Hallie Gay Bagley is a college admissions essay coach, specializing in shepherding young students across the college admissions line. A true Kentuckian, Hallie Gay Walden Bagley grew up in a literary-prone family, “All of my family are English majors” so being an English major at Dartmouth and being drawn to publishing in NYC afterward should come as no surprise. Serving as Managing Editor of the New York literary journal, The Paris Review, for 6 years, Hallie learned a lot about creative self-expression. In addition, she studied psychology and grew fascinated with people’s narratives and biographies. Her favorite section of The New Yorker is the Profile section because there you find riveting portraits of interesting people. These two interests, words and personal narrative, have brought Hallie Gay to the creation of her SmartWriting College Admissions Essay coaching business. There she utilizes her double Ivy League degree (Dartmouth and Columbia Law) to inspire young lives to dream bigger and put themselves onto paper. Hallie Gay has started a small annual scholarship to support young students trying to afford college and does everything she can to inspire them to authentically write their personal stories in their college personal statements. She feels she was created to do what she does and plans to never quit. Not, that is, until she finds her resting place at the peaceful shore.
What was your best/favorite subject in school?
No question, it was always English literature. I loved Edith Wharton, I loved the Brontes, I loved Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Any writer who had a craft, a special way of putting things. I’ve always loved Truman Capote a southerner who had the most amazing way of describing interior emotions through dialogue. He’s taught me a lot.
What was your first job?
My very first job in high school was working at a clothing boutique then the very first job out of college was reading the slush pile (short stories piled up in the corner of the little Paris Review office) for free. The day was spent reading short story after short story, combing through the giant paper stack looking for the hidden gem that might just make it from Idaho into the pages of The Paris Review (that was our hope).
Where and how did you first get into the industry you currently work in?
It was providence. I used my interest in what goes on with others under the surface (you can call it psychoanalysis if you will) and my skill with words and belief in education to give me the idea of what I love to do, helping coach students through their college process. It’s the combination of the two that really elevates my execution. However, certainly those 6 years at The Paris Review, as managing editor putting out a literary quarterly and working with very talented writers, that certainly had a lot to do with everything.
How have those jobs prepared you for what you do now?
My favorite story about the Paris Review preparing me has to do with my boss, George Plimpton, Editor in Chief. George was a former Harvard English major and editor of the Harvard Lampoon and to my mind, he was a genius editor. I would try to edit short stories before giving them to him, and he would red pencil the very same short story and I would see how much of a structural editing genius he was: he would take three paragraphs from page 5 move it to page 1 then take two sentences from page 2 and pile them into the middle. He knew how to change the structure of a piece. Then I had to transfer his edits into the final magazine so I like to say that I had a double PhD in editing because not only did I try to edit first, but then I got to study the talented edits of a true master because of the transcription of his work into the literal magazine. Now when I approach a piece of writing, I like to think of writing as sculpture and try to put a scaffold up against it that will enable strong pure edits.
Describe the best day of work you’ve ever had.
The best day of work I ever had I guess was working with a young man who got admitted to Harvard Early Restrictive Action. He arrived with a very weird STEM type of draft and I immediately knew it would not help him, it did not show any school any part of who he was. The personal statement needs to be that: personal. So we started over from scratch. He was willing to do the very hard work of digging and brainstorming for a better idea. It took us 15 hours of my being the psychoanalyst digging into his extracurriculars and projects, mining for gold. In the 15th hour, he mentioned a minor thing about doing a reading blog (this from a brilliant math science student) and as part of that, he asked me if I’d ever read the short story “The Swimmer” by John Cheever. The Swimmer is the story of a suburban man’s descent into alcohol and mental illness as he “swims home” across suburban neighborhood swimming pools. I had not read it. So we ended our very long 15-hour day by both of us going home to our beds and reading “The Swimmer.” The next morning, I had “cracked” the idea of his essay and he immediately set out to write a brilliant piece from the starting point of that idea. It was so gratifying because his dream was real, to attend Harvard, and he had the stuff to achieve it, but if we hadn’t gotten to “The Swimmer” as his hook, and he hadn’t written a totally new essay, his old one might have dashed his life-changing dream.
How do you keep yourself motivated?
I am motivated all the time because of love of the work. I get the privilege of spending 60+ hours with intelligent and interesting young people who are dreaming of their next step and I get the honor of being a sherpa to them as they navigate a fairly grueling college admissions process. Sometimes I have to read New Yorker profiles, I love the profile section, to get jacked up about all the marvelous people out there in the world. That is pure motivation.
What kind of business ideas excite you most?
I get terrifically excited by great ideas (out of the box or creative) answers to the supplementary essay questions for specific colleges because those supplements really matter. A lot of the students don’t realize how much of a difference they make but because everyone else who is applying to that college is answering the same question so you really need to answer it differently and better. More thoughtfully and more creatively. I try to shoot for the fence with out of the box.
Have you ever tried any unorthodox techniques to attract attention to your business?
Yes, I had a favorite young person who was I believed going to win our state Miss Kentucky. I advertised my business in the Miss Kentucky program. Alas, nothing came from it haha.
What personal achievement are you most proud of?
I think I’m most proud of creating this business from scratch, all by myself, with no “how to be a college admissions essay coach” training. I have created it every step of the way and now I have an amazing process that comes alongside and helps students at a wonderful life-changing moment in their lives. I also help them get noticed for full-ride scholarships due to unusual ideas so that they get pulled out of the pile.
What wisdom would you have liked to share with yourself when you first started out?
Integrity is by far the most important asset of a leader. Do good to others not because of who they are, but because of who you are. So have integrity and be kind.