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.

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." 

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.

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.

Consider the Prompts Less Traveled?

The Common Application recently announced that there will be no changes to the essay prompts for the 2016-2017 college-application cycle. They also provided information about which prompts have been the most and the least popular among the more than 800,000 applicants who have written Common App essays in the past year. 

Naturally, each student should select the prompt to which he or she can respond most compellingly and authentically, but the popularity of prompts is worth keeping in mind. Here's the reported breakdown: 

Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe
their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Nearly half of all application-essay writers selected this prompt for response, which is not surprising given how widely applicable the wording is ("background, identity, interest, or talent").  

Prompt #2: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Seventeen percent of applicants wrote about a failure. 

Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Only 4 percent responded to this prompt. (One admissions officer has reportedly remarked: "When I see that a student has responded to the prompt about challenging a belief or idea, I get excited. Those are consistently the most interesting essays.")

Prompt #4: Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale.
Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

This prompt was new last year, replacing one that, in the view of most Common App members, did not inspire compellingly reflective essays ("Describe a place of environment where you feel perfectly content...."). Only ten percent of applicants in the past year decided to write about a problem. 

Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition
from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

One of every five applicants addressed this prompt. 

The 2015-16 Common App Essay Prompts

The Common Application prompts for the 2015-16 college-application season have been released (but remember what the main question is):

1.  Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2.  The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3.  Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

4.  Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5.  Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

 

Don't Worry. There Will Be an Essay Prompt for You ...

This just in from the Common Application

While we are not ready to release the final prompts just yet, we can say this: the essay instructions will not be changing. And within those instructions is this question and advice for students: "What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response."

Regardless of the final prompts, that leading question should be at the heart of any essay a student writes. To those of you eager to begin, we invite you to spend some time considering what you want to tell colleges about yourself — which is quite different than predicting what colleges want to hear. Whatever you decide, there will be an essay prompt to guide and support your story.

Applicants: Be Interested — and Interesting!

From The Atlantic

“We could fill our class twice over with valedictorians,” Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust told an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival, sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, on Monday. That means admissions officers rely on intangibles like interesting essays or particularly unusual recommendations to decide who comprises the 5.9 percent of applicants who get in. 

Faust's top tip for raising a Harvard man or woman: “Make your children interesting!”

For parents and students alike, that’s both good news and bad news. The bad news is that of course it’s much easier to say that than to actually make it happen, though Faust recommended encouraging children to follow their passions as a way to develop an interesting personality. It’s much easier to complete a checklist, however daunting, than to actually be interesting.

But the good news is that when colleges use this set of criteria, kids can focus on shaping their teenage years in a way that isn’t just about trying to build up resume line after resume line, and instead focus on a more holistic sense of self. That seems like a far more sensible way to move through high school than spreading oneself too thin trying to get a slew of positions one can’t really ever concentrate on. That encourages a dilettantish approach to learning and society that is just the opposite of what the liberal arts have traditionally tried to encourage.

The Cinematographer and the College Applicant

He's talking about cinematography, but such guidance is often part of the conversations I have with college-bound students who are seeking a topic and a way forward for an application essay: 

People don’t understand the elegance of simplicity. If you take a sophisticated idea, reduce it to the simplest possible terms so that it’s accessible to everybody, and don’t get simple mixed up with simplistic, it’s how you mount and present something that makes it engaging.

— Gordon Willis, cinematographer (May 28, 1931 – May 18, 2014)

The Comedian and the College Applicant | Part One

I didn't expect to see so many parallels between the way a comedian works on a joke and the process I've developed to coach high school students in the writing of effective and memorable college-application essays.

Read More

On Returning Home

It is a pleasure to move Sentence x Sentence into its new home here within Hillside Writing. Although Hillside has just launched, the vision of it has been around for several years. And so pulling up the Sentence x Sentence posts and moving them from their original ground on Tumblr can feel more like a homecoming than a replanting. 

And this has me recalling some of the most useful and sustaining words I know about returning home and the practice of writing. In the preface to his collected stories, All the Days and Nights, William Maxwell writes: 

... I had no idea that three-quarters of the material I would need for the rest of my writing life was already at my disposal. My father and mother. My brothers. The cast of larger-than-life-size characters — affectionate aunts, friends of the family, neighbors white and black — that I was presented with when I came into the world. The look of things. The weather. Men and women long at rest in the cemetery but vividly remembered. The Natural History of home: the suede glove on the front-hall table, the unfinished game of solitaire, the oriole's nest suspended from the tip of the outermost branch of the elm tree, dandelions in the grass. All there, waiting for me to learn my trade and recognize instinctively what would make a story or sustain the complicated cross-weaving of longer fiction. 

Good guidance for a writer of any age, whatever the genre or project. That there is an enduring imaginative promise in details from home — details that are always "waiting" there — is particularly instructive and encouraging for young writers, I've found. Willa Cather put it more succinctly: “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” As a teacher and a writing coach, I find the practice of helping another to discover and sort through what's concretely there and compelling in the memory of home to be an especially satisfying pursuit.