Power of the Pen

If the number of people reading these posts about the college essay is any indication it looks like I’m meant to say a little more on the topic of writing. I see that my recent bungled job of caring for a little boy might offer instruction for us all: In spite of his having written me THREE laboriously hand-lettered notes, I still did not know that the child had been standing outside our bedroom door since 4am hoping to get our attention.

His first note says “When Can I get up? From Edward to TT” (I’m TT.) You can click on the word ‘first’ to see some truly inventive spelling. The second note, presumably written some 30 or 45 minutes later, reads “What time is it? To TT from Edward.” (This one really made me groan: how could we have forgotten yet again to put a clock in the back room where he was sleeping?) At home with his parents, he is told he can’t get up until 6. Good boy that he is, he assumed that rule held here at his grandparents’ house.) And the third and final note, above, as anyone can plainly read – ha ha OK not really eh? – says, “I am waiting patiently. Can you pick up the other notes?” again with the piteous ending “To TT from Edward.”

You must admit: this is some good straightforward writing, framed in three simple ‘asks’. No adverbs except the word ‘patiently.’ No flourishes.

Why can’t everyone write this way? That’s what Plymouth State Professor of Finance and Economics David Talbot wonders who said this two days ago:

Your piece could not be more timely. I am sending it to my 16 students over here in Ireland. They write essays each week for their Critical Thinking class. I am constantly editing their excessive adverbs to provide clarity and strength in their writing. I hope it helps to hear it from a pro.

But pity the poor high school seniors struggling to write that Essay on Anything for their college application! Can they even help it? I’m convinced they go on filling the page with platitudes because they’re nervous; because somewhere along the line they got the idea that it’s good practice to write in an inflated manner. In fact an actual professional in the field tells me she too feels merciful toward them. “Susie” at collegedirection.org wrote:

As a private college counselor, I couldn’t agree with you more. The college essays are my favorite part of the college admission process. However, I do think that the majority of students will write the best essays they can if they have someone to talk with them about possible topics that they might not even have considered. Too often they are focused on what they think a college admissions committee would like to hear and not what they would like to tell them. I love the essays that students write, especially when they are enthusiastic about what they have to say.

Here’s to the merciful Susie, I say. Some people, like young Edward, are willing to go on record as soon as they can hold a pencil and spelling be damned.

The rest of us need kindness and encouragement and often many many years before we dare speak in our own true if croaky voices.


The Much Dreaded College Essay

What’s the most important task for you high school seniors hoping to get into college – after you earning the grades and doing OK on the SATs that is? The writing of a good essay, in which the scratchy voice of the 17-year-old comes through.

That phrase belongs to the Director of Admission at Yale who uttered it some ten years ago when my kid was looking at colleges.

What he meant, I believe, is that you should write the essay yourself. 

Don’t let your parents write it, much less some college “coach” your parents might have hired.

Don’t let them dream up your topic either. Dream up your own topic.

Also, try not to bore your reader to death by stringing together sentences that bore even you as you tap them out on your keyboard.

These readers are only human after all, and chances are they’re very weary given the number of folders they must go through in order to assemble this next college Class of 2016. I picture them with eye strain. I picture them with feet that have gone to sleep from curling one and then another under themselves as they try to get comfortable during these marathon reading sessions. They probably need more water than they’re drinking and their minds doubtless keep wandering toward thoughts of dinner.

Show them the courtesy of speaking to them in your own voice about something that interests you. Don’t try writing like a C.E.O or a department head at the Internal Revenue Service or some solemnly intoning guy in an infomercial for cholesterol medication. You’re a high school student! Relax and let yourself be what you are right now, even if your secret hope is to one day find fame and have paparazzi trailing you in pursuit of those stolen-moment candids of you sleeping with your mouth open or yelling at your dog.

I had the chance to read two great college essays in the last month. One has in it time travel and 16th century horses straining at their reins; the other, a peach tree, a bright blue door slapping open and Sunday dinner with Grandma.

They’re both terrific and they’re nothing like the college essay I once wrote telling how I routinely skipped meals and stayed up all night fashioning flash cards and making teensy notes on all my class notes.

This was when I applied Early Decision to that fine women’s college called Wellesley.

Six weeks later they flat-out rejected me.

Thus, when I applied to that other fine women’s college known as Smith I wrote a very different essay, telling what it was like to be charged with the protection and emotional well-being of half-dozen Seventh Graders at summer camp the year a bear with an eerie resemblance to Babe Ruth kept appearing at the clothesline behind the cabins to sniff at all our swimsuits.

Smith did accept me, welcomed me in September and got right to work teaching me that study is much more than rote memorization, that balance in life is crucial and that it’s pretty much never a good idea to skip a meal.

I still think I got into one college and not the other because I wrote that second essay with pleasure and fondness and even excitement. Therefore, young applicant, speak in your own voice about what has moved or surprised, delighted or terrified you, and let the chips fall where they may – as indeed they always do.

Therefore, young person, speak in your own voice about what has moved or surprised, delighted or terrified you, and let the chips fall where they may – as indeed they always do.