A Columbia Success Story: How to Create a Creative Writing Theme for Your College Application

Charles came to us a gifted student who was doing well at school. Starting his 10th grade at an academically rigorous boarding school, Charles was a good student with a 3.7 GPA (unweighted) and working towards strong SAT scores. Activity-wise he was spread out among lots of different activities. When asked which one he liked the most, he replied the newspaper. When asked why, he replied simply, “I love to write.”

As with all our creative writing candidates, we had Charles work with one of our creative writing Mentors. After seeing some sample pieces, the Mentor identified Charles as a gifted writer for whom we could create a strong creative writing theme. We worked on the following with Charles:

Founding a new creative writing club that would focus on literary writing and submitting pieces to literary magazines.

Creating a blog/wordpress site that would create an online community of writing students from Charles’s home country of Korea and on his campus in Boston.

Creating a writing portfolio blog – a private blog that would function as his writing journal. His Mentor was also a writer and with access to this blog, both of them could work together on pieces for magazine submissions.

Charles and his Mentor worked on 2 short story pieces and several poems. They polished them to perfection over a period of three months.

Concurrently, they made a literary magazine submission schedule. They committed to submitting pieces in rotation to 20 literary magazines, 5-6 at a time over a 6-month period.

Charles was initially rejected 12 times before being accepted for publication by The Claremont Review. He was also rejected by the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio but accepted to the Kenyon writing program. After two wonderful weeks, he had more material to submit and he was eventually published in Parallel Ink and OOlong.

Columbia was Charles’ first choice. However, he was deferred for early admissions and then waitlisted. He was rejected by other top schools, gaining admissions to his backups, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown and a couple safety schools. As soon as Charles’s Mentor heard that he had been waitlisted at Columbia, the Mentor submitted more pieces and Charles was published in Daphne. They wrote an email to Columbia reiterating his first choice of Columbia and his recent accomplishment.

On May 23 of 2014, Charles received a note from his college counselor to check his application status at Columbia. He had been taken off the waitlist, accepted to the class of 2018. Further, the counselor received an email from one of the Directors who cited Charles’s strong interest in creative writing and his achievements in that field as the reason for his acceptance.

Download our free Success Stories pdf for 6 success stories (with full student profiles) of students who gained admissions to Columbia, MIT, Caltech, Dartmouth and more!

How to Create a Creative Writing Theme for Your College Application

Creative writing is simply one of the best themes for gifted students. There is a whole world of literary arts supported by over 500 literary magazines, thousands of creative writing programs at universities and hundreds of thousands of creative writers aspiring to be the next Cormac McCarthy or Junot Diaz.

Because we’re dealing with literary writing and top colleges, we have to make a controversial distinction between literary and genre writing. While most writers just write words and stories they care about, there is certain type of writing that the literary world is looking for. Think of literary writing as artistic writing and genre writing as entertaining writing. Fantasy and science fiction would be genre, while the literary counterparts are called magic realism or fabulism and slipstream. The focus is on crafting artistic words and dealing with “the human condition.”

Choosing this theme is distinctive enough. But creating a set of accomplishments based on your work will significantly improve your chances at top college admissions.

Remember the 4 areas to cover when constructing an application theme:


Extracurriculars – Clubs/Leadership

Extracurriculars – Academic/Scholarship


1. Academics

To cover the academic area for a strong creative writing theme, it is important to take the most challenging English courses your high school offers. Here is a sample course planner:

Freshman Year: English 9 (honors or college-prep if offered)

Sophomore Year: English 10 (honors or college-prep if offered)

Junior Year: AP English Language/Composition

Senior Year: AP English Literature/Composition

Elective Options: Creative Writing, Yearbook Production, Newspaper, any other specialized English electives at your school

Not all high schools offer creative writing as an elective, but if yours does, be sure to take it. There will be writing techniques and styles covered in an elective course that regular English classes will not be able to get into in great detail (poetry, point-of-view, character development, fiction writing, etc.). If your school does not offer such a course as an elective, talk to your guidance counselor so that they can be sure to mention that when they write your school report and recommendation.

Joining the newspaper or yearbook staff is another great way to demonstrate your love for writing, as these activities teach a particular style that will help you in any future writing endeavors. At some schools, these organizations also come with a required class in addition to an after-school time requirement.

If you are unable to find elective writing classes at your school (or if you just want to gain extra skills with more advanced study), many colleges offer creative writing courses that are open to high school students.Whether it is a course at a top school, or just your local community college, it will speak very strongly to your desire to become a writer if you show admissions committees that you took the effort to look beyond your high school to find a course that would teach you more.

Summer Programs:

Some schools are offering top-notch summer programs for aspiring writers to rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Depending on your schedule, you may even be able to attend one program each year, which would give you a lot of experience under your belt. The crème de la crème are U of Iowa’s Young Writers’ Studio and Kenyon College Young Writers’ Workshop. Here are some links to a few of the other top programs:

Emerson College Creative Writers Workshop

Summer at Georgetown Creative Writing Institute

Alfred University Creative Writing Camp

Juniper (UMass)

2. Extracurriculars – Clubs/Leadership

High schools have so many options these days for participating in writing and publishing. Obvious choices are the newspaper and yearbook staffs. Ifyou choose to join one or both of these organizations, strive to become an editor or a section editor. These types of positions will not only give you writing experience, but they will give you experience in editing and publishing, as well as content selection and leadership. All of these skills will be useful to you later, and they will show admissions committees that you are serious about your desire to become a writer.

Because newspapers and yearbooks generally only offer non-fiction writing opportunities, it may also serve you well to join the staff of the school’s literary magazine. Unlike the newspaper, which simply reports events at the school and in the community, a literary magazine is designed to showcase creative projects like poetry, short stories, and descriptive narratives written by students. If your school does not have one, start one!

Being proactive and bringing a club or a publication to a school that previously did not have one is a fantastic way to gain leadership experience and to demonstrate your love for writing. Here are some other useful club ideas:

Literature or Book Club (where everyone reads a book or a passage and writes interpretations or analyses to share)

Writer’s Club/Workshop (where everyone writes original pieces to share with the group and then receives feedback)

Fiction Writer’s Workshop (where there is a theme or focus every week/month like character development/scene setting, etc.)

Future Publisher’s Club (where students meet and talk about pitches, publishing contacts, self-publishing, etc.)

Colleges certainly love to see applicants who achieve leadership positions in clubs, but they are equally impressed by commitment and time spent. If you are not the founder or president of a club, do not worry. As long as you can demonstrate your passion for the activity, and show that you have been committed to the club for some time, that will add strength to your application.

3. Extracurriculars – Academic/Scholarship

In many subjects, especially the sciences, colleges like to see applicants who have research experience or who at least have had the curiosity to develop a research idea (even if they did not have the resources to complete the project). With creative writing, there really is no formal research option, so what can you do to showcase your dedication and ability?

Submit your work for publication! Once published, you are considered a professional writer as some publications even pay you for your piece. The amount is nominal, but it’s not about making money: the pay makes it official that you are a professional. In so many ways, getting published sets you apart from other students and top colleges love it. It tells them you are unique, persistent, hard-working and mature.

Of course, you should begin with your school’s literary magazine if you have one. As discussed earlier, if your school does not have a literary magazine, start one! There is a good chance that there are other students in your school who are looking to get their foot in the door of publishing their work as well.

There are also dozens of national literary magazines who accept submissions from high school students. Being able to provide a sample of nationally published writing on your college application is a huge advantage, and something that not many applicants will have. Here are links to some of the most well-known publications:

The Blue Pencil


The Claremont Review (international – based in Canada)

Cuckoo Quarterly


Navigating the Maze

Polyphony H.S.

Speak Up!

Through the 3rd Eye

WireTap (for journalistic and non-fiction work)

Getting published will make this activity the core of your theme. You can write your main and extracurricular essays on every aspect of writing and getting published. The inevitable rejections you will get is great stuff to write essays on as well. If you can fit it into the “Achievements” section of “Activities,” that would be a good place for it, or feel free to use the “Additional Information” section to give more detail. Being published at any age is a big accomplishment and takes a lot of hard work and perseverance. Admissions committees are sure to admire your dedication to writing if you are able to get your work published while still in high school.

Further, you can send your published work to schools using the Slideroom application. Click here for more information on this process.

4. Competitions/Achievements

In addition to submitting your work for publication, you should also consider entering a few writing contests and/or applying for scholarships. There are some excellent contests for young writers that carry enormous prizes for the top winners (plus the prestige of having won a contest!)

The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards

Scholastic has teamed up with the non-profit Alliance for Young Artists and Writers to sponsor an annual contest where awards are given in 28 categories of art and writing. Some of the writing categories include:

Dramatic Script




Personal Essay/Memoir

Science Fiction/Fantasy

Short Story

and more

For the Scholastic contest, students first compete at a regional level and then can qualify for the national competition. The top national awards are as high as $10,000.

Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Annual Poetry Prize

This contest, established in 2004, offers prizes ranging from $1,000 to $25,000 to young writers to encourage them to further their studies in poetry. The contest is open to anyone under the age of 40, so students will be competing against adults, but it is a well-known national contest that carries a lot of prestige. Winners’ names (along with their winning submissions) will be posted on the contest’s site as well.

More information about contests and scholarships can be found at:


Major and Supporting Documents

To complete a solid creative writing theme, you need to be sure to choose a major that fits with the theme. Not all schools will have a specific “creative writing” major, so look at your options for your chosen schools and pick which major makes the most sense.

Here are some potential majors you might be able to choose:

English major with a Creative Writing minor (Dartmouth)

Creative Writing major with a concentration in Fiction Writing (Northwestern)

English major with intention to apply for honors in creative non-fiction writing (Brown)

English major with Writing concentration or Interdisciplinary Writing studies (U of Chicago)

In other words, each school will have its own English, Literature, Humanities, or Communications department, which will have different requirements and different titles for the major that most applies to your situation. The main idea here is that if you are choosing to construct a Creative Writing theme in your application, your major should be related to writing in some way. Choosing a Chemistry major would indicate that you probably should change your theme.

Supporting Documents:

First, you will need some strong recommendations. You should certainly have your English teacher write one for you (choose the one you had the most recent class with unless your relationship with an earlier teacher is much better), and there are countless options for an additional recommendation, depending on your experience and whether or not the college you’re applying to allows for extra recommendation letters.

Some ideas:

The faculty advisor for any club/school publication you may have participated in

A staff writer/editor for any community publication your work may have been published in

The professor of any college course you may have been able to take

Any publisher you may have worked with

The leader/adviser of any summer program you may have attended

Remember to always read each college’s recommendation requirements carefully. Often times, you will have to submit two recommendations fromteachers of very different subjects. Do not break the rules just to adhere to your theme. Always follow the submission rules. These are just ideas if the rules allow for more than one recommendation from the same academic discipline.

For more success stories, tips and guidance on creating your student’s own unique and compelling theme sign up now for our downloadable booklet, Success Stories, featuring 6 Ivy League success stories about students who got into Columbia, MIT, Caltech, Dartmouth and more. Success Stories offers an intimate look at these students’ success stories as well as a detailed look at their profile. See what activities and programs helped them get into the schools of their choice.

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