After 20 years in the classroom, I finally have the answer for the age-old question posed by disinterested teenagers: This is when you will use what we are learning. But I didn’t come up with this answer on my own. As usual, my students led the way.
I start the year asking lots of questions, such as, “How do you learn best?” and “What are you nervous about this year?” I collect them all on Google Forms and pore over the data. Through these surveys, I found that so many of my students were nervous about the college application essay that I decided to make it an area of focus.
My work with the application essay is not new. Truthfully, I went overboard with assigning essays early in my career, but my students had time in class, and I taught them the trick of cut and paste. Plus, we know that writing more benefits them, but today I have adapted my methods to take advantage of the power of reflection.
This is when their writing matters—the real-life stuff. This is how I do it: I use the survey data that tells me what percentage is planning on attending college at some point: Let’s say 89 percent. They all need to write narratives (including the other 11 percent), so this work benefits everyone.
I make the deal with them that if they are on task and work each day toward our goals, they won’t have any work to do on this narrative outside of class.
A 10-Day Plan to Refine College Essays
- I have them review the Common Application’s essay topics. Which are appealing? Why? Then they do a pair-share and shout out their findings.
- I list dos and don’ts from my observations over the years.
- We read the College Board’s “Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay” as a group.
- They pair up and choose from “Essays That Worked” from Johns Hopkins University; then they summarize what they liked and what an admission department would like (how the essay makes the student stand out). We do this for each piece we read.
- This provides a good opportunity to reiterate paragraph construction, dialogue punctuation, sentence structure, etc.
- They copy a Google Doc that has a table with the following column titles: Author, Title, Loot (what they could steal).
- I have them list three to five topics/events/ideas they have swirling in their heads for their narrative/admission essay with a complete sentence describing why each would represent them well to the reader (due in two days).
- I set up college application appointments via Google Docs that ask for their name, when they can meet, and when their first essay is due.
- We review IvyWise’s “10 College Application Essays Dos and Don’ts” and discuss surprises.
- We read a short excerpt from Gen. Colin Powell’s My American Journey about returning from Vietnam, summarize good qualities, and add our “loot” to the aforementioned Google Doc. We also determine to which of the Common Application Essay topics the writing would apply.
- We review “The Only Four College Essay Writing Tips You’ll Ever Need” from Tufts University.
- We read Sherman Alexie’s “Indian Education”—it’s funny, heartfelt, vulnerable, and real. Alexie tells his educational journey by giving highlights and lowlights of his education as a Native American. It’s a great essay for students who are averse to transitioning paragraphs, as he breaks the piece into subheadings of each grade. They read it with a friend or on their own, or listen to an audio version of it. Upon completion, they summarize the story’s good qualities, add to our loot, and determine the applicable essay topic.
- Students pair-share and shout out possible topics if they’re comfortable doing so.
- I give the option of workshopping introductions or joining the class in reading and discussing Sarah Vowell’s “Shooting Dad,” where she learns to connect with her quirky father. It’s a great example of imagery, humor, and parallelism. We continue to add to our loot form.
- We review extended metaphors to prime for the next piece.
- The class has an open forum on struggles with introductions, and students try to help one another.
- We view a panel of college admission officers offering advice.
- We review the power of pathos in writing by learning about how it works with a PBS video on mirror neurons.
- Students can work on topic sentences for body paragraphs or join the rest of the class in reading Jonathan Bethard’s essay about being a paramedic in “Code 3.” The Bethard essay is good because it shows emotion, action description, and an engaging hook, which provides more to add to the loot form.
These are dedicated workdays on the essay. We determine what workshops are needed during each workday, and they vote: dialogue, transitions, sensory details, and conclusions. I create a 10–15 minute mini-lesson using other student examples of good work, ensure that they feel they can tackle it, and let them experiment.
When I begin with their needs, mixed with standards that reflect the needs of our district and the state, I feel more excited during the drive to work and better on the drive home because my students (and their parents) are happy to have so much guidance on their real-life writing.