Students' write of passage

Better college essays are among the goals of a Towson High class

November 29, 1999|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

"Got it," Towson High School English teacher Bill Jones often says during his creative writing classes, to show students that he understands their stories about a great-grandfather's Civil War research or a daughter-and-dad road trip to Las Vegas.

He wants to encourage students to perfect their writing, not just for a better grade, but so juniors and seniors can use their writing to get into the college of their choice.

Jones "gets" what some of his students miss -- that the essay is the one thing an applicant can control in his or her college admissions packet.

Grades are set. So are SAT scores. The essay, however, is a chance for students to open up and share a bit about their family life or work experiences.

Still, writing about feelings can be tricky.

"The essay can be very scary for students, and we know that, but we're not looking for prize-winning authors here we're looking for them to add some personality to the admissions process," said Ronne Patrick, associate director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Maryland.

Despite receiving more than 18,000 essays annually, the school's admissions team reads each one carefully, she said. Patrick still remembers an essay she read last year about a student whose perception of female beauty changed after she cut her long hair.

"Some students don't realize the importance of the essay, and they figure that we don't read them because we get so many, but we're reading them, and some of them aren't so thoughtful," Patrick said.

Students in Jones' creative writing classes get time and help to perfect their essays.

At the beginning of the semester, Jones presents classes with a syllabus of 16 writing assignments, 10 of which must be revised until students consider the work finished. For some, that means up to 10 misfires. For most, it means a polished result.

"Much of what they come up with at the end of those revisions is very, very good, even publishable," said Jones, who has been teaching creative writing at Towson for about seven years.

Several of his students have won writing honors: Lauren Whaley, who graduated last year, was recognized as one of the nation's top 10 young writers in the 1999 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards; Libby Crum, also a 1999 graduate, was honored at the New York Young Playwrights' Festival; Ersula Jawanna Ore, another 1999 graduate, won the Goucher College Women Writing About Women contest two years in a row; and Towson High's creative arts magazine, Colophon, won the Maryland Scholastic Press Association's Marylander Award recently.

Jones, who is a writer, is proud of his students' success.

Still, he encourages them to take a semester off from the writing program to "fill the well again."

"I want them to develop a sense of creativity, of inspiration, and to write from the heart," Jones said. "I encourage them to follow what they feel, but if they need time away, they should take time away."

During class recently, Jones and students helped senior Julia Paul, 17, of Towson with an essay she wants to use with her college applications. Her essay dealt with an argument she had as a clerk for a Gap clothing store with a customer.

Paul left out details, failing to create a complete picture, according to her classmates, who challenged her to revise the essay and fill in the holes.

"You have to be bold and sensitive and honest," said Brendan Camiel, 17, of Towson.

"To talk through the essay like that helped a lot," said Paul, who is applying to the University of Denver, Wagner College in New York, and Longwood College in Virginia. The read-through with her classmates helped her feel more confident about her essay, she said.

"I brought it here to polish it," she said. "I feel like I know what to add in now."

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