College Applications for Artistic Students

College counselors aren’t only looking for straight-A students and star athletes.  A background in the arts can also recommend a candidate.  Use your application to highlight some of the wonderful virtues that artists have to offer:


Artists learn to motivate themselves, and to track their progress independently. Dancers have to train on their own for many hours. Even when part of a class, they are constantly monitoring their own work and improving. This is exactly the kind of self-direction that college admissions counselors are looking for!


When studying music, students learn a melody or beat pattern and have to repeat it.  They learn how to store information quickly – and repeat it back under pressure. Musical training can be very useful in those freshman survey courses with stacks of textbooks and grueling final exams.


Marguerite Gerard, Artist Painting a Portrait of a Musician (The Hermitage)


Whether actors on stage, dancers in a company or musicians in an orchestra, art students learn how to work together. They must watch each other, follow along, and lead among their peers. At times, they must even make up the difference when a peer forgets their lines. As group projects become more central to university courses, a student’s ability to work as part of a group becomes more important.


Let’s not forget the most important characteristic that an artist offers their university: heart. Artists do what they do for the love of it. They follow their intuition down paths unknown, searching for new means of self expression and connection. This quality has driven discovery for centuries, and it is at the center of what learning is all about.


Geography with Flannery O’Connor

The American South is a region with particular customs, geography, and dialect. These specifics of setting have influenced the writing of many a southern writer, but none more so than Flannery O’Connor.Image

Even the opening lines of her iconic and chilling masterpiece, A Good Man is Hard to Find, reveal its setting: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind.” (The Complete Stories, p. 117)

O’Connor’s geography also informs her metaphors. She speaks of a young woman “whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on top like a rabbit’s ears.” (p. 117)

Sometimes she is more direct: “[The grandmother] pointed out interesting details of the scenery: Stone Mountain; the blue granite that in some places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple; and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground.” (p. 119)

Lesson Plan: Introduce an O’Connor story without giving details about her background. Ask students to collect clues about the geographical setting from the story, considering: desciptions of the land, political references, metaphors, race relations, food, or dialect.

Rewrite with Van Gogh

The new van Gogh “Repetitions” exhibit at The Phillips Collection brings to mind one of the most important tools for painters and writers alike: the rewrite. Van Gogh’s repetitions are rare in the art world, because each “repetition” is a fully formed masterpiece.


Road Menders, The Phillips Collection

These “repetitions” are works that writers can learn from. There was an age, from the invention of the printing press until the rise of the personal computer, when writers needed to worry about perfection – even in a first draft. They didn’t have the freedom to write and rewrite as we can now.

However, even with this modern convenience, students still agonize over a first sentence. They try to form the paper in their minds completely before plunking out even a single letter. Of course, we are all susceptible to this kind of perfectionism. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to conceive of a complex argument, complete with introduction and conclusion – before even choosing a font?


Large Plane Trees, Cleveland Museum of Art

Perhaps we can learn something from van Gogh. He saw the merit in painting and repainting the very same subject. This is a wonderfully scientific approach. He maintained a constant: the subject matter, while varying only small aspects of his approach: commitment, viewpoint, and characterization.

Van Gogh’s commitment to the work seems to grow from draft to draft. The first of two works was often more cursory, and seemed to have been completed in haste. By the second time, the brushstrokes were more finished and the lines stronger. Similarly, in the second draft of a paper, we become more confident in our ideas.

Van Gogh’s viewpoint was also revised from version to version. He changed his angle slightly to find a more interesting or compelling standpoint. This happens in writing as well. We may begin a paper thinking that we feel one way about the topic, only to discover midway through the project that our views are, in fact, quite different. In fiction writing, we may likewise begin a story focusing on a certain character, only to find that the true hero is operating in the wings.

A similar shift characterized the collecting of The Phillips Collection founder Duncan Phillips. He eschewed, even criticized, modern art – until he began to collect it voraciously. He wisely defended this about face, explaining: “Consistency is at best a stiff-necked virtue.

Develop Characters with Renoir

The Luncheon of the Boating Party (TPC) is a dynamic work that possesses every possible social interaction. Pastoral dwellers pass the time with Parisians while politicians parley with poets. This picture affords wonderful opportunities to discuss character types.

Imagine that this picture represents a scene in a novel. Who is the main character, and what is their story?


Luncheon of the Boating Party, Auguste Renoir, The Phillips Collection

Try to identify the dynamic and static characters.  Who would the main character’s foil be? 

You might also draw inspiration from the true identities of those pictured.  Each person represents someone in Renoir’s circle.  Visit this page at The Phillips Collection website to learn more.

