From the Mailbag: Publication and College Admissions (Updated)

I get this question (or a variation on it) a lot so I decided to do a blog post about it. It’s amazing to see how much things have changed in twelve years, from when I applied to colleges. When I was in high school, the only successful teen writers I knew about were Sylvia Plath and S.E. Hinton, and they weren’t exactly from my generation, or anywhere near it. Now, I think teen writers look at Christopher Paolini, and how a lot of the publicity he got for his books was based around the fact that he was a teen. They look at Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, who has been successfully publishing for over 10 years, since the time she was 14.

Most disturbingly, they look at the (rather poor) example of Kaavya Viswantahan, whose pricey college admissions-consultant decided the best way for her to land admission to the Ivy League of her choice was to get in bed with a book packager and rip off a bunch of YA chick lit writers by collaging/plagiarising herself her own book and book deal.

Guys: publication is not a college admission stunt. If you look at successful writer examples of recent years, Atwater-Rhodes quietly took herself off to UMass, her home state school, where she majored in English and Psychology. She graduated magna cum laude and continues her career. Paolini chose to forego college in favor of concentrating on his book and book promotion.

And yet, people persist in believing that publishing a book is a stunt to be used to get into college, or that if you aren’t published at 14 or 18 or 19, you might as well throw in the towel.

________________________________________

[Note: Identifying details changed.]

Dear Diana,

I wrote you six months ago about getting my book published. thanks so much for your response. I have been sending queries to a lot of the agents that I could find online, but so far that progress hasn’t been too successful. I really want to have my book published for college reasons (I’d really like to pursue further in writing, and I feel that having a book published will show the colleges how serious I am about writing). I am getting a bit desperate and frantic.

 

Dear College Applicant and Young Writer,

I understand your frustration. This industry moves at a glacial pace and it can be extremely aggravating at times. However, it’s important not to be desperate OR frantic when you’re pursuing publication. Everyone I know who has been desperate go about making huge mistakes, like selling their book to a vanity press that takes their money and gives them a shoddy product (stay FAR AWAY from PublishAmerica and similar outfits) or signs with a scam agent who takes their money and disappears into
Bermuda. That’s no way to go about being serious about your writing.

You contacted me six months ago. Six months is a very short time in the world of publishing. I tried to get published for four years before I found an agent and sold a book. I wrote five books during that time. After one had been rejected everywhere it was appropriate to publish it, I wrote another. It might very well happen way faster for you, but how long it takes is not the most important thing. The most important thing is writing a great book and selling it to a publisher who is going to publish it well, distribute it everywhere, and promote the heck out of it.

You just need to keep plugging away — working on your writing, working on your queries.

Being serious about writing isn’t about racing toward publication. It’s about writing and pursuing publication in a serious and professional manner. The fact that you’ve written a whole book in your teens and are pursuing publication for it is an impressive feat, and one you should definitely mention on your applications (or get one of your teachers — especially an English teacher– who is writing you a college recommendation to mention). But getting published isn’t a college application stunt, it’s the start of a career.

I was very, very serious about my writing for those four years (after college) I wasn’t published. I wrote a lot, I learned a lot about
writing, and I submitted the books I’d written and polished. I was also very serious about writing when I was in high school, and the colleges I applied to knew it. To show colleges you are serious about your writing, the best thing to do is keep doing what you’re doing, and let them know. Let them know you’ve written and polished a novel, Let them know you are pursuing publication. That’s really focused and ambitious and accomplished of you — and whether or not you’ve actually sold the book matters a lot less.

Let them know (ideally through one of your teacher recommendations) that you are acing your English classes and taking all the
opportunities you can to get extra writing in (like writing for your school newspaper or literary journal, taking creative writing electives– I taught writing skills classes to younger kids while I was in high school — entering teen writing contests like the kind they have at libraries/schools/magazines, attending local writing conferences or book festivals). And, above all, write an extraordinary college entrance essay so they can see first hand what a great writer you are.

Good luck and keep writing!

______________________________

This person had written a novel as a teenager, but if you haven’t, does that mean you’re 1) never going to get into college, 2) never going to write a novel, 3) never get published? No, no, and hell no. I had written a dozen starts of novels by the time I got into college. In college, I wrote another dozen starts. I didn’t actually finish a novel until the year after I graduated from college, because I said to myself, “Self, it’s time you put your money where your mouth is. You say you want to be a writer? Well, prove it. Finish a book.” I finished four before I sold anything, at the age of 26.

Guys, that’s still pretty damn young. And it’s so not a race, either. I’ve published five books, but I know authors who have published fewer books than me to far, far greater acclaim, money, sales, fame — and were older when they started.

Write as much as you want, pursue publication in high school… or don’t. It’s not going to leave a black mark on your career if you don’t write a book until you’re say, 30 years old (hello, Stephenie Meyer). And maybe you’ll be like Atwater-Rhodes or Paolini or any of the other folks who publish in high school or college (Jennifer Lyn Barnes is another example.) But don’t plan on publication as a “way” to get into college. These aren’t volunteer hours we’re talking about, and the publishing world is too slow and capricious to conform to the rapidity of the college application carousel.

(UPDATE: Read the follow-up post HERE.)

