Kelly Writers House attracts most talented student writers

The Daily Pennsylvanian
October 5, 2010

2009 College alumnus Eric Karlan and College junior Rachel Taube both became involved in the Writers House early in their Penn careers because of the sense of community and creative opportunities.

Photo by Jennifer Kang/DP Senior Photographer

It doesn’t take muscle, coordination and endurance to get recruited by colleges anymore — at least not at Penn, where seasoned prose can do the same trick.

The Kelly Writers House, a unique literary arts center with no comparable facility at any peer university, is currently celebrating 15 years of operation. In addition to orchestrating more than 100 workshops, guest speakers and classes each semester, the Writers House brings something even more beneficial to Penn: talented high-school writers.

Over 300 members of the class of 2014 were drawn to Penn in some way through this ‘writing recruitment’ process. Out of those 300, about 10 of the students who English professor and Kelly Writers House Director Al Filreis deems “most talented and with the most potential” become his personal advisees.

Filreis compares his role to that of a swim coach who discovers and attracts the country’s best athletes.

“Like a coach, I’m looking for ambition, excellence, enthusiasm and potential,” he said.

Every year, Filreis writes letters to the Admissions Office regarding 25 or so of his brightest prospective students. Other Writers House faculty and staff members write an additional 20 letters, urging Admissions to accept particularly talented candidates.

Some students learn about the Writers House through a 2007 New York Times article while others are guided to Filreis through alumni or admissions consultants. Filreis also scouts potential candidates who have been recognized in national writing contests.

College freshman and writing recruit Ari Cohen heard about the Writers House through family friends.

Since Cohen liked the small size at her high school in Los Angeles, she was originally only interested in applying to liberal arts colleges.

“After I realized what a close-knit community Kelly Writers House was, I really began to see myself at Penn,” Cohen said.

When she visited Penn, Cohen scheduled an appointment with Filreis and sat in on a Fellows visiting-author reading. From then on, she stayed involved by sending in writing samples and phoning in questions for Filreis to ask other guest speakers throughout the year.

“I’ve been keeping in touch with Al since I met him,” Ohio high-school senior Michael Spaeth said. Over the past few months, Spaeth, a potential recruit, has sent in poetry samples and blog posts.

He said that the Writers House was a “selling point” for him when he visited Penn — noting that it already felt like home.

Filreis understands that students are more likely to come to a large university if they know they’ll be comfortable and have a support system from the start. “It’s a recipe for success in the most basic way,” he explained.

When recruit Eric Karlan, now a College alumnus, arrived at Penn in 2005, he noticed that the Writers House was lacking in journalism and nonfiction areas. At the end of his freshman year, Karlan walked into Filreis’ office and told him that he wanted to create a literary journalism publication at Penn by the time he graduated.

“We took a napkin, drew out the idea for the publication, and 10 minutes later we were across the street at Campus Copy,” Karlan recalled. “The next semester I had an independent study to design the publication, and now it’s a publication called The Green Couch.”

Such testimonies to student creativity are the reasons why Dean of Admissions Eric Furda supports Penn’s writing recruitment.

He calls the Writers House a “jewel on our campus” and notes that it’s “crucial” to recruit top students in any field who want to sharpen their skills in a very specialized way.

Filreis, in turn, appreciates Furda’s flexibility in this process.

“It takes an open-minded, willing admissions department,” Filreis said. “Luckily, we have that.”