The Fear Factor

The brilliant American writer Cynthia Ozick once said, “If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage.” Fear and writing go hand in hand, and the writing process is largely about suppressing the fear (you can never make it go away altogether).

There are some fairly reliable ways to handle the fear that goes with writing, however, and I discuss them at length in my book, Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps. Briefly, however, here are some good tips for getting your writing fears under control:

  • Acknowledge your fear head-on, rather than trying to escape it by playing Candy Crush or whatever. Confronting your enemy is a powerful thing.
  • Focus not on failure, but on the work itself. Writing is really about an accumulation of words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, drafts. If we allow ourselves to go through the paces and concentrate on the process, we can put fear into the corner and make real progress.
  • Perfection is an unattainable goal when it comes to writing. It’s unattainable for the greatest writers, even if their work may seem perfect to us, because there will always be little things that a writer will see that he or she wishes had been changed. So let’s focus on finished pieces, rather than perfect pieces. That means that there comes a time when it’s okay to say that the work is finished–so long as the work is as good as you can make it.

Of course, when Cynthia Ozick was talking about writing as an act of courage, she wasn’t just talking about suppressing the fear of writing. She was also talking about the courage that is involved when we confront personal issues and try to give meaning to them through writing. That is a big part of why students often struggle with the Common App personal statement–because this is writing that has to do with your internal life and it takes courages to put your internal life out there for everyone to see (or read). That act can also be exhilarating, however. I see that with my students–the pride they take in achieving real expression around personal matters. That excites me as well and, most importantly, it excites the admissions committees at the colleges.

Exciting News!

I’m happy to share with you my good news. Soon I will not only be working with high school students and aspiring graduate students on their essays, but also with folks on the other end of the lifeline. I have just sold a new book to Tarcher Penguin entitled Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story. This book is, to a large extent, based on the work I’ve done with students–that is, it uses the same kind of exploratory process and the same kind of attention to the narrative form–but those doing the life review have a lot more life to review. The idea is to reflect on your values and beliefs, write a 650- to 1,000-word narrative to convey a value or belief in a highly readable way, and thereby create a keepsake for your loved ones or even a piece of writing that could be read at a person’s own memorial service. Tarcher Penguin, which specializes in mind, body, spirit titles like The Artist’s Way and Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is the perfect house for this, and they will be bringing it out in the summer of 2015.

This One is For Parents

To my way of thinking, if you work with students, you are also going to be working with parents. Fortunately, I have been very fortunate on both ends. Parents and I generally regard each other as allies. They respect the boundaries I set, which mostly have to do with respecting a student’s privacy around a piece of writing, and they often help keep the student on track. Not infrequently, a good essay idea can also spring from a parent, who might happen to mention something to me about a child that is very worthwhile and relevant. And then there are those times when parents will question our product because they feel that something is missing. They may feel that some aspect of their child has gone overlooked, and, at such times, I listen carefully and may even agree that the parent is right, which means we’ll go back to the drawing board. Of course, on occasion, I may have to deal with a parent who is a bit overwrought about the whole admissions process, but that’s understandable too. The admissions process is stressful, and I like to feel that I can alleviate some of that stress in such situations and help the parent keep everything in perspective.

So what can a parent do to help with the writing of the personal statement? Let me mention four good places to start:

  1. Help your child get organized. The essay requirements around college applications, which include not only the Common App essay but also supplementals, can be overwhelming. Parents should try not to get into conflicts with their kids around all of this, but, instead, should see themselves as facilitators who can keep their children on task.
  2. Provide creature comforts. Everything goes better with food, and that includes writing. Carrots and celery sticks, peanut butter on rice crackers–children need the foods from their childhood, because there is going to be a lot of regression. A blanket on a cold day, a fan on a hot day–that sort of thing.
  3. Offer positive reinforcement. If your son or daughter shows you a draft (which I hope they won’t do, but, rather, will wait till they’re finished), find something good to say about it.This is the time for positives, not negatives.
  4. Try not to offer advice about things you don’t know about. Please don’t tell your child that he or she can’t write about grandparents, pets, sports injuries, or any of the stuff that somebody might have told you is off limits. Nothing is off limits. There are no new stories. There are only new and interesting ways to tell them and that is your child’s task–-to find a new and interesting way to tell a story. My younger son wrote about running over his dog–and he got into Oberlin College, his first choice school.

Well, that’s probably enough for today. And good luck. Parenting is not an easy job, but somebody’s got to do it.

Writing About Money

Ron Lieber in today’s New York Times has a really good article about students writing about money for their Common App essays. He also includes four such essays, ranging in topics from one student writing about shopping in thrift stores with her mother and another about working at McDonald’s. I loved this piece because it confirms the advice I’ve given to some of my financially challenged students, with whom I work on a pro bono basis. I tell them that writing about working in McDonald’s (or Burger King or wherever) can be just as rich and memorable as an affluent student writing about a service trip to Haiti that his parents paid for him to go on.

