Does your college application essay feature running? An expert offers a few simple rules for using your sport as your subject.
By Rachel ToorAs featured in the Web Only issue of Running Times Magazine
You’re a runner. You’re applying to college. You want to write your application essay about running.
Ask: Is what you’re going to say about running different from what thousands of other applicants might write? Chances are, it’s not.
When I worked in undergraduate admissions at Duke University I read a whole bunch of essays about running. Most of them were indistinguishable, even those that took place in the mind of a runner during a race. By the end of the essay, after far too much time in the prison-house of someone else’s consciousness, I would be screaming to go for a run myself and would have learned no more about the writer than that he had won/lost/finished the race and that it was hard.
Only one of those running essays stands out. It was by a kid who had been a soccer player and used to make fun of the runners with their itty-bitty shorts. After running a 2:10 800m as a freshman, he decided maybe there was something to running after all. He got a nickname, 2:10 Ren, and became a runner, happy to wear the shortest shorts he could find. The essay was smart, funny and self-deprecating. It made me want to get to know him.
When he showed up on campus, I tracked him down and we became friends, meeting for weekly breakfasts at a local diner. I learned that Ren had run a 4:17 mile in high school. When I asked him about why he didn’t write about that, he said he didn’t want to seem like he was bragging. (I mentioned him in a column for Running Times called “Speed Goggles”.)
College admissions officers don’t have a lot of time to spend on each application. After a thousand or so, you feel like you’re reading the same essay over and over. You’re able to boil it down to a simple description (dead grandmother), an equation (running=life) or a word (violin).
When you teach creative writing, as I do, you hear from lots of people who say they love to write. For the record, I do not love to write. Like Dorothy Parker, I love to have written, but I find the work of putting those words on the page far more exhausting than running the gnarliest 50K. Writing requires discipline and patience and multiple revisions. Pick up any running club newsletter or click on a friends blog and you will see hundreds, maybe thousands of words, but most of them are not arranged in a way that makes you want to read them.
In an essay, what matters is not the subject but what you make of it. If you did the Boston marathon as a bandit when you were sixteen, bully for you. (Well, not really, since I don’t approve of bandits.) So what? What does that say about you? Why should I care? You ran the anchor leg of the 4 x 400m and you made up a huge time deficit so that your team could win the state championship? Big honking deal. I’d be more interested if you dropped the baton and lost, because that would give you something to think hard about. Winning doesn’t afford that many opportunities for emotional growth.
TO ESSAY IS TO TRY
We get the word essay from the 16th century French writer Montaigne. His project was to essai, to try to figure out some things about himself and the world. That’s your goal: The “personal statement” required by the college admissions process is an opportunity to explore who you are and where you fit into the world. If you can do that by writing about running, go for it. But understand that you are not writing about running you are writing something about yourself. You don’t have to answer big questions. In fact, once you start sounding like you have the answers, you’re in danger of writing one of those mind-numbing “In society today” essays. Instead, you have only to pose an interesting question and wrestle with it.
Here’s what I believe about writing: We write to make people fall in love with us. If you can’t imagine someone reading your stuff, write a journal. College admissions officers are generally nice people, sometimes smart enough to have been admitted to the universities from which they are now rejecting thousands of applicants, who read huge numbers of files from identically-qualified students. Its a human process. Much has to do with personal preference and the reality of the numbers. There’s nothing you can do if the person on whose desk your file lands loves Eagle Scouts and student body presidents and hates poetry and you happen to be an anarchist poet who never goes outdoors. But that doesn’t mean you can’t write an essay that will show off who you are and why you would be someone they’d want to meet.
When I work as a college counselor with high school students, I ask them to come up with a list of 20 (yes, 20) possible topics. Usually, at the top of the list is running, or something like it whatever their “thing” is. Then a few more easy and obvious ideas (being on the debate team; parents’ divorce; death of a dog). Then it gets hard, and I encourage them to think about small things that might say something about who they are and what they care about. What do you love? What makes you furious? That’s usually when the list starts to get interesting, and items that they thought were discrete appear to have connections. How is running related to the parents divorce and the death of a beloved dog?
Coming up with a good topic is hard. One of the things we say about my field “creative nonfiction” and the ways it’s different from journalism is that its about something other than what its about. So while running may seem to be the focus, there’s got to be something bigger, more universal, and also smaller, more specific, that the essay addresses. Understanding that an essay has to be about something is hard; figuring out what that aboutness is can be painful. Often we get there by writing.
In your closet you have 15 different pairs of running shoes. What does this say? Are you the girl who is afraid of missing out and who, once she finds something she likes, will stockpile many boxes of the same kind of shoe? Or are you that guy who is always trying something new, and so has shoes that are minimalist, pimped out with LED lights, and bundled up in Gore-Tex? A look into the closet can be a look into the soul. You can write that essay if you use details that are vivid and specific, if everything you tell us could only be coming from you.
TELL A STORY, HAVE SOME THOUGHTS
In a personal essay, getting the tone right is a challenge. Often first drafts are stiff and stuffy, where the writer seems to be wearing someone else’s clothes and looks uncomfortable, maybe even a little fraudulent. I ask my students to write their first drafts in the form of an email to me. Tell me a story, I say. This exercise can help shake off some of the writerly pretentions they find appealing and that make me, as a reader, want to retch. Instead, they tend to write in ways that are more honest and more direct.
