When my two kids were finishing their junior years of high school, they each received the assignment from their English teacher to write a college application essay.
It sure sounded good—they could get a jump on these dreaded essays and receive professional direction on how to find great topics and write them in an engaging, memorable style.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
From what I could tell, this task of teaching how to write college admissions essays was dumped on these teachers, and they had to cram in a last-minute writing section at the very end of the year (and compete with the AP test crunch time, other end-of-year deadlines/pressures and spring fever.).
Also, as far as I could tell, no one really taught the teachers how to write college admissions essays and students had had very little practice writing in a narrative style.
I’m sure this assignment was better than nothing.
And that there are English teachers out there who do know about writing, and provide great advice and direction for their students.
But for those teachers who feel overwhelmed and under-prepared, I offer these ideas and resources that could easily be incorporated into an essay lesson plan or a unit on how to write a college application essay:
1. DAY ONE of Essay Lesson Plan: Discuss what makes a great college application essay.
The best way to help students understand what makes a great essay, and see for themselves how these essays use a different style of writing (narrative/slice-of-life), is to share some samples. (3 Sample Essays for University of CA app.)
Find some good ones, even a couple bad ones, and have the class read them together and talk about what they liked, and what they didn’t like.
Students should be encouraged to trust what they find entertaining, moving and interesting, and try to copy the literary techniques other students used in their essays.
Try to find sample essays that show the variety of topics that can work, especially those that are mundane (everyday).
2. DAY TWO of Essay Lesson Plan: Help students brainstorm their own topic ideas.
I have written a condensed, step-by-step guide on this process, but also have several posts on how students can find their defining qualities, and then search for their own real-life stories that illustrate a core quality.
It would be very easy to convert the steps I take students through into your own instruction–just step them through this process in class.
(I also have a short guide book, Escape Essay Hell, that maps these out in 10 steps.)
3. DAY THREE of Essay Lesson Plan: After each student has collected a short list of defining qualities, have them brainstorm “times” they used or developed one of these qualities in real life.
Tell them that they are looking for mini-stories, called “anecdotes,” that they can share in their essays.
One huge key to a great anecdote is if it involves a problem (this is your chance to talk about the power of “conflict” in a story.) My Crash Course in How to Write an Anecdote.
Try to find examples of anecdotes, either in sample college admissions essays or at the start of magazines or feature stories in the newspaper.
(All the sample essays in Heavenly Essays use anecdotes, and the last chapter of Escape Essay Hell showcases examples of anecdotes.)
You could even assign students to find one on their own and bring it to class.
My posts on anecdotes not only explain what they are, but have details on how to craft them.
Teach this process to your students–and you will have given them one of the most powerful writing techniques around.
Have them watch my two short YouTube videos on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One and How to Write an Anecdote: Part Two.
4. DAY FOUR of Essay Lesson Plan: Have the students write up one of their real-life moments or incidents into an anecdote (require that it involves a “problem.”)
Talk about how this anecdote shows the reader about their defining quality as opposed to just telling them about it.
Discuss why this is so powerful to grab the reader at the start of the essay.
After they write their anecdote, have them go back and try to condense it even further.
This is part of the skill of writing these, and they do take practice. (Check out this short visual guide to crafting a story.)
5. DAY FIVE of Essay Lesson Plan: Now that the students have described in a story-telling style something that happened to them, and it involved some type of problem, have them start to think about, and jot down notes in list form, these questions:
a. How did that problem make them feel?
b. How did they handle that problem? What steps they took. Where they drew inspiration to face it. (Have them be aware of how their core quality is involved in this process, or the role it plays. And write down their thoughts.)
c. What did they learn in the process of dealing with it? About themselves. About others. About the world in general.
d. Did this experience change them, or how they think about things/life, in any way? Tell them to get reflective and analytical at this point.
These notes will help them continue writing their essay, and use their anecdote to explore how they deal with life, which will reveal what kind of person they area, how they think, what they care about, etc.