Winning Essays

The New York Times chose several college essays for publication that discussed the theme of money, class, and the economy.  Lyle Li, who attends a prestigious private high school in the city despite his humble roots, wrote a beautiful essay in which he questioned traditional notions of success.  He is profiled in this moving video:


(Click picture for video)

He says, “On certain nights, I would come home sweaty, dressed in a gold button blazer and colored pants, unmistakable evidence of socializing. In contrast, my mom appears physically and emotionally worn-out from work. But, she still asks me about my day. Consumed by guilt, I find it hard to answer her.

Moments such as those challenge my criteria of what constitutes true success. My mother, despite never going to college, still managed to make a difference in my life. Tomorrow, she will put on her uniform with just as much dignity as a businesswoman would her power suit. What is her secret? She wholeheartedly believes that her son’s future is worth the investment. The outcome of my education will be vindication of that belief.”

Full text of Lyle’s essay here

Winning aspects of Lyle’s essay:

1) He uses gripping imagery: “My parents’ room emits a smell from the restaurant uniforms they wear seven days a week, all year round.”

2) He begins by narrating an event: “While resting comfortably in my air-conditioned bedroom one hot summer night, I received a phone call from my mom. She asked me softly, “Lyle, can you come down and clean up the restaurant?”

3) He is honest: He admits to often feeling “annoyed” by his mother’s requests and “guilty” about the disparity in their lifestyles.  This creates a strong bond with the reader.


Variations on a Theme

The New Colossus

By Emma Lazarus


AP Photo/ Julio Cortez

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she


Let the River Run, Carly Simon

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”



Prompting Summer



@ThatsEarth -Thanks!

The Writer

By Richard Wilbur

In her room at the prow of the house

Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,

My daughter is writing a story.


I pause in the stairwell, hearing

From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys


Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.


Young as she is, the stuff

Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:

I wish her a lucky passage.


But now it is she who pauses,

As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.

A stillness greatens, in which


The whole house seems to be thinking,

And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor

Of strokes, and again is silent.


I remember the dazed starling

Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;

How we stole in, lifted a sash


 And retreated, not to affright it;

And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,

We watched the sleek, wild, dark


And iridescent creature

Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove

To the hard floor, or the desk-top,


And wait then, humped and bloody,

For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits

Rose when, suddenly sure,


It lifted off from a chair-back,

Beating a smooth course for the right window

And clearing the sill of the world.



It is always a matter, my darling,

Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.

Summer of Writing

It’s getting warm, school is winding down, and it is a great time to… work on your writing!  The romance and beauty of summer have inspired many writers, and you could be one of them!  Over these next hot months its almost too much to ask to just sit by the pool and slowly scribble in a journal.  

Here is what I wrote, as a sophomore in college in Ojai, on the very first page of my writing journal:

“I am sitting at the beach.  The sun is shining, a breeze is blowing, and I am writing in my journal.  This is my first entry in my new journal.  I wonder what I’ll write.  

I love the way the clouds spread out, running parallel to the earth.  They limit the upward view, so boundless otherwise.  Likewise, mountains limit the sideways view, boundless also not for lack of end but lack of definition.

The trees up on the mountain look huge from here!  They seem to be in their own world.  I’ve noticed that before.  Because they’re so far away, but yet so visible, you could say mountains are a peak into another world. HAHAHA!!!

I have nothing to say about the sea.  It’s all divided up.  Can it be thought about?”

Hawthorne #renewal

Themes in literature have always been difficult for me.  I remember being in high school, confronted with a question about the ‘theme’ of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and feeling very lost.  How could I have read and enjoyed the entire work and still have no idea what the theme is?

Upon discovering that a theme could be something as general as prejudice, rebirth, fate, corruption, or marriage, I was bewildered – and a bit furious!  If it were a snake, it would have bit me.  

Working with a student on the AP Lit exam, I found that she was also struggling with the concept of theme.  From my own experience, unthinking the problem seemed to be the way to approach it.  Theme is almost best arrived at through a game of free association:  “I say 1984, you say… corruption.”  “I say Huckelberry Finn, you say… racism.”

This got me thinking: this kind of thinking is ubiquitous in our modern lives!  Every time I tag a post “life-long learning” or “essay writing,” I am identifying a theme: a category which sums up some part of the essence of my writing, and ties it into the writing of others.

This is best exemplified in twitterspeak.  Whenever you attach a #hashtag to a comment, you are identifying its theme.  Perhaps this would be a great way to understand theme:

#rebirth  Daisy finally telling Tom she loves Gatsby

#nature Nebraska cornfields are Antonía’s lifeblood

#rebirth first you’re a bug, and then you die @kafka

@homer  rosy fingered dawn, because the sun also rises



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