The One Who Knows

Post-scandal reflections on the college-application essay

by ALLAN REEDER

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Her email arrived thirty minutes before we were to meet. The student — I will call her Sarah — had written a draft of her college-application essay, which she had dutifully sent to me two days earlier, as requested. She was seeking feedback so that she could make improvements in a new draft. I had spent time with her words, finding between and behind them opportunities for exploration. I was prepared for our conversation — until I read her email.

She wrote: Attached is the same draft I sent you, but my parents had someone else look at it. The second version on the document was primarily written by my dad.

I looked at the clock and then opened the attachment and began reading. First I considered the comments of the “someone” to whom Sarah’s parents had sent her writing, and then I entered Sarah’s father’s version of her essay. As I read, my plans for our session grew more complicated, and more significant.

When Sarah arrived with her mother, I had her original draft printed out, sitting on the table between us. Right beside it I had placed her father’s draft. Sarah’s mother took a seat next to her. Although it’s our policy at Hillside to work directly — alone — with each student-writer in order to encourage ownership of the essay-writing project, as well as to ensure uninhibited expression in our dialogues, I broke policy this time. It was important for me — but especially for Sarah — that I share what I had to say with both her and her mother.

I placed my hand down on Sarah’s draft. “I’ve really been looking forward to talking with you about this,” I said. “I find your experiences very interesting.” She smiled. Then I lifted my hand and moved it to her father’s version. “But first let’s talk about this.”

Fortunately, I could approach Sarah’s predicament in a way that was at once direct and through a back door. It wasn’t hard to demonstrate how inauthentic her father’s draft was. Of course it was inauthentic. The very word “authentic” comes from autos, meaning “self,” and the self driving much of the essay was not Sarah’s self. But beyond that problem, or inside it, was the conspicuous compulsion to make Sarah stand out, to make her endeavors and her reflections on her seventeen-year-old life come across as extraordinary. At the table, I merely read out loud some of the long, over-reaching sentences with which Sarah’s father was striving to highlight her dedication to a challenging and longstanding activity of hers. There was mention of her altruism and her grace and her physical strength, her discipline and her trust and her resilience. Between the reader and Sarah was a voice, a very hardworking one, with its own unmistakable mission.

I understood the compulsion. I’m a parent, too. I’m also a son of a proud, ever-cheering mother. I knew this voice was driven by love, devotion, and belief. But something else was in overactive operation: worry. Worry that others wouldn’t be able to see and understand how exceptional Sarah is, and how hard she had worked. A worry that blurred understanding of the purpose of the essay. Add to this the concern, even frustration, that the essay would be the only place to get the message across, and somehow the extraordinary Sarah had to be conveyed in 650 words or fewer.

And, by the way, the clock was ticking. Sarah was applying Early Decision. October had already begun, and Sarah had very little time available around the demands of her academics and her extracurricular pursuits.

All of this explains why there were two versions of Sarah’s experience on the table between us. Sarah’s version was cursory, but it held promise. Her father’s version was vigorous, and it posed danger. In fact, it had already done damage to a project that is meant to be personally meaningful.

Sarah’s cheeks had reddened a little as I had shared selections from her father’s efforts. I didn’t need to state the obvious: that the story she had available to tell had been hijacked, and as a result her confidence in her own abilities to tell her story had been undermined. Her ownership of the project needed to be re-established, or perhaps established securely for the first time. So, our session would not be about revision as much as about repair. Together, Sarah and I needed to repair her relationship with the opportunity before her.

“We need to talk about the truth,” I said, “because that’s where your better essay is hiding, in the true details of your experience. It’s certainly not here in your father’s effort, but it’s also not yet here in your original draft. It’s in the conversation we’re going to have. Are you ready?”

