Imagine this: It’s May. You’ve covered your standards. Your students are finished with their AP tests (or other assessments if not AP). Both you and your students are hanging on by a thread, ready for the year to be over. Yet, you have a few weeks of school left. Your students beg you for free time, but you know that isn’t possible (and you may pull your hair out if the last few weeks are too unstructured).
A GREAT solution for this awkward time of the year (or ANY time of year, actually) can be both enjoyable for you AND your students. It’s an activity with high “buy in” because most students see and appreciate the value this project will bring for what will inevitably be a busy senior year.
Enter: the college application essay. I’ve started ending my year (English 11 and AP Language and Composition) with this unit. It’s gone well with my students, and it’s helped make the final few weeks of school enjoyable and productive.
I’ve compiled 7 ideas that have worked well in my college application essay unit, and I’m sharing those here. I hope they help spark ideas for you as you consider planning a unit on this topic!
1. Plan around the Common App questions
I plan my college essay unit around the Common App essay. I love the general list of topics and the samples available online. Basing this unit around the Common App also gives students a concrete reason for the assignment. Students can see that this personal narrative is not simply an assignment the teacher created as “one more thing” for them to do, but it’s actually a tangible work product that can help them “get ahead” for their senior year.
The Common App essay questions are general enough that even if a student has to submit a personal narrative to another college, they will have a solid starter essay to work from.
2. Provide explicit instruction and brainstorming time
Show students a video about the Common App as many students won’t know what that is. Once they see the video (and notice the mention of the essay), it should increase their motivation to write.
Students may need instruction on the characteristics of a personal narrative. I created a slideshow that helps build some background knowledge before they interact with model texts in the next lesson (described in #3 below).
After going through the explicit instruction, I pass out a list of topics and let students start brainstorming topics. Coming up with a topic can be challenging for most students. They assume that they haven’t done anything “big enough” to justify a personal narrative. However, the lesson below (interacting with model texts) will show them that even seemingly ordinary events can be reflected on.
3. Have students interact with model texts
The most helpful activity for students is reviewing model essays. Usually, students start the class with a murky understanding of what their essay will be like (even after the explicit instruction the day before) and leave class with a solid understanding. The transformation from confusion to understanding is remarkable, and this lesson is one I make sure to find time for each year in this unit.
- I split the class into two groups. Half of the class reads these Harvard Application essays and the other half reads these Common Application essays.
- I give students a post it note, and ask them to skim as many of the essays as possible, jotting down the topic each essay covers.
- After approximately 10 minutes, the students share some of the essay topics. In sharing, students realize that some students write about seemingly ordinary events.
- After sharing, I ask students to form smaller groups and choose ONE essay that they skimmed over earlier to now dig deeper into. I pass out a narrative review station task card to each group and a recording sheet. They have 3 minutes to work through the task on the card. Then, we rotate cards and continue until class is over.
4. Break up the drafting time with mini-lessons
I provide ample in-class drafting time as I try to limit homework for my students. Those drafting days can get long, though. I like to break the drafting days up with mini-lessons/conferences. Here are some ideas for those (I adjust which ones I do each year based on time.
- Intro “take two”
- We analyze the introductions in the model reviews, but I like doing a mini-lesson on introductions as well. I remind students that the introduction is a first impression for the college admissions teams reviewing the essays. For this mini-lesson, we look at 3-4 samples to see how those students started. Then, we do a 10 minute introduction re-write, trying a new strategy or approach, which has to be a completely different strategy from the first introduction draft. Sometimes, students end up liking the new draft better than the first. Some students keep their first intro and work to make it better after going through the exercise.
- Descriptive words
- For this mini-lesson, we look at one sample, highlighting descriptive words and sensory details. Students then return to their own writing and highlight the descriptive words/sensory details. Students identify two places in the essay that could benefit from adding description and work on those places to improve it.
- For this mini-lesson, we review 3-4 sample narratives and look specifically at how the students paragraphed their essay. As a teacher, I pick samples with varied paragraphs (some samples even have a one-sentence paragraph) to show students the possibilities. After a year of writing traditional academic essays, students are uncomfortable breaking free and writing flexibly. We discuss paragraph similarities we notice between samples, and then students assess their own writing and adjust paragraphs as needed.
5. Have students complete peer and/or self-reviews before submitting
Peer reviewing has produced mixed results in my classroom, so when I plan peer review, I give students concrete tasks. These standards-based narrative review task cards (for exemplar, peer, and self-review) are a great guidepost for students to use as they read their classmates narratives.
Some students may not be comfortable sharing with a classmate, so those students will complete the self-review task cards.
6. Provide an opportunity for sharing
After the essay has been turned in, I provide students time to share their work. We get into small groups, spread out around the classroom (or even the school) and read the narratives to each other. Once students return to the classroom, I ask them for nominations from their group to share aloud to everyone.
Depending on the class, an open-mic style sharing can work well, too. Set up a microphone and speaker, asking students to come to the front of the room to read their narratives. You can add Christmas lights for an enhanced mood and have snacks available as well.
7. Combine with a memoir unit
If you want to add an extra layer of depth to your Common App college essay unit, you can pair it with a memoir unit. For this unit addition, students will read a memoir outside of class. The memoir will contain many of the same skills students are working on in their much shorter personal narratives: exposition, description, narrative techniques, reflection, etc.
You could have students choose a memoir and conduct literature circles, or complete one as a whole class. Some of my favorite memoirs are The Glass Castle, Born a Crime, and Angela’s Ashes.