Pumping It Out

June 30, 2012

It’s commencement time, and as is its custom, the local newspaper has been featuring stories on the various area high school ceremonies. Each article takes a different angle on the event, trying to find something special in each class’s looking back and looking forward. An article last week featured both the high school I graduated from, Bishop McDevitt, discharging its last class from the iconic building that served us for more than eighty years, and Susquehanna Township High School, the one my daughter, Lynn, graduated from in 2004. The difficulty of financing a college education was the theme of the article.

The Susquehanna Township valedictorian is heading to Northwestern University to study creative writing. Her education will cost $60,000 a year. She will finance it with loans and with some financial aid. It is unclear from the article if that financial aid is in the form of merit-based (as opposed to need-based) scholarships.

Her guidance counselor, Susan Johnson, acknowledges that despite her efforts to publicize some 75 scholarship opportunities that carry grants as small as $500 to as generous as $5,000, few students take advantage of these opportunities. According to the article, “[students] were more apt to apply if the application was simple and didn’t require an essay. . . .[Johnson] tried to impress upon students that spending an hour to pump out an essay was worth it, if a $2000 scholarship was the result.”

At this point, readers might think that I am about to launch into a rant about kids today who can’t be bothered to apply for a scholarship unless the process requires minimal effort. Not at all. I am disheartened, dismayed, and disgusted that the students in the school district I support are being advised by someone who clearly does not value writing, the writing process, nor the effort it takes to craft an essay that will lead a panel of readers to have so much faith in the applicant’s potential that they are willing to underwrite her or his education.

Does Ms. Johnson really believe it takes only an hour to “pump out” an essay that answers prompts such as “Who in your life has been your biggest influence and why?” or “Explain the importance of [your field of study] to today’s society” in a way that is fresh and engaging? That is free of clichés and catchphrases?  That many essay prompts seem themselves to be clichés is irrelevant. They are general thought starters designed to allow students wide latitude in interpretation and approach. The readers who evaluate these applications see thousands of them. It takes more than an hour to produce a response that won’t run together with the last twenty-five they read.

I know this because I have been a reader for such essays. I can tell when one has been “pumped out” from a collection of bromides and platitudes that the writer thinks might belong in a standard scholarship application essay. I can tell when a student has assembled a template, and merely changes the name of the scholarship and perhaps some particulars (say, addressing a problem in the environment for one prompt and a problem in local politics in another). I’ve even read essays that addressed the prompt briefly in the most superficial terms before launching into a discussion about something else.

But more than knowing the work it takes to produce an effective scholarship essay because I am a reader of them, I know it because I am a producer of them. I’m 65 years old, have two master’s degrees and years of experience as a writer, but when I sit down to write my “hope to gain” statement for a fellowship or a residency or a grant, I often find myself lavishing more attention and effort on that than I have on the example of my fiction that accompanies the application.

Ms. Johnson does her students a great disservice with her cavalier attitude toward their writing. Over the last decade I have submitted more than a dozen applications to competitive writers’ conferences, more than half a dozen requests for grants, five applications for scholarships to conferences, and eight applications for residencies at artists’ colonies. I’m batting under .500, yet I am considered unusually successful, and am asked often by others to advise them. It has taken me nearly two hours to prepare this essay, and I have no one to please or impress but myself.

I have a manuscript to pump out before July 10, one I didn’t know until yesterday that I would need. After that, I think I’ll refresh the materials I used when I was in the classroom to help my students with their application essays, and offer my services as a volunteer. The students of Susquehanna Township deserve better advice than they have been getting.

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