This story appears in THE KOREA TIMES on Thursday, June 25, 2015.

“Right now, we get applications from at least thirty worthy candidates for each one we accept,” she said. I was talking long distance to an admissions officer at the graduate school of a well-regarded public university in America. It was after midnight in Seoul but morning in that part of the United States. I wanted to find out what it took – other than money – to get into the graduate school there and figured the best way to do that was to call and ask someone at the admissions office, and an inexpensive long distance phone card made that easy.

It’s difficult to get into a decent graduate school in the United States these days, even for qualified Americans, but it can be done. The admissions officer I talked with explained that the students who stand the best chance of making it into the graduate school there, regardless of where they’re from, must be good writers.

“We’ve never had as many applicants as we’re getting now,” she said, “and many apply from Korea. They’re capable too but we can’t take them all – we just don’t have the space – so we must choose carefully because the students we want in our graduate school will not just succeed, we want students who will thrive here.

“We look at grades and test scores like we’ve always done,” she said. “But we’re more interested in how well our candidates write for us.”

With email and Skype, university admissions officers around the world have refined their application procedures so they can learn as much as they can about the abilities of the applicants before they decide who they will accept. “We want to talk with them and want them to write for us,” she explained, “a lot.

“And we can have them do that for us today like we were never able to do even a couple of years ago.”

In talking long distance with admissions officers at other universities in the United States, they all say the same thing: they want their candidates to write for them. And they arrange for them to do that through email. For example, the admissions office will send a candidate a question they want her or him to respond to with a piece of writing within thirty minutes of opening the message. “This reduces the odds that someone is helping them,” she said. “Also, we get to see how well they organize their writing when they’ve got to meet a deadline.

“The candidates who will make it into our graduate school will write for us a dozen times this way,” she said. “Maybe more.”

The only way to respond to questions like this with good writing is to read and write every day and reread everything that you write and then rewrite it until you’re pleased with it. The sooner students begin the daily regimen of reading and writing, the better writers they will become and the better their chances of making it into a good American graduate school.

Writing courses are everywhere and it’s easy for students to pay their money and enroll in them. The advertisements for these courses claim they can turn any student into a good writer. What they don’t make clear is that unless a student dedicates her or himself to reading and writing everyday – and on their own too – even the best teachers in the world can’t help them.

But how to begin? Start by reading. Read short stories, essays, magazine and newspaper articles. Start with this newspaper. Learn how to write from what you’re reading. Emulate the writing that excites you the most, that pulls you to the end, still wanting to read more, so that your writing starts to pull you to the end.

Studying writing textbooks and grammar manuals probably won’t hurt, but they’ll never take the place of reading good articles and stories and writing and rereading everything that you write and then rewriting it again until you get it the way you want it, and you do that by reading and writing and never stopping. It’s the only way you can turn yourself into a good writer.