Thinking about pleasure

I understand if you don't normally associate college applications with pleasure, but perhaps you should.

The first and most important step to treating the college search like a relationship is working on knowing yourself better. If you're going to really get what you want out of college, then you have to know what you want. And thinking about what brings you pleasure is one of the more fun ways to do that.

For the past several years, I included a writing assignment along with summer reading for my AP Lit. students, and what I asked them to write about was Pleasure. Here's the entire assignment:

In his 2010 book Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness, professor, critic, and general know-it-all Willard Spiegelman writes an essay each on seven ordinary activities that bring him great pleasure. His pleasures: dancing, reading, walking, looking, listening, swimming, and writing.

Your task is to choose a single thing that brings you great pleasure and explain that pleasure in an essay.
• Like Spiegelman, title your essay with a single gerund (“singing” or “skydiving,” for example).
• Explain what the pleasure means to you personally, but also think about what is valuable about the activity in general. Why might others want to take up the pleasurable activity?
• First- or third-person essays are fine, though first-person will probably be easier.
• Essays should be organized and correct in grammar and style.
• Essays should be at least 1000 words.

I had several goals in mind with this assignment. First of all, it helped me get to know my students better. It also gave me a good writing sample to get a sense of the new class's writing levels.

Mainly I assigned it to help them get ready for their college application essays. When you know that the application essay is really about explaining your interests and helping colleges get to know what your defining traits and qualities are, then you know that being able to think about (and write about) what brings you pleasure may be the best preparation.

(It also helped me remember that taking walks outdoors is one of my great pleasures, but one I had neglected. I've been walking more since I started assigning this essay.)

The question I got the most from students: how do I get my title down to one word? I had several students tell me that "Yoga-ing" isn't a word. Some asked me how to differentiate "Gaming," as in video games, from "Gaming," as in gambling. Several athletes didn't like the fact that all sports got reduced to "Playing." But that initial frustration helps you understand to core of your pleasure better.

Which part of Yoga do you take the most pleasure in? Relaxing? Strengthening? Breathing? 

What about your gaming, whichever kind it is, appeals to you most? Strategizing? Adapting? Practicing?

What are your strengths at your sport? Focusing? Leading? Mentoring?

When you move past your initial response (and yes, I did get a few essays on Sleeping), then working your way through this assignment can give you practice at both understanding your own pleasures and explaining them to others. Few skills will be more valuable over time than understanding yourself and being able to explain yourself.

If you're in high school you've already got plenty of assignments. I get that. But take some time to give yourself this assignment. At least write a strong outline. It will help you down the road with your application essays.


Full disclosure: I took a poetry class from Dr. Spiegelman when I was in graduate school, long before Seven Pleasures came out or I gave this assignment.