Posted in writing advice, writing industry, writing life

21 Responses to From the Mailbag: Publication and College Admissions (Updated)

  1. PurpleRanger says:

    Since you mentioned PublishAmerica (and staying away from it), I might suggest a site that writers should regularly visit, because they write about similar sites to avoid:

    http://accrispin.blogspot.com/

    The main sponsor of the site is SFWA, with support from MWA, but it easily applies to all genres.

  2. Heather says:

    Wow, it’s amazing how competitive the college app process has become. 7 years ago (wow was it really that long ago) when I was applying it was a few essays and a questions but then again I was aiming for the science department and a state school.

    I enjoyed my education and have started a great career but is the current pressure to get into certain schools worth it now? With the economy the way it is and the push to get advanced degrees because the job market is poor, should the focus be on a top tier grad school?

    Really everything is what you do with the opportunities presented to you.

  3. Elscy says:

    This is one of the scariest things I have read in a while. I will admit I was the opposite. I just let myself breeze through my admission process, and I still ended up at Georgia Tech. It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I realized that I could have gotten in somewhere like Berkeley or Yale if I had applied myself on my SATs or even just gotten a better scholorship at Tech.

    I never in a million years would have thought to write a novel simply my college admissions. I want to write a novel, but its something that I think requires sophistication and shouldn’t be used as a check mark. There are some people who can pull it off in their teens, but as I said don’t it just because.

    (On the other hand my 8th grade teacher made everyone send our work out for publication although almost everyone was rejected)

    My sister is currently applying to magnet high schools and she knows students who are applying because they want to be able to say they were accepted to such and such school even though they went to their home school. It is doing something for the sake of having the experience and looking better when it is not true.

  4. Ami Glazer says:

    I totally get where you’re coming from. I’m thirteen and I love to write, and it’d be awesome to get published as a teen. I mean, it’s not like I only want to get published for money and fame or for college, because I know that few writers actually end up getting rich and famous. I just want people to see what I’ve written, you know? I want to be published (and it’d be nice to be published as a teen) because writing is something I love to do and one of the few things I’m good at, and I want people to read what I’ve written. It makes me feel accomplished, you know? So, yeah, I totally agree with this.

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  6. Sarah says:

    Personally, I would love to be an author one day, but I would never use it as a way to get into uni (I’m in Australia; university is our version of college). I have written a novel, but before I send it to an agent or publisher I want to make sure it’s the best it can be, and I can’t do that if I’m hurrying to finish up or stressing about it. If I get published, then yay! How old I am when that happens doesn’t really concern me.

  7. Cheeta says:

    I have always wanted to be a writer but i never have the time. How do you make time?

  8. Jo says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I just graduated from college and, although I have started dozens of novels, I have yet to finish one. I can get kind of down on myself when I see all the incomplete files on my hard drive. But, like you said, its not a race to finish. And its more worth my while to take my time on making a story really great rather than trying to finish it before a certain age. So thanks for the encouragement. It goes a long way.

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  10. Kay Cassidy says:

    This is such a wonderful post, Diana. Very true and inspiring to boot. So glad Cynthia LS tweeted it today. Off to do the same…

  11. stephanie says:

    well this post made this 27 year old feel very old . . . 😉

    i have to say, even if you want to write, you don’t have to be published. i worked in an ivy league admissions office, and i can say that the admission package as a whole counts more. unless you are getting published by a super-well-known publisher and the book is actually good, it’s not going to make a difference.

    if you really want to write, write! publication shouldn’t be a stamp that says, “you are a writer!” i mean, i would love that, but you know. it’s hard work! schools want to make sure that you know you aren’t just going to drop out to write more books – you’re going to have to pass classes other than english in college!

    good luck everyone, and just know, college is what you make it, no matter where you are.

  12. Rachael B. says:

    I know what this pressure feels like. I’m only a Freshman in High School but we have been stressed by everyone to get in a good college. So, yeah, I too have been thinking that maybe if I did get one of my books published then I would have a better shot of getting in somewhere good. I get where these teens have been coming from.
    The stress is everywhere and I can’t help but think of being a published author as putting me ahead of the crowd. It’s almost like a huge extra credit assignment.

  13. Diana says:

    Rachael, I feel for you. But you can’t let yourself get stressed about this now or you will be a real mess for the next three years!

    Look at what that ACTUAL Ivy League college admissions officer wrote above. They care about your grades, your test scores — not about your publishing credits. Publishing a book is not “extra credit.” It’s not a stunt to up your chances at getting in somewhere good. It’s a career.

    I’m not sure why this is such a popular misconception, or why “publishing a book” became this year’s “Way to get into College” tip. (I think, when I was a teen, it was “learn an unusual musical instrument” because they’d be all, wow, we don’t have a Hammered Dulcimer Player here at Competitive University.) Either way, it’s a stunt.

    As I said in the post, a much better rturn on investment for an aspiring writer is to keep working on their books nad their craft, attend writer’s conferences, work on their school’s newspaper or literary magazine, take creative writing classes, teach literacy or writing skills, or start a book club or writing club at the school. All are GUARANTEED returns on investments — things you can put down on your apps as accomplishments. And you can certainly look for a publisher during all this, but do not pin your college application on getting a book published. It’s way too risky, and might not even pay off.

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