One of the best pieces of advice about writing an essay Ive ever heard is from Montana writer William Kittredge. He says: “Tell a story. Have some thoughts.” That’s what an essay is narrative and reflection, layered like lasagna or tiramisu.
Tell me a story. That part is usually easy. Then we have to figure out what the story is about. I ask questions. It will be clear to the writer why what she included was important. It may not, however, be clear to the reader. Connections and implications need stitching, and sometimes unstitching.
A FEW SIMPLE WAYS WRITING CAN GO WRONG
Starting with a Quote
Beginning writers want to reach out and grab the reader by the throat. This can be, for the reader, kind of unpleasant. Beginning writers do it because they don’t trust the reader to be interested, and they don’t trust their own skills to bring her in. So they resort to tricks. But starting with a disembodied line of dialogue without context is usually confusing, disorienting, and just plain annoying. Its a gimmick, and it looks like a gimmick.
Find ways to bring the reader in by being honest and reflective and self-critical. Work hard to come up with a good first line, but don’t make it scream.
Using the Present Tense
I know graduate professors of creative writing who will reject any applicant who sends in an essay written in the present tense. Beginning writers believe that the present tense can bring a sense of immediacy. It can, in fact, create a hyperventilating sense of YOU ARE THERE, but that’s not what your goal should be.
In an essay, the action is less important than the reflection. It’s not the race, its knowing how to feel about it afterward. William Wordsworth defined poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility.” In fact, if the topic is hot something that is difficult or painful to write about the most effective tone will be cool. Don’t tell the reader what to feel, just let her feel it. The past tense allows you to show yourself as a person who thinks, understands, criticizes, reflects.
Too much dialogue
What is easy to read was hard to write. Many people don’t realize that dialogue requires art and craft to do well and that in real life (which is, after all, what an essay is trying to capture), people don’t say what they mean and often speak at cross-purposes. Fiction writers know that dialogue must do something beyond give facts. It characterizes and captures, it highlights and reveals. In a 500-word essay, you can use it like seasoning: Too much will be overwhelming, but a little bit, a little zest, a little zing, can help.
When you’re writing in the first person, you don’t add much by quoting yourself. You’re already telling us what you think, so unless you said something shocking, you can report it rather than putting it in quotes. And while were on dialogue, I might as well remind you that all you need is “he said”, or “she said”. These are called “dialogue tags”, and we read right over them. We get stuck, however, when the writer calls attention to them: “He whined.” “She squealed.” And we can become derailed when the verbs have nothing to do with speech. “‘You’re hot,’ he leered.” “She smirked.” Or when burdensome adverbs are added. “‘You’re fat,’ he said, cheekily.”
Adverbs are not your friends. They, like exclamation points and clichés and the use of italics for emphasis, are the refuge of the weak and the lazy. Write with strong nouns and verbs. Beginning writers tend to overdo it: Too many adverbs, too many adjectives, too many words. And not only that, too many fancy words. Step away from the thesaurus. Don’t use a word unless you have spoken it in daily life. And don’t use phrases you use all the time. You know what I mean: clichés. Its a fast way to get ideas on the page, to express them in language that comes readily to mind and fingertips. If you must, go ahead and write the clichés on your first draft. Then revise them out with images that are fresher and more specific.
Be aware that often writing can go bad when it looks like creative writing; when you see the effort of reaching for description, all you see is effort. Like running, the best make the work invisible. Be clear, be honest, be natural.
To be Not to be
Any student of history should know about the dangers of the passive voice. If you say that the buffalo disappeared from the plains, or the war was started, you risk letting the bad guys off the hook and not giving credit to the heroes. It can also lead to flat, dead prose. You can spiff up your writing by limiting use of the form of the verb to be. Is, am, are, was, were you know. Finding ways around it will force you to use stronger verbs. And it will make the writing tighter.
My favorite quote, from Pascal, says, “I would have written you a shorter letter but I didn’t have the time.” Write long and then cut, cut, cut. You do not have a captive audience. Whether it’s a 500-word personal statement, a magazine article, or a book, no one has to finish reading. Your job involves keeping the reader in mind. Every paragraph, sentence, and word has to earn its keep by doing some useful work. Once you get a draft down, cut it by 20 to 30 percent. You can discover the same joy in cutting your work as you can in shaving seconds off your 5K time. No one likes flab.
After you have a draft of your essay, set it aside. When you spend a lot of time reading and rereading what you’ve come up with, you run the risk of memorizing your sentences, lending them the ring of inevitability. You want to let it sit long enough to be able to see it with fresh eyes. Then read it out loud to someone else who has a copy of her own. Listen to where it hitches. Let her point out where you have spoken words you did not write and then go back and fix them. Make sure she can hear your voice coming through.
A bad essay won’t keep you out of college but a good essay could help you get in. More important, it’s a chance to learn how to write about something you love in a way that makes other people understand why you do what you do and who you are.
Orwell Rules (from “Politics and the English Language” — a must-read essay for everyone)
– Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
– Never use a long word where a short one will do.
– If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
– Never use the passive where you can use the active.
– Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
– Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Rules to ignore
– Never begin a sentence with “But” or “And.”
– Never use contractions.
– Never refer to the reader as you.
– Never use the first-person pronoun “I.”
– Never end a sentence with a preposition.
– Never split an infinitive.
– Never write a paragraph consisting of a single sentence.
Every high school student should read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and many will enjoy and learn from Stephen King’s On Writing.