College Essay Lessons
Overview | What makes a college essay “work”? How can writers reveal themselves through writing? In this lesson, students explore sample college essays and then consider advice about what separates a great essay from a mediocre or ineffective one as well as essay-writing tips. Finally, they write essays based on the piece of advice that resonated with them.
Materials | Copies of sample personal essays, copies of the College Essay Checklist (PDF), computer with Internet access and projection equipment
Warm-Up | Begin by asking: What do you think college admissions officers are looking for when they read student essays? List responses on the board, and be sure to push the conversation beyond issues of mechanics and structure to content, voice and style.
Then read aloud this first paragraph from a college essay:
During the summer before my junior year of high school, I spent a weekend volunteering with the poor in post-Katrina Louisiana and realized that I am privileged. Most of what these people had had been ripped out from under them and life was very different there from my life in suburban Massachusetts. Amazingly, though, these people still seemed happy. I learned from this experience that money isn’t everything.
Ask: Judging just from this paragraph, do you think this essay will meet the expectations we just listed? Does this paragraph grab you? Are you interested in reading more of this essay? What do you think this paragraph says about this student?
Next, divide students into small groups of “admissions officers,” and give each “committee” a college essay to evaluate. Resources include Connecticut College’s Essays That Worked collection and these sample essays published in The Times. In addition, give them this handout (PDF).
Tell the “admissions committees” to imagine that each of these essay writers has applied for admission to their college or university. Each group is responsible for using the handout to evaluate the essay and decide whether to admit this student. They should assume that each student has a similarly strong profile in terms of grades, test scores, activities and recommendations.
Once students have read and evaluated the essay, reconvene the class. Invite each group to describe their essay and what they liked or didn’t like about it, and deliver their admissions decision.
After each group has shared, ask: How were these essays different from the excerpt with which we began? In what ways were they more effective? What is cliché? How did these essays avoid that trap? Is there a way to move the experience detailed in the opening essay beyond cliché? After considering these essays, what else should we add to our list about what college admissions officials are looking for in student essays?
Related | In his recent post on The Choice blog, Dave Marcus, author of “Acceptance,” offers advice for writing successful college essays and avoiding common pitfalls:
Here’s an essay that’s sure to make an admissions officer reach for the triple grande latte to stay awake:
“I spent [choose one: a summer vacation/a weekend/three hours] volunteering with the poor in [Honduras/ Haiti/ Louisiana] and realized that [I am privileged/I enjoy helping others/people there are happy with so little].”
Yes, the admissions folks have read it before. Many times.
“I would love to have a student answer the question, ‘Why is it that you have everything and they have nothing?'” said Cezar Mesquita, admissions director at the College of Wooster. “Or ‘What did others learn from your participation in the trip?'”
For many seniors, choosing the topic for a personal statement is more difficult than actually writing the piece. But don’t fret. “Some of the more mundane moments in life make great essays,” Christopher Burkmar, Princeton University’s associate dean of admissions, assured guidance counselors at a conference last month.
Read the entire article with your class, using the questions below.
Questions | For discussion and reading comprehension:
- Remember that essay we started class with? Why are the options presented in the “fill-in-the-blank” introduction in the post likely to not interest or impress a college admissions official?
- Why are more mundane topics often preferable?
- What other alternatives to the standard college essay fare does this post offer?
- What are some things to avoid in a college essay?
- Mr. Marcus quotes Matthew Whelan of Stony Brook University as saying that the best college essays “help us understand why we want the applicant here.” Thinking of your own experiences, what are some things that make you attractive to the college(s) of your choice?
Activity | Explain to students that they will now start developing personal essays for their college application packages, by evaluating and then capitalizing on advice on how to write effective essays.
First, project the multimedia feature “Counting Words, Courting College.” Ask: What advice do you take away from this audio slide show about what makes a great college essay?
Next, tell students to meet again in their groups to consider and evaluate advice about writing college essays from a variety of Times articles from the last decade or so. Divide students into small groups and distribute one of the following pieces to each group:
What are the top three pieces of advice you glean from this piece?
From whose perspective does this advice come?
Do you find this advice compelling? Why or why not?
Once students have finished their work, reconvene and ask students to share the most compelling advice from each piece. Compile a list on the board and discuss the wisdom and limitations of the suggestions.
Ask: What advice here seems most useful? Despite all of this advice, what don’t you know about writing college essays? What role does the reader play in determining what works and what doesn’t? How can you account for individual, unknown readers as you write?
Tell each student to choose one piece of advice they found most compelling and to craft a college essay that puts this suggestion into practice. They might, for example, take a risk, as Dave Marcus suggested, or “bring the reader into a moment in [their] life” as one reader advised.
But first, they have to choose a topic. As one parent contributor to The Choice blog notes, crafting an essay is really a foray into memoir writing. And while all of the advice they have gathered is useful, the question of what to write about remains.