Sarah’s mother, who had been nodding as she listened, remained quiet as we then embarked on the kind of open, exploratory, back-and-forth that is central to our process at Hillside. We coaches are writers ourselves, which means we are hungry for detail; we depend on and delight in the discovery of possibly significant specifics. I pressed Sarah gently but insistently to tell me in detail, and then in greater detail, what she meant and how it felt. In order to help her most effectively, I needed to enter moments she knew — moments that only she knew — in order for us, together, to recognize the potential of and in them. On the whiteboard I wrote words she spoke beside drawings with which I tried to externalize what she was seeing in her mind’s eye. We talked until a particular experience she knew intimately had grown up around us, in imagined form, in the air of the office. And then, capable of being more observant of her own experience, she was able to reach for reflective words that were purely hers. We had discovered — that is, we had taken the cover off — her experience and were now able to peer in and, with a deeper curiosity, feel around for what felt honestly meaningful.

Sarah’s father’s essay was written, unavoidably, from the outside. Sarah had been asked to tell, to narrate, her inside story. The root of narrate means “to know.” The one who narrates is the one who knows.

I am sharing Sarah’s essay-writing experience because it returned to mind after I learned of the disturbing, fraudulent behavior revealed in reports about “the college-admissions scandal,” as we’ve come to refer to the conspiracy. Such bold and extensive deception, involving the complicity of a network of agents, is very different from the picture of a parent with pen hovering over his child’s writing. But one of the effects on me of the breaking news was my desire to protect the project of the college-application essay, a desire fueling me there at the table with Sarah and her mother. In the fervor of media reports about fakery, I felt a need to underscore the essential role of the truth in the project. I recognized in myself a concern that the array of lies repeatedly detailed in the news was going to taint what is, in fact, an experience that can do a lot of good.

And then, just a few days after the news broke about the scandal, I received some help in my inbox. I clicked open an email from a parent of a student who worked with Hillside coach Cara Feinberg last summer. The mother, looking back on her son’s efforts, wrote:

The time spent with Cara taught him many skills, and her insights and feedback were invaluable. Though she gently guided him, she left the ideas and the writing to him, and he was incredibly proud of his finished product. Honestly, I could shed a tear when I think of him jumping in the passenger seat last summer with a huge smile saying to me, “I think this is REALLY, REALLY good.” He was proud of his work.

So, thank you both so much. We really feel that his essay was a huge part of his success, and it has given him so much confidence for his future.

Lastly, I’d like to thank you, in light of recent, disgusting events, for your authenticity and your work ethic. Not once did I feel that he was not the driver of his story, and Cara, while offering guidance and insight, left him to develop a story that he took great pride in.

One of our ways to describe what we do at Hillside is to take care of the writing by taking care of the writer. The college-application essay is not a challenge to hit the bullseye of a target. It is, rather, an opportunity to engage in a process, one that begins with rejecting the notion of a target and investing in the patient collection of specific truths, however small, and any feelings attached to them. The seed of every memorably distinctive, full-grown essay is a writer’s feeling about a particular detail. So, we begin small, in discovery, and in lively conversation, from which grows the positive emotional relationship to the project that is crucial for progress. Gradually, with the right attention and trust, the path clears for the development of a student’s pride about his or her or their story, being the one who knows.

"To Learn to See Is a Blessing"

Photo by Mark Solarski

Photo by Mark Solarski

A few years ago, when a student in the audience at a talk I gave about writing the college-application essay asked me what I would say if I could give only one piece of advice, I responded: “Start paying attention to what you pay attention to. Make a list.” I recalled this exchange, and I considered again the significance of what informs our approach with students at Hillside — our focus on teaching them to trust the value of their interactions with their concrete worlds — when I read the following excerpt from an essay by the late poet Linda Gregg. We’re grateful for her description of her students’ various efforts to see, so relevant to our foundational work with students at Hillside.

