by Jonathan Adjemian
Published at 2019-01-09
As the subtitle suggests, Rachel Toor's Write Your Way In (University of Chicago Press, 2018) is a book about writing an application to an American undergraduate institution (what we’d call “universities” on this side of the border). In fact, it is mainly about just one part of the application: a short personal essay that is meant to introduce the person behind the academic and extracurricular achievements detailed in the rest of the package. The book’s cover shows us stylized ivy-clad walls opening their gates to let in the lucky few — and Toor, a former admissions officer at Duke University, a current professor of creative writing, and the author of earlier books on the college admissions process (as well as on running and keeping rats as pets), is a well-positioned guide on how to get through those doors. The book is full of stories of students she’s coached or otherwise helped, which generally involve the student getting into the school of their choice.
The admissions essay is a feature of the American post-secondary education system, along with fierce competition, sharp divisions between elite and other schools, and the potential, without a top-notch funding package, of accumulating unthinkable levels of debt. The references in the early pages to the Common App, SATs, and APs could lead a reader in Canada, where most universities don’t ask for admissions essays at the undergraduate level (although scholarship applications often do), to think the book has little to offer them.
Happily, though, Write Your Way In is more than a how-to on writing college applications. In a move that will be familiar to many teenagers, Toor seizes the admissions essay as a teachable moment, an opportunity to explore first-person writing as a means of expressing oneself, and even discovering things about oneself. In many ways, the real subject of the book is the personal essay, and while Toor does provide some sample text from college admissions essays, Write Your Way In is filled with examples from essays by Great Writers like Martin Luther King, Joan Didion, and George Orwell, and is sprinkled with advice on writing from fiction and non-fiction authors contemporary and historical. Since, as Toor notes, “most people are called on to write in the first person only for high-stakes assignments: applications to college (and to graduate and professional schools); cover letters for jobs, self-assessments for promotion; grant applications; online dating profiles” (p. 15), learning to approach personal writing free of terror and incapacitation can be a useful thing.
Toor likes to “teach in slogans” (p. 12), “catchy phrases that capture big ideas,” and she even gives a list of them early on. Some are good all-around writing advice, like “steal, steal, steal” —“You have to use your own words and ideas, but what you can lift from other writers is the way they structure their essays, or their use of lists, or even how they put the parts of their sentences together” (p. 20) — or “murder your darlings”: “None of the writing that goes into early drafts is ever wasted...But in revision you must be brutal” (p. 110). Others are more specific to the personal essay as a form. The goal of a college admissions essay is to stand out in a huge pile of similar essays; to do this, you need to “strive to be the best, smartest, most interesting version of your true self” (p. 31). But for Toor (and, we can assume, for most admissions officers) this doesn’t mean listing all the accomplishments that make you so great. Instead, it involves digging into the things that make you unique – especially when those are things you may not feel comfortable about.
“Fill the hole in your donut” is one of Toor’s slogans. “The hole in the donut is the thing you don’t want anyone else to see,” she writes (p. 74); it might be a mistake you made, behaviour you don’t feel proud of, or a weakness you try to hide. She advocates intense brainstorming and multiple drafts – once you’ve identified what you think you should write about, it’s easier to find out what you’re ignoring. Toor has her preferences in personal essays: she likes stories about overcoming weakness, and particularly stories that involve family drama. Some of this may be personal tendencies, but there’s also strategy in it: Toor narrates her personal experience as an admissions officer, and stresses that the goal of an essay is to give the people reading it reason to argue why you should be let in. In a field full of “impressive” candidates, vulnerability counts.
Write Your Way In is divided into two parts. The first covers “big-picture stuff” (p. 16): how to choose your topic, how to convey a persona on the page, and so on. The second gives more concrete “nuts-and-bolts” writing tips: how to work through drafts and revisions, advice on structure and mechanics, and habits to cultivate or avoid (it also briefly discusses short-answer questions, which are more common in Canadian school applications). In both sections, between each chapter is a case study of one student, dramatizing the issues discussed in the chapter that came before. The structure works well — Toor’s voice, toeing a line between chatty and formal, interspersing vulgarity and pop culture with classic writing advice, unites the whole and keeps the short chapters moving quickly, while the divisions make it easy to locate particular kinds of advice.
Write Your Way In would make a great gift for someone starting out on the post-secondary application process, especially for someone planning to apply to U.S. schools. (Just don’t give it to someone wrapping up January applications right now — according to Toor, first drafts should start the summer before.) Applying the book’s lessons outside of the U.S. school system will take some creative interpretation, but that’s one of the skills the book hopes to encourage. The wealth of writing suggestions, and the book’s approachable tone and format (field-tested by many teenagers, but not off-putting for older folks), make it a useful read for anyone tackling first-person prose.