Overview | How can reading The New York Times help students practice for the new college essay prompts on the Common Application? What tips on college-essay writing can they learn from The Choice blog? In this lesson, students will explore the open-ended topics for the 2013-14 Common Application essays through writing and discussion. Then, they will identify and examine Times pieces that might serve as “mentor texts” for their own application essays. Finally, they will craft their own college admissions essay in response to one of the new prompts, using advice from Learning Network and The Choice Blog.
Materials | Student journals
Warm-Up | Prior to class, post these prompts at the front of the room, or prepare to project them. Do not tell students that they are the new prompts for the Common Application essay.
When students arrive, ask them to form two concentric circles, facing one another. During the activity, the students forming the inside circle remain still, which the students in the outside circle will travel to their left when given the signal. Explain to students that you are going to do a “speed-dating” activity.
Project or unveil the first prompt and tell students that they will talk about the topic with the person across from them for five minutes. Within that time, each student should play the role of speaker and listener. Set a timer for five minutes and signal that they should begin. Once time is up the outer circle rotates left. Unveil a new topic and begin the process again until students have discussed each topic, rotating to new discussion partners with each prompt. Then, ask students to return to their seats.
Alternatively, depending on the nature of your class, you could post the topics up around the room and ask students to take their journals and form small groups by each topic. Then, conduct a free-writing marathon. Have students free-write using the topic they are standing in front of as a starting point. Tell them they have five minutes and set a timer. At the conclusion of the time period, ask students to rotate to the next topic and begin free-writing. Repeat this process until students reach their starting point. Then, ask them to return to their seats.
Open discussion by asking the following questions:
- Which of these topics did you find the easiest to discuss? Why?
- Which of these did you find difficult? Why?
- Which of these prompts did you want to continue talking (or writing) about?
Then, invite students to share a story or a favorite free-write effort with the whole group.
Finally, share with students that these are the new essay topics for the common application essay and ask them what they think. Are these good topics? Is there something here for everyone? Do some help colleges get to know students better than others? Do they fuel or lessen anxiety about the college application process? You might use some of the comments in response to The Choice post to spark discussion.
Related | In Common Application Releases New Essay Prompts, Tanya Abrams unveils the new Common App essay topics for the 2013-14 admissions season.
The new Common Application — which received some criticism a few months ago for removing the “topic of your choice” essay prompt — has released five new essay prompts for the 2013-14 admissions season, Inside Higher Ed reports.
Students who plan to use the Common App, a form that allows students to apply to multiple colleges and universities simultaneously, are advised to keep these essay prompts in mind. Savvy juniors, and regular readers of this blog, know that the earlier a college applicant starts drafting his or her essay, the more prepared they are.
Here are the new essay prompts:
- Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Questions | For discussion and reading comprehension:
- Why did the Common Application receive criticism several months ago for its essay prompts?
- Do you miss the “topic of your choice” option? Why or why not?
- Why would The Choice publish these topics now?
- What do the new topics have in common??
- How do you feel about the new word count?
Activity | Tell students that they will have the opportunity to expand on the ideas they discussed at the beginning of class by drafting an essay in response to one of the prompts, but first, they are going to comb The New York Times for models of each topic and look closely at them to see how others have told their stories and what they might learn about how to effectively tell their own. (Note: Many of the pieces we’ve chosen as “mentor texts” below, are either by or about young people, but some are not. Please use the choices as suggestions only: there are many, many pieces in The Times weekly that fit the Common App prompts well.)
Assign pairs or groups of students each one of the new Common App essay topics and ask them to search the Times (and elsewhere) for essays that might serves as models. Give each group the following articles, essays, or columns to use as starting points. Each group member should find at least one additional model and bring in the clipping or Web site to class for analysis and discussion.
Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- It’s O.K. to Put Yourself First: An essay in which a writer meditates on the impact of a serious illness on her life and family.
- My Son and the City: A woman moves to New York City with her son, who has serious medical challenges and developmental disabilities–and, she writes, “in a place famous for its anonymous crowds, [he] has been learning about people.”
Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
- A Rat’s Tale: A writer discusses her failure to be the sister her brother wanted and what she learned.
- Pancake Chronicles: An entertaining account of a disastrous first job.
- A Heartbroken Temp at Brides.com: After a groom changes his mind, his would-be bride, with “no money, no apartment, no job” takes a position at a wedding Web site.
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Generally speaking, the following Times sections offer good models for personal essays:
In addition, the following Learning Network features pull together high interest pieces that make good models for student writing.