I am astonished in my teaching to find how many poets are nearly blind to the physical world. They have ideas, memories, and feelings, but when they write their poems they often see them as similes. To break this habit, I have my students keep a journal in which they must write, very briefly, six things they have seen each day—not beautiful or remarkable things, just things. This seemingly simple task usually is hard for them. At the beginning, they typically “see” things in one of three ways: artistically, deliberately, or not at all. Those who see artistically instantly decorate their descriptions, turning them into something poetic: the winter trees immediately become “old men with snow on their shoulders," or the lake looks like a “giant eye.” The ones who see deliberately go on and on describing a brass lamp by the bed with painful exactness. And the ones who see only what is forced on their attention: the grandmother in a bikini riding on a skateboard, or a bloody car wreck. But with practice, they begin to see carelessly and learn a kind of active passivity until after a month nearly all of them have learned to be available to seeing—and the physical world pours in. Their journals fill up with lovely things like, “the mirror with nothing reflected in it.” This way of seeing is important, even vital to the poet, since it is crucial that a poet see when she or he is not looking—just as she must write when she is not writing. To write just because the poet wants to write is natural, but to learn to see is a blessing

—Linda Gregg, from The Art of Finding

Give Yourself Away

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by VALERIE DUFF

As a young writer, I often felt I needed to write about something beyond myself — something accessible only to writers older, more intelligent, more talented than I was. This pressure I put on myself often resulted in stagnant, dreadful writing, full of clichés and in a voice that sounded wooden. Then, in my early twenties, I attended a writing workshop with a Cambridge poet who gave the class a sheaf of poems and essays on poetry. The handbook she’d compiled for us began with a quotation (author unknown):

“Yesterday, I told my girls, I told them, if somebody interesting talks to you, you say a few things, too. You might as well breathe at the same time and let the words out in the air. Don’t ask questions, I told them. Give things away. Give yourself away.”

It was astonishingly simple advice, both fearless and easy.

This became the invaluable mantra I repeated when I sat down to do my own writing. It’s a mantra that works no matter what writing project is in front of you.

It’s easy to forget that once upon a time our stories were spoken, and that writing carries with it an authentic voice. Our work as writers is not to come up with a story unlike any that has come before — a constraint no one needs to submit to. Instead, our work is to invest experiences that may be familiar to others with details and observations that are distinctly ours. It’s the piecing together of specifics by a perceptive individual, always reacting to people, places, predicaments — the sound of a voice, the feel of a particular location, the awareness of a misstep. This is what makes a fully realized personal essay so much more compelling than writing that shows off its education or tries to be something it’s not.

Every writer gets to say a few things, too. In the best writing, the self-conscious self falls away. You always have permission to sound like yourself.

Still, when I work with students and I say something is confusing, or I ask them for particulars, I hear them say, “I thought I was supposed to sound a certain way” (read: dry, abstract), or “I wanted to focus on ideas.” I hear that fundamental misunderstanding about this endeavor that I once carried. This is when I repeat the mantra. You can see the relief on their faces; revising suddenly turns from work into play. In a few minutes of simple, actual conversation, we unearth the specifics, which we catch and write down. What I see in the revision is real change — suddenly there is a voice, a tactile thing, a motive, or a music that I can inhabit as I read. We all have experiences, and we’re all moving toward that alliance with another. Did you see what I saw? Yes! Or: No — describe it for me? Oh, yes, and that reminds me of… Writing becomes a win-win enterprise; it becomes a completed transaction. When you give yourself away on the page, your reader experiences each moment with you.

Another quote from that poet’s handbook along the same lines: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” Robert Frost. You can’t fake it. What you have available to express continues to grow as you explore it, and voice it. And when you’re ready, you can offer it to readers, who, encountering the specific details of your experience, will suddenly feel they know you as well as they know themselves.

Picking the Locks

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by CARA FEINBERG

The fall of my senior year of high school, I spent a very long time not writing my Big College Essay. It was a project I was already supposed to know how to do — two pages with just one job: to capture, in entirety, who I was. Oh, and it should hint at a keen intellect. And a social conscience. And a couple acts of heroism.

Two weeks before the deadline, after a weekend of jittery panic spent in my family’s computer room, I brought my essay to a trusted teacher. He read it while I sat on the other side of his desk, and when he finished, he folded the paper over and handed it back to me, shaking his head. “This is terrible,” he said. “Now let’s fix it.”

