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Tips for Getting Your Common Application Essay down on Paper

For the past three years, I have served as a mentor in the Big Brothers Big Sisters Mentor 2.0 Program at South Valley Academy in Albuquerque.   The young woman I mentor is now a senior preparing her college applications, and these are the tips I offered to her and her classmates:

Tips for Getting Your Common Application Essay down on Paper

The 2016-2017 Common Application Essay Prompts:

  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. (According to the Common Application Essay Prompts, roughly half of the applicants so far—more than 800,000—have responded to this prompt. Keep reading.  College admissions officers are bound to be sick of reading essays on this topic.)
  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? (Note that this prompt asks for narrative and reflection—an incident in your life and what you learned from it.)
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again? (This prompt also invites you to tell a story from your life and explain what you learned.)
  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. (Twenty-two percent of applicants responded to this prompt.)

Begin by Brainstorming

  • I recommend that you write in response to  #2 or #3, which invite you to write a narrative (story) and then reflect on the story’s meaning. Most narratives are written in chronological order.  It’s easier to structure a narrative than an expository essay, and readers enjoy a good story.
  • We’ve all failed many times, and we all appreciate hearing about the failures of others, so for the purposes of this exercise, let’s brainstorm on the subject of personal failures. Make a list, or, better yet, create a cluster like so: clustering
  • Come up with at least five instances of failure. Focus on your recent failures because these are the ones that will be of most interest to the college admissions officer whose job it is to read your essay.  Additionally, the specifics of the story will be fresher in your memory.
  • It may help to share ideas with your mentor—and for your mentor to share a story or two with you.
  • Next, take a few minutes to make some notes. How did the situation start? When did it end?  Who else was involved? What did you learn?  Would you do things differently now or not?  If not, why not?  Write it all down.  Don’t begin writing the essay until you’ve taken a good set of notes.
  • If you can do so, ask others who were involved—Mom or Dad, say—to share their thoughts about the situation. Or, try talking through the situation with a friend or your mentor.  Use others as a sounding board to get insight into your story.
  • Now, you are ready to write your essay. Don’t worry about length or correctness in the first draft.
  • Find a half hour and a quiet spot; sit down with your cell phone and activate the timer for 25 minutes. Put your phone away and write your heart out until you hear the buzzer.  Don’t reread; don’t hesitate or cross out; don’t get out of the chair.  You can do it.  Spend the five remaining minutes patting yourself on the back.

Tips for Editing a Draft of Your College Application Essay

If possible, complete your editing and proofreading in several short blocks of time.

  • Give your draft a little breathing room. If at all possible, let it rest for at least a day.
  • Print out a copy and read it out loud, to yourself.   Read slowly. Stop every sentence or two to take notes. Write in the margins.
  • What do you write in the margins? Whatever you left out: details, description, dialogue.  Have you told the whole story?  Are you sure?
  • Have you focused on the most important part of the story? Slow down and share the specifics.
  • Take another twenty-five minutes to revise your essay to include the margin notes and any other additions. Don’t worry about length.  Get the story on the page.  You can cut later.
  • Try to give your second draft a little more breathing room. Even an hour or two will help.
  • When you return to the essay, sit down and pretend you’re the intended reader, the bored college admissions officer. Read it from his or her point of view.   Have you left out information the college admissions officer needs to understand the situation?  Conversely, have you included information that isn’t really relevant or useful?

Tips for Proofreading a Draft of Your College Application Essay

Ask others to read through your essay, checking to make sure

  • each sentence is complete.
  • the punctuation is correct.
  • the dialogue (if there is any) is correctly punctuated.
  • no words are misspelled.
  • your sentences have variety.
  • your essay is broken up into reasonably unified paragraphs.
  • the length is acceptable.

FYI:  The required minimum length for a Common Application Essay is 250 words.  The maximum length is 650 words.