One related activity to have students do in pairs, would be this simple exercise on How to Find Your Essay Voice.
I use this approach with the students I tutor, and it’s amazing how easy it is to “capture” pieces of their authentic teenage voice, and how perfectly even a few of these lines or expressions when they are in a reflective mode can enhance their essays.
6. DAY SIX of Essay Lesson Plan: Help students map out a simple writing plan.
Explain how narrative essays are written in a more casual style, and not the 5-paragraph format.
Then have them start writing out a rough draft: Have them start with the anecdote to SHOW the problem and then background the incident (a couple paragraphs); and then go on to TELL about what it meant (explain, reflect, analyze, etc.–drawing off notes from Day Five) in a couple more paragraphs.
(Depending on how much time you have to spend on these essays, I have many posts on specific parts of the process–from finding topics to how to write the conclusion to adding titles. Just browse the Index on the right side of this blog to find them.)
Homework: Have the students complete their rough drafts at home.
If they just stick to this order in general, they should end up with an interesting piece of writing that is compelling and reveals their core quality.
Now it’s up to you how you want to help them critique and revise their essays.
These pieces may be highly personal for some students, but for others, they might benefit from some type of peer review, whether in pairs, small groups or with the entire class.
It’s always great to read these out loud, and have them listen and note the “golden lines,” or parts they like, and pay attention to times the essay gets dull (time to cut it!).
Encourage the students to write as long as they want, but then have them cut their essay to a word count (650 words is limit for the Common App.) There’s no better self-editing exercise then shortening a writing piece.
I believe this assignment can be a wonderful writing assignment, and I bet the students will even enjoy it.
It’s amazing how much we all like to think and write about ourselves! Teachers should take advantage of that.
You will be amazed at some of the stories the students come up with, which will range from entertaining, moving, sad (even tragic) and funny.
I wouldn’t discourage any topic, as long as the student makes sure to use the story to show something about herself or himself.
This is just one way to teach narrative writing, and how to write a college application essay. If you have other techniques or ideas, that’s great (and I would love to learn more about them!). But maybe this will give you a place to start.
Related Resources for Creating an Essay Lesson Plan:
This I Believe: This is a post I wrote about the site called This I Believe, which helps students identify their core values, and includes thousands of sample personal essays and other helpful information. Students can use the same approach I teach on this blog and in my books, and simply replace starting with a core quality or characteristic with a core value.
Where I’m From: This site features a poet from Kentucky who wrote a poem about her roots. It includes an inspiring writing exercise that helps students capture details from their own backgrounds and homes. (It also has short video with poet George Ella Lyon reading the poem out loud.) Students can use these details in their essays to describe themselves and their backgrounds. I’ve used this with my students and they all loved it.
Top Guides on Narrative Writing: This is a post I put together showcasing what I believe are the best books on learning and teaching narrative writing.
Check Out These Related Posts!
Presentation on theme: "THE college application essay Unit"— Presentation transcript:
1 THE college application essay Unit
English 12 and A.P. English: October 2 and 3THE college application essay Unit
2 Aim: How can we review the common application college essays, and start brainstorming for a successful essay?Do now: Please turn in your Wide Sargasso Sea essays.This can be a very stressful topic for many of you. Let’s take a moment to relax.
3 The common Application essay
Let’s review the basics of the common application essay.I will post this PowerPoint online, so you don’t need to take notes.Poll: How many have written at least 1 college essay? How many want to work on an essay you’ve already drafted? How many want to work on a new essay? Common app? Other?
4 Common Application Questions 2013-14
Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.Length: words. Aim for ~ words.
5 Which essay do you think works better?
An essay called “Why I love dogs”An essay about accidentally bringing home the wrong beagle from the pet store.Let’s see a show of hands.Why?
6 General tipsThink small. Don’t tell your whole life story in 500 words. Find a story in your life that meant something to you, then ask yourself: Is this story representative of my larger, more valuable qualities? Feel lost? Ask yourself: What am I trying to say about myself, and am I using a specific, compelling example to tell my story?Write now; edit later. You’re often your own worst critic, but great material can come from pouring it all out on the page. We’ll have time to edit.