As clearly as I remember the agony of those months before that meeting, I also remember the relief that swept in afterward. The turning point came not with the word fix, but with the word Let’s. Suddenly, there was a “We,” another person in this with me who thought I had something important to say, and who, without any of the anxiety I brought to the project, seemed to know that somewhere in me, somewhere not yet on the page, there was a better story. A truer story.

These days, when I am not at Hillside, I make my living as a professional writer and documentary producer. I can’t say I’ve completely avoided the Blank-Screen Torture Chamber, but I have learned how to pick the locks to escape. I often begin by asking myself questions my high school teacher asked me in the “Let’s fix it” stage:

Am I, as the author, interested in what I’ve written? (“If you don’t want to write this,” my teacher had said, “why should I want to read it?”).

What makes this story mine? (“Tell me a detail I cannot already imagine,” he said.)

Why have I chosen to tell this particular story? (“Tell me how you feel now compared to how you felt before this happened.”)

I credit my teacher not only for rescuing me in my confrontation with my college essay, but also for giving me tools that I now use both as a journalist and in my work at Hillside. As an interviewer and a writing coach, I try to do for others what my teacher did for me: to make people comfortable in speaking openly with me; to listen in a way that helps them recognize the best details of their stories; and to discover with them how their stories became theirs. As a journalist, I have to weave together the story threads on my own, but as a coach, I get to be part of the “We,” the member of the team who asks the questions to uncover the details that inspire the writing. It’s rewarding work, as a writer, a reader, and a human. I value it in part because I remember how it felt to be in the Torture Chamber, but mostly because I remember the relief of hearing the word Let’s — how it felt to begin again, with a coach on the sidelines, and to see a story emerge, draft after draft, that wasn’t My Big College Essay but my essay.

The Illuminating Incident in the College Essay

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by KATE LEARY

In her book The Writing of Fiction, published in 1925, Edith Wharton coined a phrase that’s useful to the college-application essay writer as well as to the novelist.

At every stage in the progress of his tale the novelist must rely on what may be called the illuminating incident to reveal and emphasize the inner meaning of each situation. Illuminating incidents are the magic casements of fiction, its vistas on infinity.

When I read Wharton’s pronouncement, I felt its rightness. I’m at work on a novel, and I knew the concept of illuminating incidents could help me pull back and evaluate each scene I’ve written. Yet Wharton’s high expectations intimidated me. If I sat down to draft with her words at the forefront of my mind, fixated on “inner meaning,” I would freeze. I thought about my Hillside clients, who are tasked with writing 650-word essays that convey their authentic selves. They’re searching for inner meaning, too. The assignment can feel unbearably intimidating.

Wharton emphasizes the importance of choice — “the disengaging of crucial moments from the welter of existence.” And this is precisely how the Hillside process begins, in conversation exploring moments that clients have already identified and begun to open in our preliminary exercise, Ten Sentences. Clients needn’t come to the first session knowing why they chose those moments. Lively conversation brings context to the moments and often uncovers new ones; gradually, coach and client discover together which experiences hold meaning, and which seem to speak to each other. Both client and coach feel when they’ve struck a rich vein — a crucial moment. When I started coaching, I worried that it would be hard to tell when the student and I had arrived at one, but a palpable energy tends to enter the conversation, sometimes so obvious that we both laugh.

I’ve had a lot of practice at writing, and yet I can still struggle to get started, just like many college applicants. Sometimes when I want to try something new, my ideas and ambitions feel so big that it’s a challenge even to write a first sentence. Wharton offers practical advice for this problem:

The only remedy is absolutely to abandon the larger for the smaller field, to narrow one’s vision to one’s pencil, and do the small thing closely and deeply rather than the big thing loosely and superficially.

Here, again, is the essence of (and the instruction in) the Ten Sentences exercise. For the Hillside client, doing the small thing closely and deeply at the start of the process leads naturally to doing it at the start of the essay — drafting that crucial moment with attentiveness to detail. I prompt clients to describe how the scene looked through their eyes, what physical sensations they had, what sounds they heard, what feelings arose in the moment. This is Wharton’s remedy, and college admissions officers consistently give advice that sounds remarkably similar. One Tufts admissions officer writes: “As I see it, you have two options when exploring a topic in your college essay: go broad or go deep.” Her strong preference? Go deep. “By focusing on details, you set yourself apart.”