To help students begin to discover topics that make for good essay fodder, ask them to create a timeline of significant events in their lives. Ask them to really think broadly, aiming to get at least 20 items on their list. They should include “major” events like births, deaths, travel, coming of age rituals, or course, but also the more mundane moments they remember that have marked their lives in some way — a car ride, a dinner, a chance meeting, etc. (You might encourage them to respond to our Student Opinion question “What ‘Mundane Moments’ in Your Life Might Make Great Essay Material?” and read what other student commenters wrote.)
Then, ask them to talk in pairs or small groups about what patterns, ideas or themes emerge when they review their timelines. Are there significant people who crop up again and again? What about an experience that truly changed their perspective on things in an important way? What inspires strong emotion? What seems clichéd or potentially boring? (Allow students who are gravitating toward stories that are particularly personal to work independently.)
In their discussions, ask students to narrow possible topics for essays to three they think will help a college admissions committee “understand why [they] want the applicant.”
Going further | Students use the topics they generated in class to draft a college essay around the piece of advice they thought was the most useful.
Offer those students who are not satisfied with their topic some or all of the following 15 prompts to help them generate more ideas:
- A significant relationship I had or have:
- A treasured object I possess:
- A time I took a risk:
- A time I felt humbled:
- One thing very few people know about me is:
- Something I regret:
- A time when I was, or felt, rejected:
- Something I am really proud of:
- Something that changed the way I think or look at the world:
- How I am different from most people I know:
- My greatest fear:
- A time I felt truly satisfied:
- A person I admire:
- An object I own that tells a lot about me:
- Something funny that I did or that happened to me:
Students who are still stuck might benefit from looking at these personal writing ideas from The Times. Or they might make their own creative prompts.
When students are finished drafting their essays, ask them to bring in their drafts for peer review. Use your favorite method or one of the options presented in our lesson Getting Personal, including using the College Essay Checklist (PDF). You might also suggest that students seek feedback from their school college counselor.
Standards | This lesson is correlated to McREL’s national standards (it can also be aligned to the new Common Core State Standards):
1. Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process
5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process
7. Uses general skills and strategies to understand a variety of informational texts
8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes
Life Skills: Working With Others
1. Contributes to the overall effort of a group
4. Displays effective interpersonal communication skills
1. Understands that group and cultural influences contribute to human development, identity and behavior
2. Understands various meanings of social group, general implications of group membership and different ways that groups function
3. Understands that interactions among learning, inheritance and physical development affect human behavior
4. Understands conflict, cooperation and interdependence among individuals, groups, and institutions
Arts and Communication
3. Uses critical and creative thinking in various arts and communication settings
4. Understands ways in which the human experience is transmitted and reflected in the arts and communication
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This post is another in my series on how to address the college application essay prompts from the Common App. This year, you have seven prompts from which to choose as an anchor for your essay. Each prompts presents its unique possibilities and challenges. Today we will look at the “obstacle/failure” prompt. This a fairly straightforward prompt that allows you both to tell a good story and to reflect on how your experiences have shaped your beliefs, your expectations, and your understanding of what it is to be human.
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
Obstacle / Challenge / Setback / Failure
The key word here is obstacle, along with its various synonyms that appear in the prompt: challenge, setback, failure. Very few things we achieve in life come easily on the first try. Often, something impedes our smooth movement toward our goals. Sometimes we are able to overcome the obstacle. Sometimes we are not: we fail. Thus, the first order of business in addressing this prompt is to clearly identify the goal you were trying to achieve. What was it you wanted? What was the objective? What hopes did you have? Then the second order of business is to clearly identify the obstacle (or challenge or setback or failure) that rendered the achievement of your goal more difficult—or even impossible.
Incident or Time
As with any essay, you need to tell a story. Whereas the previous prompt uses the word “story”, this prompt invites you to “recount” this process of setting a goal and having trouble meeting it. This is the story of how things did not go according to plan. Your story should have a beginning, middle, and end. But it must be brief.
Learning From The Experience
Whenever we fail—and we all do—we have to figure out how to respond to that failure. Often we gain something from the experience. Perhaps we learned a valuable lesson. Perhaps we redirected our energies in a new way. Perhaps we have developed a greater understanding of our own strengths and weaknesses. The key element to successfully answering this prompt is to reflect on how this failure affected you and what you did as a result of it. So, after you have told your (brief) story, you should do quite a bit of reflecting on how this experience led to personal growth or greater understanding of the world around you.
Fundamentally, a good college essay will do two things. First, it will recount an interesting story in which you are the main character. Then the essay will give meaning to that story through the reflections you share with your reader. Together, the story and reflection will provide a window onto your strengths and weaknesses as a person, and allow the reader to have a fuller picture of who you are.
Have fun writing!
Educational consultant and admissions expert
Filed Under: Application Tips, College EssaysTagged With: 2017-2018 applications, best college essay, college essay advice, Common App, great college essay, Ivy league admissions essay