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A high school freshman is hemmed in by a slew of homework, saddled with the time-consuming tasks that meet his eye. Staring blankly at his laptop screen, he keys a series of words into his word processor, determined to complete a literary analysis essay due the next day. In an agony of apprehension, he searches his mind for explanations, but no amount of thinking avails him. He consults the internet for information on the text, heading to Sparknotes to allay his confusion. Impressed by Sparknotes’ literary expertise, he emulates certain words and phrases, hoping that he will sound more professional and hence attain a higher essay grade.
As high school students in this modern world, we are no doubt familiar with the cutthroat competition that comes hand-in-hand with high school culture. At some point during our four years at high school, we find ourselves tangling with the college admissions rat race: an endless pursuit that calls for a balance between academics, extracurricular activities, acts of charity, and a social life for entrance to a top-tier college. Sometimes, even the most erudite students are lost in adolescent limbo and rendered sleepless by heavy workloads, struggling to keep up with inescapable deadlines. And it is towards us, the ambitious Generation Y high-school students, that study aids like Sparknotes are geared.

We live in a world in which academic resources are manifold. Sparknotes is only one of those resources, but its influence on the student populace has been immense. Founded by four Harvard students in 1999, Sparknotes emerged as “a resource that [high school and college students] can turn to when [they’re] confuzzled”. By providing content related to the AP, SAT and ACT tests and to guidebooks for core subjects like mathematics, history, and physics, Sparknotes could be regarded as both the expert’s and the novice’s utopia.

Moreover, Sparknotes’ literature study guides (the very feature that helped Sparknotes emerge from oblivion) are replete with character lists, plot overviews, symbolism breakdowns, and thematic information: each of which plays an integral role in literary analysis. Students for whom English is a second language could find the information on Sparknotes’ helpful, and also widen their vocabularies when perusing pages of analysis. Additionally, Sparknotes provides guides on texts that date back to the 16th century, so students are poised to reap the benefits of Sparknotes when reading up on vernacular literature from, for instance, the Shakespearean era. As the syntaxes and semantics of English undergo changes over centuries, it has become quite common that students struggle with the different language styles. In order for students to grasp the text’s complex details and themes, further help may be required, and it is in scenarios like this when Sparknotes comes in handy.

However, Sparknotes does pose many problems. Often times, a student’s essay arguments are obscured by polysyllabic phrasings in the mold of Sparknotes, resulting in a vaguer essay and a lower grade – both of which go against the student’s desires. In addition, it is a universal belief among English professors that the content available on Sparknotes is dull, fabricated, and lacking insight. Kevin Quinn, a Yale English major and teacher at Chinese International School, says that the arguments on Sparknotes “come from other borrowed sources” and “only offer clichéd themes and approaches to analysis”, echoing the laments of every literature teacher.

Furthermore, dependence on Sparknotes could prove to be detrimental as it hinders the growth of analytical thinking and thwarts creativity. Literature is defined as a subject that encompasses a range of expression modes and stimulates emotions, and hence would be nonexistent without innovation. Students’ reliance on Sparknotes has fostered close-minded thinking and an ongoing obsession to find the “right answer”. According to Mr Quinn, because of Sparknotes, “students are afraid of venturing into territory that demands critical thinking and rational arguing, and thus lack intellectual curiosity”.

Not only does Sparknotes hamper open-minded thinking, it also increases the potential for plagiarism and engenders a culture of academic dishonesty. Students who misuse Sparknotes by copying phrases and thematic ideas on tests and essays (without citing sources) violate the principles of academic integrity. When students plagiarize, not only do they lose their credibility, but are also more than likely to be dismissed from their schools.
The high school freshman may suffer a pang of conscience about his giving in to temptation, and never plagiarize for the rest of his academic career, should he not be dismissed for dishonesty. Conversely, he may escape punishment and out of certitude, continue misusing Sparknotes. However, essays that are rife with pretentious literary devices and unoriginal arguments will naturally arouse a teacher’s suspicion. Teachers, after all, are aware of Sparknotes’ existence and will check it when the need arises.
Therefore, as students, we should rely on our own beliefs to analyze literature, and not derive our essay theses and arguments from tools like Sparknotes. Should this advice remain unheeded, desperate, overly ambitious students will forever be tempted out of integrity to attain good grades. And it is these students who will, in the long run, fall behind in the perpetually-gruelling college admissions rat race.
Works Cited
Quinn, Kevin. "Interview with Mr Quinn." Personal interview. 2012.
SparkNotes. SparkNotes, n.d. Web. 2012.

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