Former magazine editor lends a hand to college-bound teens
It’s time for high-school juniors and seniors to start thinking about college admissions, and part of the process is the personal essay that is required to accompany each application. In a pair of workshops scheduled at the library, Jamestown resident Jim Stahl will offer his expertise to help teens create the perfect essay.
Stahl, who has lived in Jamestown for five years, studied philosophy and English at Georgetown before earning a master’s degree in English from the University of Chicago. Following college, Stahl taught the language for five years until 1985. That’s when he started a literary magazine for teens called Merlyn’s Pen. The magazine published two quarterly editions: one for high-school students and one for middle-school students.
Merlyn’s Pen invited teenage writers to submit their best material. Only about one in every 150 submissions was accepted for publication. The magazine had a readership of 100,000, and was used by teachers in classrooms in 19 countries to help inspire the budding writers in their classes.
“We identified talented young writers and published them for use in classrooms,” Stahl said.
Several of the teen writers that were featured in Merlyn’s Pen went on to become successful writers, including Amity Gaige, who wrote “O My Darling,” Dara Horn, author of “In the Image,” and Curtis Sittenfeld, who wrote “Prep.” Sittenfeld’s book was chosen as one of the 10 best books of 2005 by the New York Times.
Although Merlyn’s Pen ceased publication as a print magazine in 2002, it still exists as a website. It serves as a repository for archived material that appeared in the magazine. In addition to the student writing, the site provides a number of resources for teachers, including lesson plans and activities.
“The website features all of the fiction, nonfiction and poetry that the magazine published in the 1980s and 1990s,” Stahl said. “Several hundred English teachers go to the site each week. It’s still a wonderful resource.”
As an example of how the Merlyn’s Pen website is used by educators, Stahl said that if a Rhode Island teacher wanted to inspire her students to write poetry, she could search the site for a poem written by a Rhode Island teenager.
“She could break those out and use them as a writing prompt,” he said, “or a discussion starter.”
Stahl’s free essay workshops will be held on the last two Tuesdays in October from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Students are invited to attend one or both. Stahl said he volunteered to run the workshops because he was seeking a way to give back to the community.
“I noticed that a lot of men on the island who are my age seem to be members of the volunteer fire department,” said Stahl, who is 55. “I started asking myself what I’d like to do to get involved on the island myself. Rushing into burning buildings didn’t come first to mind, so I thought using my experience and skill set toward helping others would be a good idea.”
Stahl said the workshops are aimed at students who will write college application essays in the upcoming weeks or months. The workshops will be hands-on.
“I’ll help kids brainstorms their interests, their passions, the things they care about most,” Stahl said. “I’ll try to help them make their essays unique and singular. It will be fun. It will be challenging in that I’ll design some activities that will invite kids to think carefully and deeply about what they care about most.”
Stahl said that first and foremost the application essay is a way for the admissions officers to know the student as an individual. At the end of the essay, the admissions officers should be able to feel that they have a sense of the applicant. He added that the purpose of the essay is for students to tell their stories as specifically as possible in order for a reader to get to know them. The essay may be the only chance an applicant has to provide that insight into their character.
“A student’s core personality can’t be revealed in SAT scores, grades or even after-school activities,” he said.
Stahl pointed out that students today are not just competing with other American students, but also with students from other countries who come with high-test scores and good grades. He said that colleges are under pressure to accept foreign students because they often pay full tuition, as opposed to coming on scholarship.
According to Stahl, the college essay remains the one salient part of the application where students can distinguish themselves from other applicants. He said there are several possibilities for students who attend the workshop.
“Some students may leave with the first draft of a good essay,” Stahl said. “Some kids may leave with a new way of thinking about their essay, understanding the need to turn their idea into a story. Some may just brainstorm their idea and not get much beyond the brainstorming, which will lead to the idea crystallizing in the next week or two following the workshop. Some may leave with the sense that they’re not alone in facing this daunting challenge.”