach more value to their parents’ wishes than their own. Parents want their children to choose profitable and prestigious careers such as medicine or law, even though their children might prefer to concentrate on the humanities. In addition, “hovering, tuition-paying parents” also pressure faculty members and administrators to raise grades, causing an epidemic of grade inflation (Primack).

The fact that their parents want a guaranteed return on their tuition payments makes students even more obsessed with high grades. In this division, then, a shift of focus on the part of students, from working hard to deserve a good grade to just getting a good grade, proves counterproductive because education becomes a secondary consideration.

Another conflict within the division arises because students pay more attention to their peers than to their “blithe inner spirit” (Zinsser PAGE). If they perceive that their peers are studying all night, they will do the same and more. They believe that good jobs are scarce and that they must put their own needs second to outdoing their peers and pleasing their parents. Such over-achievers raise the level of difficulty for everyone else, says Zinsser, thereby intensifying the competition at the expense of real education (PAGE).

In this competition a student’s GPA becomes the only consideration. Yale professor Charles Bailyn says students are unwilling to take courses in which they might not get a good grade, including core science courses “and that’s not a good thing” (qtd. in Lee). Again students’ strategies are seen to be self-defeating because to succeed they must choose courses that will benefit their GPA and forgo courses that will actually qualify them for the profession of their parents’ choice.

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To show what students would like to do, Zinsser lists all the qualities they have demonstrated in their interaction with him outside the classroom, such as their curiosity, creativity and interest in ideas; “their quality of humanity,” as he calls it (PAGE). Many of these students are the kind who, not so long ago, would have been content with a “gentlemen’s C,” earned while learning about a great variety of subjects, many in the liberal arts, and so graduating as well-rounded, well-educated men and women.

Students are now repressing that quality of humanity for the most part, expressing it only in their spare time when they might write an article for the campus newspaper or take part in a play. For the most part their strategies are not their own but are imposed on them by parents, peers and the economy. Zinsser shows in his analysis of student strategies that by focusing on security students are actually forfeiting their happiness and, in many cases, reducing their chances at succeeding. He tries to make them see by analyzing their strategies that bad motives, like bad means can only produce bad ends. Successful men and women, by contrast, trusted in their quality of humanity and their blithe inner spirit.

Works Cited

Lee, Brian. “Grade Inflation Debate Extends Beyond Ivies.” The Yale Daily News, 2009. Web.

Primack, Phil. “Doesn’t Anybody Get a C Anymore?” The Boston Globe. 2008. Web.

Zinsser, Howard. “College Pressures.” The Longman Reader. London: Longman, 2007.

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"Zinsser’s Classification-Division in “College Pressures”." StudyCorgi, 28 Oct. 2021,

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StudyCorgi. "Zinsser’s Classification-Division in “College Pressures”." October 28, 2021.


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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Zinsser’s Classification-Division in “College Pressures”'. 28 October.

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