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.
An excellent resource . . . direct and specific and does not start with the Common Application essay prompts. Thank you!