Writing, and rewriting, your way into college



By Martha Ravits
For The Register-Guard
Dec. 25, 2016

“Share a story about your background, identity, interest or a talent.” Or: “Recount a time you experienced failure and explain what you learned from the experience.” Limit your answer to 650 words.

These are instructions from this year’s Common Application for writing a college admissions essay. Seniors applying to college are currently working on these or similarly broad topics for January deadlines. Their grades for the beginning of senior year are in, their GPAs have been calculated, and their SAT or ACT test scores have been sent to admissions offices. The only way left for them to distinguish themselves is the college essay, the last part of the admissions process under their control.

I love reading college application essays because students care about them. During my years teaching composition at the University of Oregon, I read scores of essays that were half-baked, hastily written the day they were due and turned in looking like first drafts. Students knew only the professor would see these exercises. I often spent more time reading and commenting on those essays than the students spent writing them.

Not so with college admissions essays. Students devote time to them because they believe admission to a college or university of their choice hangs in the balance.

Writing requires time and thought. And writing means rewriting. No well-known author — not a poet like W.B. Yeats, a novelist like J.K. Rowling or a memoirist like Bruce Springsteen — publishes first drafts. Good writers meticulously rework their manuscripts. Samuel Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

In writing the college essay, students generally are willing to take the time to try to fail and to improve their work through several drafts. They know that the paragraphs they produce will be read by a committee of adults who will get to know them only through their writing, and from that writing make judgments about their way of thinking, their values and their priorities.

With so much at stake, even shy students are often willing to show their essays to others for feedback: a family member, a teacher or peers who are also going through the application process. I enjoy reading the essays as a way of getting to know my students better, of learning more about their personal stories and enthusiasms and of finding out what makes them tick.

One admissions director said that adolescence is a foreign country to adults; they gain entry to that world through college essays.

Students ask, “What do colleges want?” That question should be turned around: “What do you have to say that you want colleges to know?” Several topics from previous years, such as writing about a person the student admired, have been eliminated. Perhaps admissions officers tired of reading sentimental portraits of Grandpa and crave essays with more edge, more stories of risk and peril; thus the topic on failure.

Highlighting good ideas can require revisions. According to the novelist, essayist and poet Barbara Kingsolver, “Revision is where the art really happens, when you begin to manipulate, shift things around so your theme begins to shine through.”

Parents, with the best intentions, can be too cautious or heavy-handed in helping students revise. Adults reading over a student’s shoulder may have the urge to censor details about insecurities or suffering that the student wants to explain as being crucial to his or her growth and maturation.

When a journalist edited her son’s essay, I could pinpoint at least a half-dozen instances where stilted vocabulary had replaced the breezy style of her exuberant son. Admissions officers know they are reading the work of teenagers. Essays do not need to sound highfalutin and sophisticated; rather, they should read like elevated conversation: the student’s opinions, honestly expressed.

Peers can give contradictory advice, in part because high-schoolers today, even with good literature teachers, say they get no instruction in grammar. As Peter Elbow, former writing director at the University of Massachusetts­- Amherst, observes, “Correct writing is no one’s mother tongue.”

Writing is an art — like music, it takes practice. Crafting a good college essay takes time. I advise students to sleep on the piece for a few nights before the deadline to allow time to make changes.

Martha Ravits of Eugene is an independent college consultant and a former professor of English and women’s and gender studies at the University of Oregon.