7 Which sentences work better?
“I’ve had a hard knocks life. I’ve been through some difficult stuff, but the most important thing is that I’ve overcome that stuff, and now I feel as strong as steel, and I can soar like an eagle.”“My brother and I dub the summer of 2010 ‘The summer of chills.’ It wasn’t any colder than the summer of 2009 or There were just as many dips in the pool to seek relief from the heat and humidity, and just as many sleepless sweaty nights. But it was in the summer of 2010 that both of our beloved grandmothers passed away, leaving us with a chill that no amount of flannel blankets or warm hugs could relieve.”Let’s see a show of hands.Why?
8 General tips IIIt’s all in the details. Many students tend to be generic when they talk about their life. Details give a reader a clear picture and paint a memorable portrait of you and your experience.Beware of clichés. Original phrasing keeps writing vibrant.Entertain your reader, whether your subject is serious, sentimental, pithy, or uplifting. To do so, you’ll need a compelling subject, a direct and powerful narrative, and a memorable style. As you read over your drafts, ask yourself, is this essay fun to read? It doesn’t have to be funny (although it can be), but it can’t be boring. Whichever prompt you choose, the point is to reveal your personality and character. Portray yourself positively. This doesn’t mean you can’t reveal weakness or difficulty, but show how you learned from it and came away stronger.
9 Common app q#2: FailureRecount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?But wait, aren’t I supposed to showcase my strengths in my college application essay?How would you respond to this?What do you think of this topic? “Because of my lousy 12th grade English teacher, I never learned to analyze texts well, and so I haven’t succeeded in high school. I learned that it’s important to have good teachers.”
10 Common App Q#2: FailureRecount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?But wait, aren’t I supposed to showcase my strengths?Consider: Growing and maturing is all about learning from our failures. It's easy to boast about accomplishments, but takes more confidence, skill, and introspection to acknowledge and examine our failures.Let’s break down the Q: 1. Recount the failure (plot summary, with clear, efficient language). 2. How did you respond (what feelings did failure evoke? Be honest). What did you learn (be introspective, self-analytical, and self-aware).Lastly, don’t blame your failure on others. You must show you’ve learned from your failure.
11 Failure q: writing exercise
Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?What kind of failure? Let’s brainstorm.Free write: 4 minutes.Share out with a partner, then the group. Hearing others’ ideas can spark your own. Jot down any ideas you have as you listen. Offer positive feedback.Failure to apply yourself, failure to behave appropriately (conduct insulted or hutr someone, how should you have behaved?), failure to act (do nothing when you should have), failing a friend of family member (letting someone down), failure to listen (think you’re right, don’t listen), failure under pressure, lapse in judgment.Whatever you choose to write about, should reveal personal growth—show how you’re a better person bc you learned from this failure.
12 Prompt #2: Failure sample essay
College essay packets: Let’s read a sample essay aloud (answers Option 2: Failure prompt).Jot down: What did this writer do well and what could he or she improve upon? Share with a partner.Let’s read an admission officer’s comments.
13 Thursday, October 3: Common App essay
Aim: How can we hone in on a college application essay topic, and discover what makes a strong essay?Reminder: Make-up Jane Eyre exam tomorrow, P.3, Room 233.If you were out yesterday and are turning in your essay, you need to attach a parent/guardian note explaining your absence, or you will have points taken off.
14 Common app q#3: challenging a belief
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?It’s open-ended: What kind of "belief or idea" could you explore? Ideas?Which essay topic do you think works better?“How I heroically convinced my school’s ignorant cafeteria workers to serve healthier food.”“The struggles I experienced getting my parents to accept my atheism and take it seriously.”
