Flash Nonfiction and the College Application Essay

March 13, 2019 § 3 Comments

emdillonBy Emily Dillon

The Common Application, the most widely used platform for college admissions, requires its applicants to write one personal essay. Applicants choose from seven prompts, all but one of which ask them to write about a personal experience or intellectual obsession. All of the prompts are capped at 650 words.

Sound familiar? Brevity caps its nonfiction submissions at 750 words.

As a high school English teacher, I have coached many students through the college admissions essay and this year – the year that I started an MFA in creative nonfiction and began as an assistant editor at Brevity – I realized how poorly our educational system prepares students to write these essays.

To its credit, my school district requires tenth and twelfth graders to write a personal essay, but just once each year. Ninth and eleventh graders also get a dose of narrative, but neither curriculum requires that the narrative be about its author. By the end of high school, students may have had only two opportunities to practice the kind of writing required for admission to college.

Additionally, my district makes no recommendation about the length of the narratives, so my students could get through an entire high-school experience without having to consider the unique requirements of a flash nonfiction piece. As Brevity Editor Dinty W. Moore says in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, flash nonfiction is different than longer-form nonfiction because it “needs to be hot from the first sentence, and the heat must remain the entire time.” I’m not convinced that we as teachers are showing the students how to start the fire.

To be fair, I’m not sure most high school English teachers have the resources to teach students how to start the fire. Until I entered my MFA program, I certainly didn’t. Besides a few poetry workshops and one entry-level fiction class in college, I didn’t have any formal creative writing training. It isn’t required for teaching English. Instead, like most high school English teachers, I had an undergraduate English degree that focused on literary analysis and argumentation. I could prepare them for writing essays while in college, just not the ones that could get them there.

Since entering an MFA program last summer though – and starting to read for Brevity – I have learned the language and models for teaching the form. Now I know that compression, of pacing and meaning, is essential to the flash form. I also know the names of masters of the craft: Judith Kitchen, Lia Purpura, Ira Sukrungruang, and even historical figures like Michel de Montaigne. Knowing this, I can bring these ideas and people into my classroom, engaging my students in the techniques of the craft. And, most notably for a teacher of fourteen-year-olds, I can do this with bite-sized essays that even my most struggling readers can access. In the end, I can now better prepare all of my students to write a flash nonfiction piece on their college applications and engage my struggling readers with critical, reflective essays on the human condition.

My hope is that I won’t have my former freshmen coming back as seniors, as they do now, asking me to edit their college essays, crumpled paper in hand, exasperated because they don’t know how to write about their life. Instead, I hope that one day, maybe four years from now when this year’s freshmen are seniors, I’ll have my former students return, paper in hand, waving an acceptance letter to the college of their choice.

Emily Dillon is a writer, teacher, and editor from the Washington DC area. She holds a Masters Degree in English Education from the University of Maryland and currently studies creative nonfiction in the MFA program at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Her poetry and essays have been published by Millennial, Stylus, and Babe Press and she began as an assistant editor at Brevity this past January. Find her writing life on Instagram @bookmindmaps or follow her on Twitter @emily_dillon.

Photo by Beth Marie Photography


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§ 3 Responses to Flash Nonfiction and the College Application Essay

  • Nicely done….I vote yes. No edits needed. 🙂

  • When your former students come to you as seniors, essays in hand, and ask you to have a look, I hope you will read with pleasure and respect, offer them the feedback they ask for, and give yourself a pat on the back. They learned from you and they have enough good sense and trust to come to the right person for a final edit. You did your job.

    I was honored when students asked me for feedback on their college applications. Over the years I edited four applications for the Gates (three won it) and many Fords. I reviewed applications for grants, study overseas, graduate school, and job applications. Sometimes their writing made me cry with pride. They didn’t come to me because I failed to teach them, they came to me for the same reason I send my best work to better-published friends. It is part of the process.

  • dennyho says:

    I would wonder if the frustrated student comes to you, the teacher, for help at this most momentous time in their education for two reasons: because this writing project IS momentous and a necessary piece for their college app and also because BREVITY for our young, inexperienced writers is most difficult. With the exception of those few young, talented writers with the gift of word and thought placement, wouldn’t you agree it takes years of practice to master the art and flow of concise writing? I applaud the students who do step forward asking you for help. They obviously have interest in furthering their educations and sadly may lack support at home.

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