The conversation doesn’t end when drafting begins. It grows only more interesting as the student and I examine and question the details together, building connections. Eventually, the crucial moment becomes an illuminating incident, revealing something the student considers significant about her authentic self. I won’t pretend to understand everything about how this happens. Wharton’s description of illuminating incidents as “magic casements” feels appropriately evocative and mysterious. I’m regularly surprised by what clients discover about themselves in the act of writing and revising. I remember these discoveries because I vividly recall the scenes my clients have worked to recreate on the page. I remember the feeling their scenes gave me — of peering in a window to some previously unseen (sometimes previously unrecognized) part of the person. In Wharton’s words, “these scenes shed a circle of light far beyond the incident recorded.” Inspired by my clients’ work, I aim for the same in my novel writing.

Hear Ye!

I probably spend about as much time reading my words aloud as I do typing them into my computer. We may think we read books only with our eyes, but the mental circuitry of language connects to our ears. The ancient Sufi poets sometimes spoke of sifting the sands of a beach with one’s eyelashes to remove the pebbles of imperfection. That’s what reading aloud lets a writer do. It takes a lot of work and you can never remove all the pebbles, but it’s still the best way of gauging writing-in-progress that I know.

Mohsin Hamid

Reminds us of Matt Bell ("[T]here was never a day when I worked on the book in silence").

And of Frost, who remarked that "the ear is the only true writer and the only true reader." 

And, while we're at it, of Flaubert, who "once complained that his throat hurt — from too much writing." 

"He Taught Me How Sentences Worked"

Q: Did any writer influence you more than others?

JOAN DIDION: I always say Hemingway, because he taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time. A few years ago when I was teaching a course at Berkeley I reread A Farewell to Arms and fell right back into those sentences. I mean they're perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.

—from The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction, No. 71

The Apprentice Years

If imitation plays a central role in the performing arts, where incessant practice, repetition, and rehearsal are essential, it is equally important in painting or composing or writing, for example. All young artists seek models in their apprentice years, models whose style, technical mastery, and innovations can teach them. Young painters may haunt the galleries of the Met or the Louvre; young composers may go to concerts or study scores. All art, in this sense, starts out as “derivative,” highly influenced by, if not a direct imitation or paraphrase of, the admired and emulated models.

—Oliver Sacks, from "The Creative Self" 

William Maxwell would agree. And so would William Zinsser.

The Essayist's Real Challenge

by ALLAN REEDER

In supporting college applicants' thinking, imagining, and writing, we at Hillside are often demonstrating why concern about what an essay is "about" must not precede close interest in and examination of the raw material — close looking at the specific details of experience. Don't rush to meaning! A fresher, truer "aboutness" almost invariably results from patient recollection (indeed, re-collection) and consideration. 

And so when To Write a Great Essay, Think and Care Deeply, from The Atlantic's By Heart series, came to our attention, we applauded. In appreciation for the lessons he finds in J.R. Ackerly's My Dog Tulip, nonfiction writer Lucas Mann describes Ackerly as "leaning closer, looking so carefully" and notes that "it’s the closeness in his gaze, his dedication to looking, that transforms the subject." Mann reflects how we tend to "prioritize a weighty topic over the force of an author’s gaze, the clarity of her prose, the sincerity of her emotion." He goes on: "[I]t’s important for me to remind myself sometimes that, at its heart, that’s all a great essay is: a virtuoso performance of care." 

Frequently we talk at Hillside about how the interesting writer is the interested writer — how just isolating and describing the specifics of experience with careful attention (attention that is full of care) is not only an essential step in realizing an authentic meaning but an engaging act in itself. As Mann writes, "[S]pending one’s time fretting about aboutness is a deflection from the essayist’s real challenge: to think and feel as deeply and specifically as possible about whatever it is you’re looking at." 