Additional Online Resources

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/978/04/

http://college.usatoday.com/2014/10/23/9-essay-writing-tips-to-wow-college-admissions-officers/

http://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/how-to-write-a-college-essay

 

 

Spring-Loaded Images

Friend and colleague Daniel Mueller coined this term, or at least, that’s where I heard it.

What’s a spring-loaded image, you ask? Well, it’s exactly as you might imagine: a spring-loaded image is a visual so compelling that it literally catapults a narrative, first into the mind of the author, and later, after the story is launched, into the imagination of a reader.

Spring-loaded objects are under pressure, coiled, ready to explode.

coil

Which is not to say that such images need convey urgency or velocity or danger.

Think, for instance, of the example Dan Mueller gives when he introduces the term to a class of students.  He talks about one such image, that of the wedding cake in the middle of the road.

Incongruity is one of the hallmarks of a spring-loaded image.  We don’t expect to see a wedding cake in the middle of the road, and if we do, a whole host of questions leap to mind: How did the cake end up in the road?  What became of the bride and groom?  Did the marriage occur?  Are they looking for the cake?

Dan’s professor, George Garrett, edited an anthology of stories, all of which were written in response to the image and titled, appropriately, Wedding Cake in the Middle of the Road: 23 Variations on a Theme.Wedding Cake in the Middle of the Road

Recently, I’ve been working on a screenplay entitled The Sunflower Fence.  The title references a visual image, but it’s not spring-loaded because it doesn’t have the element of incongruity.   But I am captivated by another image, this one of a little girl, perched on a small pile of bricks, stretching herself tall to see through a window.

Some version of this image has been with me for over thirty years.  When I was much younger, in graduate school, I think, I took a turn at writing a story entitled, “Outside the Window.”  Never finished it; never figured out what the little girl was doing outside the house, straining to see through the glass, looking at something–what?–going on inside.

The image has dwelt in my consciousness, incubated there, and at long last, I have discovered the story and am writing a screenplay to house it.  In this case, the incongruity is the girl’s location.

She is outside looking in, rather than inside looking out.  A quick Google image search will bear me out:  lots and lots of photos of girl children gazing out windows.  None at all of a little girl straining to see in.

(I did find one photo of two little girls standing outside a movie set peering in.  The site is here, and I’m posting the photo below.little girls looking in

 

Review of WASH

WashWash by Margaret Wrinkle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Margaret Wrinkle gave me a copy of her novel at this year’s (2014) Taos Summer Writers’ Conference.

Back in 2003, while she was writing an early draft of the novel that would become Wash, Margaret took at class at the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference. She got the inspiration and support she was looking for and even ended up moving to New Mexico!

I found the novel both challenging and emotionally affecting. The title character will stay with me. This book belongs on the shelf with Beloved, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and The Known World.

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Review of LONGBOURN

LongbournLongbourn by Jo Baker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I did love this book, particularly the first half of it. Longbourn begins beautifully, with a clear-eyed description of the life of servants in the Bennet household.

All of us know the Bennet sisters–Elizabeth, Jane, Mary, Kitty, and silly Lydia–and we know their parents, too. Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books, and the idea of experiencing the “upstairs” story from the vantage point of the servants “downstairs,” well, I thought it was a marvelous idea.

But, the author, Jo Baker, had something else in mind. Quite rightly, she wanted to create her own story, her own characters, and she does so brilliantly. Austen’s story serves as a place marker of sorts. We know vaguely what is happening upstairs because the servants downstairs are forced to make adjustments to accommodate the vagaries of their employers. Elizabeth’s petticoats must be scrubbed when she strides off to the Bingley’s to see after her sister, Jane. But, the intrigues of the haves are not the point here. Jo Baker’s story is focused entirely on the have-nots.

Did I miss Mr. Darcy? I must admit that I did. He is referenced several times, but only makes one brief cameo appearance near the end of the book. However, I did appreciate the depiction of Mr. Wickham, the one Austen character who gets a real role in the drama unfolding downstairs at Longbourn.

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