编者按 8月1日Common App申请系统开放在即，Ivy Lab暑期文书营已进入第6周。今年，我们在纽黑文和北京分别开设文书写作工作坊，已有超过30位2019年申请者在这里完成了精彩的的个人陈述和加州系统文书。由学生导师、文书支持团队、文书终审委员会形成的阶梯式文书辅导模式，最大程度上帮助学生保留自己的鲜明个性。文书季故事中，Ivy Labs导师们将分享他们指导学生进行文书写作的经验与策略，更有当届申请者分享写作雷区，为后来者提供借鉴与参照。
Original Article by Ming Hsu
Exactly a month after I had gotten back to New Haven from the spring business trip and one week after I had developed my first-ever full-on allergic reaction (which I almost mistook for trachoma) at the mercy of New England’s pollen onslaught, Emily came.
I’d never met Emily in person. In fact, we had never even made a video call. By then, our communication consisted only of periodic check-in messages on WeChat and directional tips and to-do lists via e-mail, just as she preferred – clear and efficient. This preference of Emily’s also formed the basis of my first impression of her. Later, we had a four-way conference call to discuss her questionnaires (a procedural yet crucial step to kick-starting our service), where Emily tried to delineate her high school experiences. But honestly, save for the note I took of the meeting that day, I don’t remember much of what she shared. However, I do distinctly remember her voice – genuine, melodic, and composed, reminiscent of that of a peppy radio broadcaster.
The fact that Emily, a popular city girl from Chinese’s southern metropolis – Guangzhou, forwent her comfy and well-planned-out public school life, and chose to go to a tiny private school on the arid prairies of Midwestern Nebraska says a lot about her and her adventurous personality. Although I had already worked with a student from her school the cycle prior, I was still eager to meet her.
Bright floral print chiffon dress, waist-length straight black hair with loosely layered waves and soft curls on the fringes, Emily’s wardrobe choice and preferred hairstyle were consistent with the persona her dulcet voice had sketched out for me – sweet, demure and full of positivity.
Yet quickly, in between the intense one-on-one brainstorming sessions and guided free writing period, we were able to dig out from the deep recess of her memory many a poignant story, especially as they relate to Emily’s harrowing experience with her first host family, and the ignorant and flagrantly racist comments directed at her in school, as well as her subsequent personal growth and accruement of self-knowledge. Together, these precious pockets of stories added texture, complexity and depth to an otherwise picture-perfect but dull image.
But you gotta work hard for those kernels of truth. On a good day, inspiration only comes in drizzles; and by nature, it is hardly predictable. They come and go, just like raindrops of the fickle New England summer. But when they do come in a downpour, you better have a bucket at the ready to collect them. Which gets at the crux of the issue – how do we make it easier for students to access them? In other words, how to get inspirations to strike more frequently?
Original Text by Ming Hsu
Getting students to reflect by directing their attention inward is never easy, much less in a tongue they didn’t grow up with. I’m a firm believer that people are infinitely complex and creative, and that everyone has an interesting and unique story. But the challenge is that most stories stay dormant and are sometimes unformed. They exist more like a silent soliloquy, unscripted, but longing to be heard. To make matters worse, few school teachers, or parents for that matter, teach students the importance of periodic introspection, to say little of how to cope with the sudden swelling of unfamiliar emotions stirred up at the gentle prodding of the right questions. See, raw emotions are precious, yet they can also be deceptive and razor-sharp. Without a skillful guide to channel them and blunt their edges, they can easily cut both ways and often end up leading students astray and confused.
For the uninitiated, extracting meanings out of our quotidian experiences can at times feel like pulling teeth with tweezers – a painful and drawn-out process. But the good news is it doesn’t have to be.
In coaxing stories out of students, the principal role of a guidance counselor in my opinion is that of a detached and confident guide, one that is familiar with the terrain but isn’t bogged down by the nutty-gritty details of a set itinerary, and is comfortable with uncertainty and silence. To that end, I employ carefully crafted questions as my compass as Emily and I together explored the unfamiliar patches of her mental landscape. The questions I ask are simple, and to most, they can even seem totally irrelevant. But it doesn’t mean they are easy to answer. And mostly importantly, they get the job done.
“What’s your most prized memory, or a memory you often return to?”
“Could you snap a mental picture and describe it for me?”
“What do you never leave home without?”
“Which food reminds you of home?”
“Tell me about your favorite song?”
“Why does it matter to you?”
Once the story is fleshed out, what’s left for me is simple – fixing grammatical mistakes, trimming off straggling words, playing with chronology, adding contours and colorful flourishes here and there, but always preserving the voice of the student (or help them find one if they haven’t already), while following the story arc wherever it leads us (planning too far ahead and pushing for a certain narrative can backfire easily), before tying everything together into a beautiful matching bowtie at the end to top it off. With some poetic license and a healthy dose of creativity, the story will jump right out at you. When done right, the arc always leads us to its rightful destination and will leave in a reader’s mind its traversed path – the cognitive remnant of what is more colloquially known as a memorable story, well told.
And this is exactly what happened to Emily’s personal statement. In fact, we finished two versions – diametrically different topics on the story level, yet both substantiated by the same personality traits that animate Emily daily: optimism, tenderness, and the unyielding desire for self-actualization.
But as with most things in life, the journey is not always a smooth sail.
On days when Emily was seriously stuck, it’s pointless to stare at an empty Word document and labor over a half-baked idea that never was. So I’d urge her to jump off the seat and go out – whether it meant signing up as a volunteer for the Arts & Ideas Festival to connect with the vitality of our creative Elm City, or getting inspired by Pablo Picasso’s Cubist still figures, Georges Braque’s concentric circles or Mark Rothko’s entangled color squares at Yale’s Art Gallery, or me helping Emily draft up a school visit list to check out some colleges on the east coast to remind herself once again of the reason she was here in the first place. But if she just needed a quick reboot, I’d simply ask her to take a stroll down the center of Yale’s campus on the tree-lined Hillhouse Avenue, arguably “the most beautiful street in America” per such literary luminaries as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain… Yep, you got it. Counselors gotta be resourceful.
Very quickly and unperceptively, New England’s summer crept in unannounced while the brilliant Palo Alto sun was beckoning. Emily’s short stay of 18 days in New Haven had finally come to an end.
Meanwhile, my allergy had also died down. Now, I stand refreshed and eager to welcome my next cohort of students to New Haven to hear them out. Are you ready?