I also think it’s interesting to look at what Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions, has to say about the college admissions essay. “It’s the one part of the application where they completely control the voice, and that makes it a really valuable document for us,” said Quinlan. “When you’re applying to an institution with thousands of students who have the same general academic and testing credentials, those things only get you in the door. The rest of the application will separate you out.”

This is exactly what I have always said about the college admissions essay. It really, really counts.

Click Here to check out the article.

It’s Getting Harder…

At least that’s what the NY Times is reporting. Reporter David Leonhardt, in his article “Getting Into the Ivies,” offers some sobering statistics. For American teenagers, it really is harder to get into Harvard — or Yale, Stanford, Brown, Boston College, and many other elite colleges — than it was when today’s 40-year-olds or 50-year-olds were applying, Leonhardt reports. “The number of spots filled by American students at Harvard, after adjusting for the size of the teenage population nationwide, has dropped 27 percent since 1994,” writes Leonhardt. “At Yale and Dartmouth, the decline has been 24 percent. At Carleton, it’s 22 percent. At Notre Dame and Princeton, it is 14 percent.” The culprit? The globalization of these schools, with U.S. students competing against international students who are seeking the same prestige as they are. You can read this interesting article at:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/27/upshot/getting-into-the-ivies.html?ref=education

Interesting, I should say, but perplexing. I feel like I’ve lived in an alternate universe this year. Out of the 50+ students that we have worked with, two got into Yale, two into Brown, one into Harvard, four into Stanford, two into Cornell, five into University of Pennsylvania, three into Princeton, and so on. They were all great kids, but I didn’t think any of them were the Second Coming. So, as I’m wondering about this, I’m thinking that the one thing they all had in common was a darned good Common App essay.

Hmmmh…

What’s in a Word?

The fact that the College Board is deemphasizing vocabulary on the SAT has been widely covered. See this report in the New York Times if you missed it:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/16/education/revised-sat-wont-include-obscure-vocabulary-words.html?ref=education

This makes me a little wistful on several accounts. For one thing, I remember how I, as a high school student, decades ago, had to study lists of obscure words, which today’s crop of students won’t have to be bothered with. Sure, I never used words like pusillanimous, penurious, virago, and uxurious very much (if at all), but I took a certain pride in knowing them. And there were many words I discovered and came to understand from that early learning experience that became part of me and that help make up my vocabulary today.

When I work with students, I try to get them to understand that vocabulary is an important part of writing and that words like meticulous, fastidious, and punctilious are not interchangeable but that they all have their own nuances and connotations. In fact, any one of these words  might be exactly what you’re looking for when you’re trying to express a specific thought or feeling in your writing. To read in the Times article that the College Board has come to the decision that the word vacated is “obscure” is, frankly, a bit depressing. I know, however, from my experience working with writers that they appreciate the precision that good writing demands and they come to value le mot juste, which means “the right word.” Gustav Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, one of the greatest novels ever written, believed in the principle of finding “le mot juste,” which he considered as the key means to achieve quality in literary art, and he could take an entire week to find that word. It’s gratifying to me to see the level of dedication that so many of my students bring to their essays and how much they come to value the power of words.

 

 

A New Year and New Challenges

Usually, around this time of year, my mind is on things other than college admissions essays. This–and a vacation to Mexico–explains the lag time between my last post and this one. (That and a healthy dose of good ol’ procrastination too). I haven’t even weighed in on the changes in the SAT, but my feeling is that the written word and good vocabulary will always count for something so let’s just move on. Anyway, traditionally, the first three or four months of the year is when I focus more on my college marketing work–right now, I’m writing the viewbook for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute–and less on my college essay coaching. So far, however, the start to 2014 has been quite atypical as there has not been much of a hiatus on the college essay front. This year, I have had a significant number or transfers and students applying to graduate school, which has meant, in several instances at least, working with people who are fully adult (let’s say over 30).

The graduate school essay (and, to a lesser degree, the transfer essay) is less about coming up with some marvelously original concept, as you need to do with the Common App personal statement, and more about giving your life and your academic career a really smart retrospective and packaging. This is not easy for anyone to do, and I find  that a bit of narrative flourish at the beginning can really make a difference for the writer and ultimately for the reader (i.e. the graduate school admissions counselor). So, for instance, I had an adult student, working as a banker, who wanted to go into a top-notch international business program. We worked together to review his accomplishments and one of the things he was most proud of was creating a kind of microloan program at his bank. We opened up his essay with a one-on-one exchange with the recipient of such a loan, and that bit of narrative, which felt immediate and fresh and very human and related, was an excellent idea. The rest of the essay, which naturally covered his past accomplishments and his future aspirations, all went much easier once he got that narrative hook down. The upshot? Harvard has invited him in.

I’m very pleased to be working more than usual with this population–but very pleased too that I got that beach time on the Caribbean!