When students identify the models, ask them to analyze them as models for writing, using the following questions:
- How does the writer begin the piece? Is it effective? Why or why not? What advice would you give an essay writer based on how this model begins?
- Where do you see the writer demonstrating what he or she is saying? In other words, where is he or she showing, rather than telling?
- What words does the writer use that really make his or her voice come alive for you?
- How does the piece end? Is this an effective technique? Why or why not?
- Finally, try “reverse outlining” the piece to see how the writer organized and developed his or her ideas.
Help students explore more Times models and advice for writing well with this lesson. For expository essay models that go beyond the personal, try this one.
Going Further |
After exploring Times models, students are now ready to craft their own essays. Ask students to choose a topic that intrigued them during the warm-up and draft an essay, using Times Resources to help them.
They might start with the three articles we’ve pulled drawings from to illustrate this lesson plan:
Then move on to specific advice offered by The Choice blog:
Students who are having trouble coming up with ideas might browse the responses to our Student Opinion question What Mundane Moments in Your Life Might Make Great Essay Material? or this tip sheet from The Choice blog.
Teachers wishing to develop this lesson into a more complete unit on the college essay might focus more on crafting the essay itself using this lesson on Going Beyond Cliché: How to Write a Great College Essay” coupled with the resources from this 2009 lesson. Students might also find this advice useful.
Once students have completed their drafts, ask that they use the College Essay Checklist (PDF) to evaluate their essays either individually or in pairs.
Common Core ELA Anchor Standards, 6-12
1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
4. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
5. Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs and larger parts of the text (for example, a section, chapter, scene or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
6. Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
10. Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.
3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.
4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization and style are appropriate to task, purpose and audience.
5. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting or trying a new approach.
Speaking and Listening
1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
1. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
3. Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
Teaching ideas based on New York Times content.
From The Learning Network
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A guest post by Ed Weathers
Your 500 Word College Application Essay should be about the real YOU.
These days, most colleges require that your application essay be no more than 500 words. In that essay, colleges expect you to reveal your writing ability and, just as important, the real You, with a capital Y.
Who are You? What makes You tick? What are Your hopes, expectations, fears, joys, tastes, desires, foibles, sins, and virtues? That’s a lot to expect of a 500 word college application essay.
Of course, you can’t say everything about yourself in 500 words. Forget that list two sentences ago; you can’t fit all that in 500 words. You must narrow the focus of your essay. So what do you write?
Some experts suggest that you start your 500 word college application essay with a brief personal story and then draw a “moral” from it that expresses your values.
There’s nothing wrong with that advice, but if I were a college admissions officer, I’d be sick by now of essays that begin with a touching little tale about a wise grandfather, a handicapped sibling, or a South American orphan the applicant met on a summer good-works trip. I’d prefer hearing about why you still drink only chocolate milk at the age of 17, or how Bonnie Sue McKay broke your heart at the age of twelve (and how you got over it by learning to quilt), or why table tennis is your favorite sport, or how you, with your tin ear, wept the first time you heard Schumann’s Piano Concerto.
If I’m your college admissions officer, forget “touching.” Give me honest and accurate, instead. Give me “tough” before “touching.” Give me clear observations — in your own words, please, not stock phrases. Give me concrete images: a chocolate milk stain on a white hospital gown, a quilting needle stuck in your index finger, a cracked ping-pong ball behind the basement furnace, a scratchy old recording coming out of a friend’s iPod. Give me wit, if you’ve got it, but don’t strain for something that doesn’t come naturally.
Give me honest feeling, not prepackaged, Hallmark-card, tell-’em-what-they-want-to hear mush. If you now hate quilting and prefer rugby to table tennis, fine, write that.
If I’m your college admissions officer, think hard about chocolate milk or Bonnie Sue or table tennis or Schumann, and answer me this question, as accurately and honestly as you can: Why is this important to you?
If you think you know the answer to that question before you start writing, then you don’t know what writing is. Writing — through thinking and brainstorming and free-writing and revising and revising—is a way of searching for the answers to such a question and then writing down those answers as accurately as you can. A good essay would surprise the you you were before you began to write it.
I’m not a college admissions officer, but if I were, I’d say this: The subject of your essay doesn’t matter. It simply needs to be well written and about something you — you, not everybody else, and certainly not some imaginary admissions officer—honestly do care about. Think of this not as an exercise designed to impress colleges, but as a piece of writing as sincere as a love letter. