By PAT BERRY
For Montclair Local
Pat Berry is a writer, editor, and college application essay coach. For more information, visit collegeapplicationcamp.com and follow her on Instagram via @college_essay_coach. Visit the archives for tips on building a college list, writing a meaningful essay, and more at montclairlocal.news/tag/pat-berry/.
If you were one of my students, you’d get from me a whole bunch of prompts, including this: When you visit a library or bookstore, what shelves do you gravitate toward? Do you linger in science fiction? Biographies? Is fantasy your go-to?
There’s no right answer, of course. It’s just a prompt to get you to articulate how reading fits into the life of a high school student. The thing is, if you plan to attend college, I assume you are a reader. And if you aren’t, you should be.
My earliest memories of reading enthusiastically take me to the 18 months my family lived outside London. I was in the British equivalents of third and fourth grades, and my mom would often take me to a bookstore near our house. The huge front windows and whitewashed shelves of the shop filled the space with light, the perfect metaphor for how I have always felt about books.
As I was the awkward new kid (and the only American) at my school, Enid Blyton’s school-girl characters — the “Malory Towers” series’ temper-prone-but-good-hearted Darrell Rivers comes to mind — filled my time, lessened my loneliness, and anchored reading as a lifelong habit.
Fast forward to the summer after seventh grade. I devoured Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” in a reading marathon. For years it was my favorite book. It was also a favorite of my friend Emily, only she and I weren’t to meet until college. But I love knowing that two tween girls from the Northeast (Emily from Rochester, N.Y.; me from Montclair) were in thrall to these rich Southern characters and the domestic and social issues raised by the Civil War.
That’s the thing about reading. It connects us. It also informs. For instance, I just spent a week learning about the effects of the Japanese occupation of Korea while pouring through Min Jin Lee’s wonderful novel “Pachinko.”
It stands to reason that being a reader helps with getting into college. Studies confirm what we know instinctively: practiced readers score better on standardized tests (e.g. SATs and ACTs), likely because they have strong vocabularies and well-developed comprehension and critical-thinking skills.
Readers also learn to appreciate nuance and insight in what they read, which comes in handy for writing application essays. Anyone can list the elements of an event or challenge, but memorable storytelling includes reflection and attention to details, honed unconsciously the more you read.
READING AND COLLEGE
And once you are in college, you will be better prepared for the workload. As an English major, I was assigned one to two novels a week. I also had prodigious amounts of reading material for the social science courses I loved. Even for a constant reader, keeping up was a challenge.
I texted my old friend Emily the other day. Years ago, while visiting her long after college, I had noticed a recipe tin of index cards. On the cards she’d written reviews of all the books she’d read for pleasure during sixth grade, a project directed by her then teacher. It turns out she’s used the tin ever since to document every book she reads (excluding textbooks relevant to her education, which included a doctoral program). That’s nearly 50 years of reading!
She told me “the act of keeping track is a motivator, a competition with myself to keep going. It also reminds me that there are some years when I’m just not reading enough.” That’s understandable, as Emily is a busy, high-level administrator at Yale.
Still, she says, “reading books is like breathing fresh air for me, so I really need to make the time.”
(I don’t have a box of index cards, but I do set goals, track my reading, and follow what books my friends recommend using Goodreads, a social media platform for bibliophiles.)
It’s never too late to develop a reading routine. I asked Emily for her thoughts on getting started.
“Read what pulls you, not what you think you should read,” she said. “It is meant to be pleasure, and that might mean poetry, it might mean Young Adult novels even later in life, it might mean mysteries, or it might be biographies of world leaders.”
In short, to become a reader, it doesn’t matter all that much what you read. It’s that you read. All the time. Whenever you can.