I thought it might be helpful to type up an explanation of why I write my blog, the source of my intentions, and what I think about the dreaded college application essay. You might find it boring, but I wanted to get it out and all in one place. Here’s what I have so far:
The Essay Hell Manifesto
I believe college application essays can be fundamentally unfair. Most students have not been taught how to write personal statements, or other types of narrative-style essays. Some can afford outside help; most cannot.
At the same time, these essays have become one of the most important pieces of the college application process in deciding who gets into which schools, especially the most competitive ones. Some colleges also use them to help decide who deserves scholarship money.
When I started my Essay Hell blog in 2008, my goal was to share advice, tips and inspiration with students who didn’t have other writing support in an attempt to even the playing field. In the last year or so, I also wrote three guide books filled with the same type of information.
I believe writing is something that can be taught and learned. It mainly takes desire, determination and lots of practice—and sound guidance.
I know most students dread these essays. And I don’t blame them, especially given the pressure that is placed on the entire college admissions process. But I also believe that these essays are a terrific writing exercise, and can be used to hone communication and personal expression skills.
They also are a national rite of passage for students finishing their high school years, and provide a unique opportunity for them to pause and reflect on themselves and who they have become—and where they want to go.
Why I Am Passionate About Narrative Writing
My background is journalism, and I wrote for top daily newspapers during the late ’80s and early ’90s, a time when there was a major shift in how news was presented. It was called The New Journalism. Starting in the ’70s, writers (such as Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, etc.) had started reporting the news and current events using literary writing techniques. When they wrote about real-life incidents and told them as though they were fiction (like stories), readers loved them.
What good is important information if no one wants to read about it? Stories solved that problem. New Journalism newspaper reporters, magazine writers, personal essayists, biographers, narrative non-fiction authors, memoirists and other writers all employ narrative writing techniques, such as anecdotes (mini-real life stories about moments in time), dialogue, scene setting, different “voices” and characters, descriptive language, sensory details, etc., to engage, inform and educate their readers.
I realized that students writing their college application essays could do the same by using these creative writing techniques. It seemed obvious: When asked to write about themselves (personal statement prompts), students could share their real-life stories to reveal who they were, how they thought and learned, and what they cared about. Narrative writing worked perfectly—especially to engage bleary eyed college admissions folks.
After I started working with students on these essays, I was shocked to learn that many essay “experts”—from English teachers to college admissions counselors to “helpful” parents—had other ideas, and promoted essays that were formal, pedantic and meant to impress. And ever since, I’ve been on a crusade to spread the word that narrative style, “slice-of-life” essays work the best for personal statement essays.
I still believe college application essays are fundamentally unfair. But as long as students are required to write them, I believe they should use them as a chance to develop a powerful writing skill set—and learn to tell their stories. These are handy skills they will bring to college and the workplace. And it doesn’t hurt that writing standout essays help them land in their top-choice college!