The Secrets of Sophie Kerr Revealed

By Meaghan Menzel

Copy Editor

Washington College is only a couple of weeks into the semester, but seniors already have a lot to think about: graduation, thesis-writing, job hunting, and possibly submitting a portfolio for the Sophie Kerr Prize. According to the Rose O’Neill Literary House website, “In accordance with the terms of her [Sophie Kerr’s] will, half of the annual income from her bequest to the College is awarded each year to the graduating senior demonstrating the best potential for literary achievement. Valued at $61,382 in 2014, it is the nation’s largest undergraduate writing prize.”

In order to provide instructions on submitting a portfolio, clear up any misconceptions about the contest, and answer any other questions, Director of the Lit House and Associate Professor of English Dr. Jehanne Dubrow hosted a talk on Jan. 27 at the Lit House.

“This is a session that we have offered for a few years now… Members of the English Department who are also comprised of members of the Sophie Kerr committee are not allowed to coach you individually in any way on your portfolio, but there was a consensus within the department that not enough was being made explicitly clear to students who were submitting portfolios,” Dr. Dubrow said. “So this is one of the ways that we try to address that problem.”

Dr. Dubrow started the session by going over the English Department’s Sophie Kerr website and the requirements listed for different parts of the portfolio.

To begin, the cover page should include information like a student’s name, phone number, and a time a professor should call them should they be selected as a finalist.

In regards to the introduction, Dr. Dubrow said, “Rather than thinking of it as a separate entity, think of it as really connected to the other work in the portfolio.” In other words, if you submit a piece that emphasizes poetry, use similar language in your introduction. “We want to feel when we start reading your portfolio that there’s a smooth passage between the introduction and the pieces that then follow,” Dr. Dubrow said.

Associate Professor of English Dr. James Hall said, “Think of this as like a museum exhibit and see how you’re creating a reading experience for an audience who are sitting and reading 40 portfolios… of various lengths in a very short amount of time.”

According to the College’s website, pieces one can submit in a portfolio “may include critical essays, creative nonfiction, poetry, fiction, journalism, stage plays, screenplays, blogging, graphic novels, or other hybrid forms.”

Senior Julia Armstrong said after attending the lecture, “I feel alright about the process. I’m still very intimidated, but I think that’s to be expected.”

Some misconceptions Dr. Dubrow cleared up include the following:

First: “It is not a creative writing prize… The common misconception about the prize is that it’s always awarded to a creative writer and that that’s what’s valued the most,” she said. “This is not the case at all. It’s always awarded to the student who the committee believes is revealing the most potential in his or her work.”

Second: This contest is not limited to English majors and creative writing minors. Anyone can submit a portfolio. According to Dr. Dubrow, they had an anthropology winner a few years ago.

Third: You do not have to include several different genres in your portfolio. If you are stronger in just one genera, that is fine. If you’re stronger in several, that is also fine. “You want to present a portfolio that is your best representation of what you’ve been doing and who you think you will become in the field of literary endeavor,” she said.

Members of the Sophie Kerr Prize Committee held an information session to answer questions for students wishing to submit portfolios.
Members of the Sophie Kerr Prize Committee held an information session to answer questions for students wishing to submit portfolios.

Fourth: You can submit already published work.

Some other tips Dr. Dubrow gave to students:

First: There isn’t a page limit, “but you should place one on yourself,” Dr. Dubrow said. The committee wants to see, “quality over quantity.”

Second: “You’re going to want to proofread this sucker a million times before you upload it,” Dr. Dubrow said. You cannot ask an English professor to read your work for the portfolio, but you can still get feedback from someone you trust. This, however, doesn’t mean that you can’t submit a piece you got feedback on from an English professor before you considered it for the contest. The committee realizes this is bound to happen.

Third: Provide context for your work. For example, if you submit a journalism piece, a piece you edited, or a translation, you should provide context either in the introduction or in a brief paragraph before the specific work.

Lastly: “If you’re in a creative writing class this semester with anyone else who is a senior and is considering submitting a portfolio, be generous with one another,” Dr. Dubrow said.

Armstrong said, “It was nice to know who else was planning on trying for Sophie Kerr and to be reminded that they can be a support team, that we can rely on each other for edits and opinions, etc. And it wasn’t a competitive atmosphere either. It felt very relaxed to me, mature and professional.”

“If you’re going to commit yourself to a life of creative writing… there’s always going to be somebody who wins something that you wanted, or you’re going to win something that someone else wanted,” Dr. Dubrow said. “The life in writing… is the life of rejection, but it’s also occasionally a life of glory.”

For more information on the contest, contact Dr. Dubrow or Dr. Hall or consult the English Department’s website under the Sophie Kerr Legacy.

In order to be considered, all portfolios  of studetn writing must be submitted in person to Christa Blick in Smith 224 by April 17 at 4:00 p.m.

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