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


How to Write a College Application Essay

June 26, 2013 § 10 Comments

Among the essay forms we don’t spend enough time examining here on the Brevity blog is the college application essay.  There is a good reason for that — they tend to be horrible. But they are an essay form all the same, perhaps the most often written essay form, and we’re lucky to have essay tutor Lisa K. Buchanan offering some perspective and helpful tips:

Twenty-One Favors I Beg of College Applicants Writing Personal Essays

By Lisa K. Buchanan

college_3021241. You may have built a robot salamander as a model for computerized prostheses, sung a solo at your uncle’s funeral and gained some unexpected political enlightenment by volunteering in an election campaign. However, please do not mention them all in a single essay; better to write deeply about just one significant experience.

2. Please don’t assume that fact equals truth. The story is not that you moved from a spacious suburb to a crowded city, but that you built your own bike from scratch and learned how to navigate more than one kind of new territory.

3. Please demonstrate rather than explain.

Explanation: Perseverance is an essential part of my personality.
Demonstration: After failing at soccer, softball, and tennis, I finally found my sport on a sticky mat in a heated room.

Explanation: Honesty is important to me.
Demonstration: I kept the secret for three lip-shredding months. And then I told.

4. Please don’t structure your college-application essay like a five-paragraph argument with a thesis and conclusion. Rather, reflect on a significant personal experience using language that is sophisticated and conversational. Use contractions. Use “I.” Avoid “Thus, we can conclude.”

5. Empathy is laudable, but please do not tell your college admissions reader that you are the go-to pal for friends with  addictions and anger-management problems. Your essay is a verbal photograph—don’t make it a mug shot.

6. The implicated self can be a wry and endearing narrator, but please do not laud sleep, procrastination, or indecision as your special talent.

7. If you write about your fabulous teacher/coach/parent, please do so with the aforementioned characterization. “Influential Person” essays can become hallowed tributes to angelic beings—causing mortal readers to dislike them.

8. Please ignore the standard advice to write only about yourself. Your vivid introduction of another person can strengthen your essay. For inspiration, meet Mr. Foster in Huxley’s Brave New World or Claud in “Revelation” by Flannery O’Connor.

9. Please feed your veins with essay-writing nutrients by reading masterful literature.

10. Please give yourself some ear training: Read aloud a short, powerful passage from said masterful literature and figure out how it works sonically. Alliteration? Parallel construction? Varied sentence length? Then read your own work aloud for same.

11. Please use your thesaurus for the best purpose—to find the word that most precisely conveys your meaning.

12. Please don’t “aspire” in your application essays. George Orwell used the word with mockery  (“…some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.”); Elie Wiesel, with heightened diction (“Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself.”). Unless your college essay gently mocks your own heightened diction, I suggest omitting.

13. Still looking for that bold, gorgeous opening line? Try exhuming it from the middle of your second paragraph. Stuck for an ending? Consider the final line of your current penultimate paragraph. Read your own writing aloud.

14. With regard to your relative who died last year: If you don’t know much about her life, please don’t claim to be transformed by her death.

15. Please don’t write about the noble strength and enlightened joy of the people in [insert name of impoverished community] where you volunteered. Please do reflect on the lackluster summer job or other mundane responsibility that yielded a quiet, but unexpected benefit.

16. Please do not try to impress your reader with the standing ovation you received for your winning lacrosse point or knockout violin performance. Honor the reader instead with a personal story that exceeds casual chat and admits some vulnerability.

17. Please refrain from: “[insert noun] has helped me become the [insert adjective] individual I am today.” These words probably appear in 16,938 other essays and could, therefore, cause your reader to run through a plate-glass window in despair. This result would not increase your chances of admission.

18. Did I mention reading your work aloud for voice, authenticity, rhythm, and error detection? Again, I beg.

19. Please accept at least one of these suggestions.

20. Please reject at least one of these suggestions.

21. Please have a sense of humor about yourself. And please, oh please, have one about me.

Writings by Lisa K. Buchanan have appeared in (and/or won awards from) Fourth Genre, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Narrative, New Letters, Ploughshares, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, and The Rumpus. She lives in San Francisco and tutors college applicants in essay writing.

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