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Writing for Their Futures: Strategies for Teaching the College Essay

Teaching the College Essay

By fall of their senior years, students are often obsessed with the next step, whether it is college, vocational school, or work. For those who are college bound, the next step is the daunting college admissions process. Between researching and visiting schools, studying for and taking the SAT or ACT, and completing applications, the college admissions process is complex, tedious, and sometimes overwhelming.

The college essay is an integral part of the application process and one of the most important pieces of writing your students will ever complete. But motivating them to write their essays can be just as difficult as motivating them to write their papers analyzing The Great Gatsby or the effects of Watergate. In this blog, we have compiled some helpful strategies to motivate and support your students as they complete their college essays.

1) Know the requirements

Most colleges accept the Common Application, which is an online application that acts as the basic application for each member school (over 500 institutions globally). Any supplementary information for specific schools is part of the online form, which greatly simplifies the college application process. The Common Application also includes a general essay that all students must complete based on a prompt of their choice.

The Common Application essay:

  • Has a word limit of 650 words
  • Should include advanced vocabulary, complex grammar, and a distinct writing style
  • Should be cohesive but does not have to be in traditional essay form—narrative writing is encouraged
  • Can be edited and revised multiple times before submission
  • Has no “right prompt”—it’s always best to go with the one the student is most comfortable withShould not repeat information in supplementary essays
  • Should not repeat information addressed in supplementary essays

2) Talk to your students

Your goal is to get your students to express themselves, and, coincidentally, that is also the goal of the Common Application essay. You can start this process by talking to your students. What are their interests? What are their stories? What are their dreams? College Admissions committees have seen and read it all, so the goal of a good college essay is one that is genuine, avoids clichés, and imparts an accurate reflection of the student.

Begin by setting-up a time to talk to your students about their interests, experiences, goals, etc. (here are some examples of some prompts to drive this initial discussion). While they talk, write down the things you find interesting, that seem unique, or that inspire them. Then, look over the list with each student and ask him/her to pick a couple of topics he/she would like to cover in the next step: brainstorming.

Is your student really interested in business? Have her brainstorm about being an aspiring entrepreneur. Is your student obsessed with skateboarding? He may want to write about the importance of the skating community in his life.

3) Get them to write

For many students, college essays are a culmination of every piece of information or advice they’ve ever gotten on the writing process. And, with any writing, the hardest part is getting started. To encourage students to start the process, ask them to do a freewrite in which they write everything that comes to mind about their topic without stopping for five minutes. Freewriting is a great tool for all essay writing, and it can easily be integrated into an after-school college essay program or in your classroom.

Once students are ready to write, ask them to draft their essays. For the first draft, don’t worry about limiting them to word counts or highly structuring it. In the revision process, narrative elements can be added, voice can be honed, and structure can be formed.

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4) Make the revision process into a teachable moment

It goes without saying that your students’ essays will need ample revisions, and these revisions can be a great teachable moment. When revising their essays, have your students read each sentence out loud and ask them the following questions:

  • How does it sound?
  • How can it be improved?
  • How can it be shortened or lengthened (depending on whether the essay draft is too long or too short)?
  • What does it contribute to the essay? Is it integral, redundant, tangential, etc.?

In other words, teach them how to ask the kinds of questions necessary for the revision process. After they’ve written a cohesive essay, it’s time to perfect it. Start by circling words that could be replaced with more advanced vocabulary using a thesaurus or dictionary. Then, underline sentences you think could be improved stylistically, grammatically, and structurally. Once students refine their essays, they are ready for submission.

The college essay takes many drafts, many revisions, and a lot of time, but with the right support, your students’ words and ideas will shine.

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