15 Common app q#3: challenging a belief
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?Be honest as you explore the difficulty of working against the status quo or a firmly held belief. You don’t need to seem like a hero who bravely challenged an idea and easily triumphed.Whatever your approach, you need to reveal a core personal value and give the college a window into your interests, passions, or motivations. So pick something you’re passionate about.
16 Common app q#3: challenging a belief
Let’s break it down:Reflect (more than summary; describe, but also analyze and contextualize).Explain why you acted how you did.Look at the big picture. What were the results? Was your action worth the effort? Did you pay a price for your challenge? Did you or another learn and grow from your efforts? (Your answer doesn’t have to be "yes.”)Note: College education is all about challenging ideas and beliefs, so this prompt speaks to a skill that’s key for college success (and success in this class!). Use this essay to demonstrate that you have this skill!
17 Challenge belief q: Writing exercise
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?What kind of belief or idea? Let’s brainstorm possibilities.Free write: 4 minutes.Share out. Hearing others’ ideas can spark your own. Jot down any ideas you have as you listen. Offer positive feedback.The belief can be your own If you are able to reevaluate and challenge your own beliefs, you are demonstrating that you are a student who has the type of self-awareness, open-mindedness, and maturity that are essential ingredients for college success. a political or ethical belief; a theoretical or scientific idea; a personal conviction; an entrenched way of doing things (challenging the status quo); and so on. Realize, however, that some beliefs can send your essay into controversial and potentially risky territory (drug use, sex life, jail time, heroism)
18 Common App Q#4: happy place
Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?Let’s break it down. 1. Describe (use detailed, evocative language). 2. Explain why—this part is crucial. You need to be introspective and share what it is that you value.Let’s brainstorm places and environments. Think beyond the obvious.A "place or environment" could be many things--a house, a classroom, a tree top, a church, a stadium, a stage, a family, a country, an imagined space, a book, an internal place, and so on
19 Happy Place Q: Writing Exercise
Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?Free write: 4 minutes.Share out. Hearing others’ ideas can spark your own. Jot down any ideas you have as you listen. Offer positive feedback.
20 Common App q#5: coming-of-age
Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.This prompt works to explore a single event or achievement that marked a clear milestone in your personal development.Which essay works best?“I scored the winning touchdown in the play!”“My bar mitzvah/quinceanera was very meaningful.”“X tough experience taught me Y and Z, and when I faced the situation again the next year, I brought more maturity and self-awareness to it.”Let’s break it down: “Discuss” is vague. Describe the event, and explore how it marked this significant transition. Address how you’ve changed and what you’ve learned. Be self-reflective.
21 Common App Q#1: identity story
Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.What is it that makes you you? Look inward and explain how and why your identity was influenced by your background or story.Your "story" or "background" isn't a single event.Keep diversity in mind. Colleges want unique individuals, so make sure you’re not telling a story many others could tell. That said, you don’t need to have grown up in an igloo in Alaska to have a story. Everyone has a story to tell!
22 Identity story/ coming of age Q: Writing exercises
Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.Let’s brainstorm: What might this background or story be?Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.Let’s brainstorm: What kinds of accomplishments or events?Free write: Pick one of the above prompts and write for 5 minutes. Share out. Hearing others’ ideas can spark your own. Jot down any ideas you have as you listen. Offer positive feedback.Did you grow up in a difficult domestic situation? Did you live in an usual place that had a significant impact on your childhood? Did you or someone in your family have significant challenges to overcome? Were you surrounded by people who had a major influence on your development? Did you move frequently? Did you have to hold a job from a young age? Do you have a particular obsession or passion that has been a driving force in your life for years?
23 Prompt share-out Pick two prompts to share with a partner.
Pick one and expand on in writing for 4 minutes. Continue writing on the topic, or jot down ideas on how you might expand upon it.
24 HOMEWORKJot down 3 possible ways to expand on one of the free writes you completed in class today or yesterday.Reminder: The Jane Eyre make-up exam is on Friday, October 4th, Period 3, in Room 233. Please study!Wordly Wise chapter 1 is due on Monday.