What a Day!

It’s still not over and here are some of the acceptances that my students have received within the last 24 hours:

  • 2 to Princeton
  • Stanford
  • Cornell
  • Yale
  • Dartmouth
  • UPenn

Congratulations to them–and a round of applause for all of you students who have given it your best shot this season. Even if you were disappointed today, who knows what great news tomorrow might bring?

A Salute to the Students

Right now is real crunch time for a lot of my students. They are waiting to hear from their early decision choices and are trying to get more essays done in case those dreams don’t come true. (And, as we know, dreams often have a habit of not coming true, so a little prudence is definitely called for). As I have always found with my students, however, neither they nor their parents take out their anxieties on me. When I first began doing this work, years ago now, I was a little worried about that. Would I be dealing with very entitled students and parents who thought they were owed something they were not? I am pleased to report that I have never, in my hundreds of associations with students and parents, ever encountered anyone like that. I suppose the fact that these families know they are not acquiring “bought essays” is the reason. I make it clear from the start that I don’t write for students. I help students do their best writing. That means that we are involved in a highly collaborative process that results in mutual respect and often very warm feelings. It is an intimate process to hear about people’s private thoughts, dreams, concerns, disappointments, triumphs–the stuff of these essays–and I feel honored to be trusted with all that.

I also find myself often in awe of my students. Not only for their energy and commitment and stamina, but also, in many cases, for the breadth of what they’ve done. They have patents and businesses and research accomplishments; they create visual arts and fiction and poetry and music. They juggle sports and community service with staggering workloads that they perform at exceptionally high levels. And those who may not be so accomplished often strike me as genuinely interesting, thoughtful, complex, and worthy human beings.

So here’s to you, students, as you near the end of this grueling admissions process. May your dreams come true, but please know that there are so many great schools out there and I see kids all the time who are thriving and growing in schools you may not even have heard of. It’s a big world with a lot of surprises. Be open to that.

A Winning Review

The second edition of my book, Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps, has just been favorably reviewed on the website of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC):

http://www.nacacnet.org/research/PublicationsResources/BookReviews/Reviews/Admission/Pages/Conquering-the-College-Admissions-Essay-in-10-Steps.aspx

They cited the following:

Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps is a helpful tool for any high school senior who needs a little guidance in writing his or her personal statement.  The book breaks down each step in an easy to follow manner and only provides the essential information.  Gelb is relatable and gets to the point quickly.  By using the steps described in this book, students can achieve a winning personal statement.

Thank you, NACAC!

Lily’s College Essay

“I know you’re terrified of this act,” said Ann, my director, “but you have to let yourself become vulnerable. We’re all here to support you. Trust us. We love you.” 

We were just days away from performing Our Town. I was Emily, I needed a breakthrough, and this was Act Three.

 

At the end of this act, Emily, my character, dies but has the chance to relive a day with her family. She learns that the people around her did not really see what was important in life. Her idealized recollection of her life is shattered. She is deeply disappointed and saddened by her discovery. The only way to perform this last act is with great emotion. But, even though I knew this, I would not allow myself to go to a place where I could really feel Emily’s pain and loss. 

A few months before I left for this theater program, my sister, Beth, who was living in Chile, suffered a seizure. We learned that it was caused by a brain tumor that had been growing undetected for many years. Beth was flown home immediately for brain surgery.

 

 

The first time I saw my sister in seven months, she was in the hospital on a stretcher with IVs in her arm. The night before her operation, the doctor told us what could happen during brain surgery. Beth could become paralyzed, lose memory, and she could die. I have never been so sad and terrified in my entire life, and I was so angry that this had happened. As it turned out, Beth came through the surgery well and the tumor was benign, but the horror of the experience has stayed with me. 

Day after day, we rehearsed the last act and day after day I stayed dry-eyed and emotionless.

 

Talking to Ann, I came to realize why I couldn’t get to the feelings that this act required. The scene hit too close to home for me. Death had come so close and I did not want to relive those feelings. 

I stood there and said my lines. I tried as hard as I could to not just talk about death, but to allow myself to feel. I couldn’t. Ann stopped the rehearsal. She asked a staff member, Howie, to go on stage. “Hold Lily. Don’t let her fall,” Ann said, “but try to make her feel physically off balance.”

 

 

Howie held on to my shoulders and pulled me in all different directions. As this happened, I said my lines and suddenly started to cry my heart out.

 

This was my breakthrough. 

My sister’s illness threw me off balance and changed my life forever. When, once again, I was thrown off balance, Act Three changed forever. In that moment, during rehearsal, my defenses fell and I was able to reconnect to the sadness I had felt. I discovered that I could go there again safely and grow from this experience. From that moment on, each rehearsal and each performance was done with great emotion. We were days away from performing Our Town. I was Emily, I had a breakthrough, and that was my Act Three.

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