Rachel Toor talks about college admissions essays

Rachel Toor is professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. She is a columnist for the Chronicle of Higher Education and the author of many books, including Admissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process and On the Road to Find Out, a young adult novel about a girl who gets rejected from her first-choice college and survives. Her new book is Write Your Way In: Crafting an Unforgettable College Admissions Essay.

CMOS: In your book, you emphasize the importance of revealing one’s “true self” in the admissions essay. Why does the essay have to be so personal? Why isn’t incisive, intelligent reporting valued in college essays? Is the revealing essay a trend invented by bored admissions staff?

RT: Well, it is called the “personal statement.” When talking about this stuff it’s essential to think about how the essay fits into the rest of the application. There are plenty of opportunities for students to list their interests and achievements, to showcase the work they’ve done. The essay is where admissions folks get an insight into what the student will be like in the classroom, in the cafeteria, and in the dorms. Who is she? What does he care about? Will she start a new club? Will he be someone who challenges the status quo?  Journalism often relies on the fact that there isn’t an identifiable person behind the prose; the byline matters less than the information. The goal of the personal essay is for the student to allow herself to be known—seen—and there are many ways to do that, including by writing about something not personal.

Reported pieces can reveal personality by how they’re crafted—we get a sense of John McPhee’s mischievous wit and intense curiosity whether he’s writing about oranges, freighters, or basketball. Joan Didion uses her powers of observation and keen insight to describe things in ways that give us a glance into the workings of her quirky mind. But it’s a rare high school student with the writerly chops of a McPhee or Didion. Far easier for them to focus on something personally meaningful and explore that.

CMOS: The best essays seem to require describing embarrassment, failure, conflict, or shame. Are the sunny and brave doomed to rejection?

RT: The essay prompts on the Common Application try to steer students away from writing a boastful catalogue of achievement; they are asked instead to focus on a challenge or a problem and show how their thinking has developed. Growth often comes from situations where we feel embarrassed or shameful—when we fail. Everyone likes to read funny essays. But dying is easy, as the actors tell us, and comedy is hard. An essay that relies on presenting a sunny front can feel static—if there’s no tension, there’s no energy. Writing about puppies and lollipops and rainbows is boring. So “I love my mom, who is my best friend and the person I can talk to about everything” is a great way to live. But a better essay would be something like, “I love my mom, who has terrible taste in food (she thinks kale is delicious) and who texts me using ancient abbreviations like ‘lol,’ which she thinks means ‘lots of love.’”

CMOS: In your book, you say of one student “I didn’t care where he went to college. I knew he’d do fine anywhere.” Do you think most young people would do fine anywhere? Do think there’s an unnecessary emphasis on getting into top-tier schools? What advice would you have for someone who may not be top-tier material?

An essay that relies on presenting a sunny front can feel static—if there’s no tension, there’s no energy. Writing about puppies and lollipops and rainbows is boring.”

RT: More than anything, I believe that most young people will do better than fine anywhere. My experiences teaching at Duke, the University of Montana, and Eastern Washington University proved to me that there are excellent students everywhere who can get great educations wherever they land. What you get in college is time to invest in friendships that will probably last your whole life. You have the chance to figure out who you are when you’re not with your family, and you can do that anywhere. You can cruise through an Ivy League school without ever having a conversation with a professor, and you can go to a bigger, less selective public university and be invited to your teacher’s home and become life-long friends.

CMOS: You say “Good writing is about voice—your voice. Don’t contort yourself to sound like someone else.” Isn’t that asking a lot of a high school student? Doesn’t “finding a voice” take more maturity and writing practice?

RT: I see it a little differently. I aim to give students permission to sound like the smart, quirky, funny, sassy, sincere people they are when they write texts and emails and social media posts. Everyone already has a voice. Often, though, in high schools, kids are trained to sound stiff and formal and write like robots. I can’t believe so many of them are still being taught it isn’t okay to use contractions, start a sentence with and or but, or end sentences with prepositions. Most good writers don’t follow those fusty, outdated rules.

The tradition of the personal essay is conversational. Lamb, Hazlitt, Addison, Steele—even the big daddy, Montaigne—did not write five-paragraph essays using stilted, Latinate language. If we show students what excellent personal essays look like (which I try to do in the book), it frees them up to sound like themselves, using words they actually say aloud instead of scurrying to the thesaurus.

Of course it takes practice to get good at this, but I believe most of them are already doing it—often on their phones. Some of the texts and emails I get from teenage friends are practically publishable. When I teach writing to college and graduate students, I find I’m often trying to undo stuff they were taught in school. So it’s less about “finding” a voice than it is about realizing they already have one and that it’s OK to use it.

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You can find Rachel Toor online at racheltoor.com.

Author photo: Larry Conboy, EWU
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