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Another Valentine’s Day has passed, which means it’s a good time to 1) buy candy and 2) start writing, because the Modern Love College Essay Contest is officially open for submissions.
If you are a frequent reader of the column or listener of the podcast, you know that Modern Love is home to some of the most moving personal essays in The Times. Now, college students, is your chance to submit your own story.
I talked to Daniel Jones and Miya Lee of the Modern Love team about what they’re looking for in submissions, common themes of young love and college students’ inevitable procrastination.
Robbie: How did the contest originate?
Daniel Jones: I wasn’t hearing from young writers, and I wanted to get great essays that would really define what relationships were for people that age. I put out a call for a contest and aggressively publicized it through emailing English departments nationwide and all that. It really paid off. I loved the material that came in and seeing the trends of what young people were dealing with.
Robbie: Is holding it in mid-February purely coincidental or is that a conscious decision because of Valentine’s Day?
Daniel: We had to find a time that was after winter break that would give enough time for students to write essays — they get five weeks or so — then for us to read all of them, edit and publish them while school is still in session. We time the announcement to Valentine’s Day because love is in the air, supposedly.
Robbie: What are you looking for in submissions?
Miya: We’re looking for essays that are representative of the bunch but also have a unique voice. We try to pay attention to trends when we’re reading. One year there were many essays about Tinder, so we wanted to make sure one of the finalists hit on using apps for dating.
Daniel: And we’re always looking for strong storytelling. A lot of students get the misimpression that we’re looking for an essay that defines what love is. They’ll start off with a dictionary definition and write five paragraphs. But it’s not an expository essay; it’s a narrative essay. It’s storytelling from their lives that makes a point about relationships today. It should convey that information through storytelling, not through argument.
Robbie: What common themes or trends have you noticed about millennial love?
Daniel: I’d say the most common overall theme is people trying to figure out how to find love without ever having to be vulnerable. I often get the sense that college students are piecing together the little parts of their love lives that they need. There can be sort of a dividing line between an emotional relationship and a physical relationship. It changes from year to year based on how people are communicating and where they’re finding these connections.
Miya: There are many more forms of relationships now. Polyamory is a big theme in this contest, and I don’t really remember it showing up as much in the 2015 contest.
Daniel: It seems like many young people are getting rid of old constrictions, but they aren’t sure what shape the new thing should take. There’s lots of discussion about labels and terminology. In a previous contest, so many essays were asking the question, “What are we? Is this a relationship? Is it not a relationship? Does it have a rule? Does it not have a rule?” There’s always a lot about college that’s experimental, and that’s good! It leaves a lot of room for confusion, but it also leaves a lot of room for good essay writing because people are trying to figure out what things are.
Robbie: Sometimes I feel like I need a dictionary to distinguish between all of the different terms we have for things, whether it’s “talking” or “hooking up” or “ghosting.”
Daniel: I remember reading a bunch of essays, I can’t remember how long ago it was, where no one really agreed on what “hooking up” was. They sort of assumed they had this language in common, but when they were really being honest they were like, “Is this hooking up? If you’re just like kissing, is that hooking up?”
Miya: We’ve also seen a lot of people talking about the impact of technology. Clara Dollar, who was a finalist in the last competition, wrote about her Instagram personality and how she was always trying to live up to that version of herself. In 2015, Davis Webster wrote about never meeting up with someone on Tinder, but having this kind of virtual relationship. So at one end of the spectrum you have this no-strings-attached hookup culture, and then on the other side you have people connecting emotionally in a virtual world, but never meeting up.
Daniel: It can be really hard to start over and reinvent yourself in college the way that many people used to because now your whole online presence trails along. Your followers are going to notice if you start to become a new person. There’s a self-consciousness about that. It also used to be that a lot of high school relationships would end when you went to college — that was it, you weren’t going to have a long-distance thing. Now a lot of people just transition seamlessly into long-distance laptop/phone relationships and often never question that they shouldn’t.
Robbie: What is the reading and judging process like? I read last time you all met up at the Seinfeld diner in New York.
Daniel: Most of it’s not that fun or glamorous. Much like reading for the regular column, which I’ve been doing for 14 years and Miya has been doing for four years, it’s really about immersing yourself in essay after essay and figuring out how much you need to read to give it a fair chance.
With the college contest we’re looking at 2,000 or more submissions, which we have to get through in about three weeks. With such a huge workload, we’re looking for some spark. It doesn’t have to be a perfectly polished essay, but there has to be some vulnerability and an idea that we can grasp on to. We publish the winner and then if we have other good finalists, we’ll publish as many as five essays. So we’re also looking for a mix that can represent a breadth of experience. We wouldn’t run four essays that are all about Tinder, for example; we’d want to run essays that show different things.
Often writers are good at what they’re good at because they have distance from the subject matter, and they’re writing about something that they’ve been able to process for five years, or seven years, or 10 years. What’s so remarkable about the college contest is that students are writing about the time they’re in right now with that kind of intelligence and self-awareness. That’s what I appreciate the most and what I feel like I was not even close to in college.
Robbie: How does reading all of these deep personal essays in such a short time period affect you emotionally?
Daniel: Part of it’s exhausting, but it’s also really inspiring. Some students aren’t able to articulate what they’re going through well enough for publication, but it’s impactful to read the things they’re grappling with, which are often really traumatic experiences. You can see them figuring things out about these really difficult experiences and coming out the other side of that through writing. That’s always inspiring to me.
Robbie: Anything else?
Daniel: Something like 80 percent of the submissions come in on the final day. Of that 80 percent, I think like 60 percent come in in the final two hours. College students and deadlines — it’s kind of hilarious. Maybe try to get it in before 11:58.
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Robbie Harms is a contributor to The Edit. He studied journalism and economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and later graduated from the University of Florida with a master’s in education. He now works as a fifth-grade teacher.
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