Italo Calvino and Starting the College Application Essay

I’ve assembled a few notes on the college application essay, inspired by students I’ve worked with recently. I’m no expert on the formula for unlocking the door into the Ivy League, but I’ve worked with enough brilliant students who’ve struggled with writing this document to feel confident that the advice I’m providing could be successful. 

This summer I’ve been reading books by Italo Calvino, an author I’ve never encountered before other than hearing his name in passing (I think I might have been intimidated by him.), but after a recent interview I conducted with novelist, Joe Meno, who studies Calvino with his writing students at Columbia College in Chicago, I felt compelled to pick up a couple of Calvino novels in a used bookstore this summer. Currently, I’m reading the elusive If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler and I’ve resolved that, at this point in the reading, I’m treating this text as one of those “books of ideas,” rather than admitting that I can’t detect, nor can I follow, a discernible plot. 

What does this have to do with the essay? Well, I’m finding so much great writing advice in these pages. 

I am trying to read in the succession of things presented to me every day the world's intentions toward me, and I grope my way.

Writing any essay is about “groping” your way through or attempting to make sense of the things that have happened to you. Fear and anxiety might accompany the process because an essayist of any age (in this case a teenager who’s being forced to search for personal answers for an audience that has the fate of the student’s next four years in their hands) has to confront the unknown in order to make sense of it. The “groping” is sloppy and may take the form of scribbled notes, a voice recording of the idea, or a stodgy introductory paragraph. The student must allow this to happen without too much self-flagellation. A close friend calls this the “access-intro,” or an action that allows a student entry into the daunting, unfamiliar psychic space of evaluating their short lives for a group of strangers.

Then, little by little, something started moving and flowing between the sentences of this distraught recitation. The prose...had got the better of the uncertainties of the voice; it had become fluent, transparent, continuous [until the writer, the thinker] swam in it like a fish.

It’s difficult to convince a student that, eventually, they’ll be able to swim in their ideas, breathe freely inside of them. Arriving at the “flowing between the sentences” takes both deliberation and liberation, which doesn’t seem to make sense, but it’s true. A student must be willing to stay at their workspace (I’ve gotten up four times while writing this.) and have the discipline to trust the process. The student must also liberate themselves from the conventional rules of grammar, syntax, and structure while they search for the place they can swim. 

The word “transparent” strikes me here, too. I have told my students that I already know they’re smart, so there’s no need to muddy their essays with imprecise certified SAT words at the expense of clarity and directness. The same holds true for me with the college application essay. These professionals have read just about every type of approach to the essay and know when there’s a word that tries too hard, but it isn’t easy to convince a student that clear, concise communication is intellectual.

The key to a good college application essay is specificity.

If I’m right, and college admissions professionals have read every approach to the essay possible, then a student’s best approach is one that leaves no doubt that they are the only one who could have written that essay. The details and lessons cannot be generalized. The student cannot be unique until they examine how specifically unique they are. Being clear and specific about their experiences and how they are personally making sense of them cannot possibly fail.

I tell students: If you read a draft of your essay and it’s clear that 47 other students could have written it, you’re not being specific enough.

If this was helpful to you, please share it, or let me know it helped you. If there aren’t students on the other end of the things that I write, it doesn’t mean anything to me to have written them.

Check back for more posts on reading, writing, rhetoric, and journalism.

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