PART TWO: Listening to the Words
If seeing came first, hearing comes next. Just as a stand-up, onstage, is alert to signs of comic potential, listening very carefully to his individual sentences — to the structure and style of delivery — and to the relationship between these sentences and the audience’s reactions, I listen with students to their original ten sentences. In our first meeting, we read them aloud. There are always favorites, for each of us, and particular ones do indeed make me sit forward, which is to say that they both satisfy my desire to be interested (the same basic, enduring desire that admissions officers hold) and also leave me curious. My questions collect, and our conversation begins, focused and efficient.
Passing through the narrow but inviting doorway to experience that a student’s sentence is, I model the inquisitive energy that any essay-writer must summon and employ, a display of curiosity that has the additional effect of making a young person begin to feel interesting. (The worrisome question What could I possibly say of interest to a college-admissions officer? is already undergoing revision toward a statement of confidence: I have something interesting to say.) At the same time, with the very manageable single sentence between us (instead of a variously problematic essay draft), I am able to teach effectively about writing — about the abstract versus the concrete detail, about precision and clarity and rhythm, not to mention grammar — from the ground up. The college-application essay is, after all, about writing. Every essay begins and ends, for the writer and for the reader, with the shape and substance of individual sentences.
Every joke depends on sentence design. Just as a stand-up onstage is alert to the structure and style of delivery, I listen with students to their original ten sentences.
And every joke depends on sentence design as well. In his article, Zinoman makes clear the degree of offstage attention Kaplan pays to his wordings. He records almost every one of his performances so that he can later study his lines, and this recursive process, this conversation with himself, is a generative one: from focused attention on a single joke, on what it is and how it works (or could work better), come more jokes. “The chivalry joke started as an observation about an outmoded convention,” Zinoman writes, “but evolved into something far more bizarre.” Ideas collected and cohered. “[T]he bit expanded. Setups shrank. Punch lines multiplied.”
A student’s progress from a promising starter sentence to an essay draft depends on a similarly recursive process, a similar conversational practice, one that I, as a coach, help to make more efficient and effective — and (dare I say it?) enjoyable. I pose the focused questions that students’ initial wordings prompt in me and I listen. More often than not, the direction students seek and need comes right out of their own mouths, in a piece of language that has an attractive, authentic, curious quality. The work then is to put a little inquisitive pressure on the uttered words in order to see — literally — the story behind them. Zinoman writes that with a joke, “every word matters.” The same is true of my conversations with students. And given the length limits that writers of application essays must abide by — 650 words for the Common App essay — every word on the page must matter.
“By early January,” Zinoman reports, “Mr. Kaplan’s rhythm became more assured and moseying, lingering on pauses, finding extra laughs between punch lines.” It’s a pleasure when, after enough honest conversation and revision, clients of mine display this kind of confidence. It’s a sign of the sense of ownership they feel over their material. (The material has always been theirs, but finding it, shaping it, and coming to accept it proudly as theirs is a process.) My guiding role diminishes. They sit forward over the keyboard or notebook, reading aloud and hearing their revised sentences, noting how ending one here and starting a new paragraph there might improve the effect and more compellingly and truthfully depict their experience and what it means to them.
Eventually for Kaplan, Zinoman tells us, “[i]t didn’t matter where he performed (clubs, restaurants, even a hostel), chivalry always worked.” Alas, college applicants must wait a lot longer to find out whether all of their efforts “worked.” Given the many components of the application and the competitiveness in the admissions adventure, students rarely get to know to what degree their essay worked. But to arrive at a final draft with solid belief in how authentically and interestingly it depicts oneself is to have achieved unusual success.
Allan is Hillside’s founder and a coach.