Novelists and the College Application Essay

When creating a new website, I had to decide which of my literary hats to lead my bio with: "novelist, journalist, editor" or a "journalist, novelist, editor." All three of us -- me, myself and I -- coach high school students on writing college application essays, and a friend, the sort who would have hired me when her kids were seniors, balked at starting with "novelist."

"No one wants to hire a writer who's known for making things up for the college essay," she said.

I went with "writer, editor, consultant" even though most of my books are novels, and much, but not all, of my teaching writing for 25 years has been fiction workshops. But the more encounters I have with my young clients, struggling to present themselves to colleges in 300 to 500 words, the more I see that a fiction writer's strategies may be more useful in what they're doing than those of a journalist.

Yes, it's true that fiction writers "make things up," and that is decidedly not one of the techniques students should pluck from the fiction writers' handbook. But there are many other elements essential to writing fiction that apply just as certainly to college application essays.

No matter which topics students choose for their essays, they need to locate their material, find their voices, tell a story, and engage the reader. The word "entertainment" is the direction I'm heading, but I don't mean the Rockettes Christmas Show or Project Runway. I mean that the essays should be a pleasure to read -- not a burden, not a bore. They need to hook us at "hello."

Easier said than done -- but not as hard as it might sound. It begins with locating one's material, and every fiction writer knows that material is about energy, emotion and obsession. All of these are hinted at -- in muted language -- in the choices for essays on the Common Application. Yet it's possible to go down the list of prompts -- from "evaluate a significant experience" to "describe a character in fiction... that has had an influence on you" -- and settle on two or three, but not know which to choose and how to begin.

When buying a dog from a litter of puppies, the conventional wisdom is to take the puppy that comes to you. In the case of material for an essay, something similar applies: your material is the prompt that makes you most excited, most nervous -- the one that lights up when look at it.

But if that doesn't happen with any of them, I like to give students a list of open-ended questions that takes them out of the Essay Pressure Box and into the What Really Matters to Me Department -- a place with a lot more breathing and elbow room. Once they locate a passion or an obsession (or two), it's easier to figure out which Common App essay topic it falls into, including the last, "Topic of Your Choice."

Once they've located their material -- a thrilling idea, an insight or experience that changed a life, how competitive energy helps them on the soccer field and in the science lab -- students need a story to tell, and to find the voice in which to tell it. This is often where students freeze up -- or think they should be writing a term paper and showing off their million-dollar vocabularies.

My answer to that comes from Harry Truman, known for his plain speaking -- which doesn't mean to dumb oneself down. It means to find a voice that's more conversational than would be used to analyze a poem or an historical figure. Fiction writers don't begin everything we write with, "Once upon a time," but we try to lure readers to stay with us using an authentic voice and the promise of a story.

When students can't find that conversational voice, I suggest they start writing their essay as though it's an email, and I ask them to choose as the recipient someone they want to understand them better.

This year, for the first time, the Common Application essay has an upward limit of 500 words. For some students, this is a relief, but for others it's a burden. How can they possibly relate that experience in so few words? The trick is to write the essay/email in as many words as it takes, and once it's done, once the voice is there and on the page, cut -- and cut and cut.

In the process of cutting, go over every sentence. The words need not be three-to-five syllables, but they need to be precise, vivid and as colorful as the subject warrants. Both fiction writers and journalists are good at this; the difference between them is often how much writers reveal of themselves in the descriptions, with fiction writers taking the lead in subjectivity.

College application essayists are allowed to do that too. In fact, the personal touch -- the fiction writer's signature -- is precisely what admissions committees are hoping to find.

Elizabeth Benedict is a bestselling novelist, journalist, editor, and college writing teacher who runs Don't Sweat the Essay, a coaching service to help those applying to college and graduate school write application essays in their own voices and their own words. She works by phone and Skype across the country.

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