Sound Sense

In pointing us to a "new sentence" from Annie Proulx, Sam Anderson at The New York Times Magazine writes:

Proulx is particularly good with how her sentences sound. She understands that words are not antiseptic little meaning-cubes to be stacked neatly into sturdy towers of logic. They are wild; they make noise. They force the humans reading them to slurp and click and hoot and pop and tap their tongues. Such sounds, combined carefully, can carry their own meaning.

Give Sam's piece a read, and then perhaps click on over to this 2013 Sentence x Sentence entry about the sounds playing meaningfully in another brief arrangement ... 

An Irresistible Quality in a College Applicant

... The problem is that in a deluge of promising candidates, many remarkable students become indistinguishable from one another, at least on paper. It is incredibly difficult to choose whom to admit. Yet in the chaos of SAT scores, extracurriculars and recommendations, one quality is always irresistible in a candidate: kindness.

Read "Check This Box if You're a Good Person," from The New York Times, written by Rebecca Sabky, a former admissions director at Dartmouth College.

The True Writing

I think that authors are devoted, diligent scribes, who draw in black and white, following a more or less rigorous order of their own, but that the true writing, what counts, is the work of readers.

Elana Ferrante, from "What an Ugly Child She is" 

New Questions at Yale

Yale’s new application questions come at the tail end of a heated, year-long debate on campuses across the country about class and race. The fact that one of the questions focuses on applicants’ sense of “community” reflects the Ivy League school’s renewed interest in boosting diversity and inclusion.

The new questions also reveal more about Yale’s admissions priorities than ever before....

Read the full article: Yale’s new application questions give away the key things elite colleges want to see from students

News for University of California Applicants ...

After receiving a record-high 206,000 freshman and transfer applications this year, UC felt the prior two-question system “wasn’t providing the kind of insights we want,” said Stephen Handel, UC’s associate vice president for undergraduate admissions. “We just didn’t have enough information to make some very difficult decisions.”

In addition, he said, too many essays had become “fairly formulaic and generalized” and canned responses were available to copy from older friends or from online postings and websites....

“Essays are important,” he said. “We wouldn’t have gone through this much work without feeling that this is information we really need and really want. As important as GPA and test scores are, we want to know about the students and their lives, their challenges and their accomplishments.”

Read the whole story here.

Trying to Figure Out How They Did It

We all need models, whatever art or craft we're trying to learn. Bach needed a model; Picasso needed a model; they didn't spring full-blown as Bach and Picasso. This is especially true of writers. Writing is learned by imitation. I learned to write mainly by reading writers who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and by trying to figure out how they did it. S.J. Perelman told me that when he was starting out he could have been arrested for imitating Ring Lardner. Woody Allen could have been arrested for imitating S.J. Perelman....

Students often feel guilty about modeling their writing on someone else's writing. They think it's unethical — which is commendable. Or they're afraid they'll lose their own identity. The point, however, is that we eventually move beyond our models; we take what we need and then we shed those skins and become who we are supposed to become. But nobody will write well unless he gets into his ear and into his metabolism a sense of how the language works and what it can be made to do.

—William Zinsser, from Writing to Learn

A Sentence as Clean as a Bone

Q: What are your first drafts like?

JAMES BALDWIN: They are overwritten. Most of the rewrite, then, is cleaning. Don’t describe it, show it. That’s what I try to teach all young writers — take it out! Don’t describe a purple sunset, make me see that it is purple.

Q: As your experience about writing accrues, what would you say increases with knowledge?

BALDWIN: You learn how little you know. It becomes much more difficult because the hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. It becomes more difficult because you have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.

from The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 78

First, See

Don’t think about how your characters sound, but how they see. Watch the world through their eyes — study the extraordinary and the mundane through their particular perspective. Walk around the block with them, stroll the rooms they live in, figure out what objects on the cluttered dining room table they would inevitably stare at the longest, and then learn why.

—Dinaw Mengestu, from Tin House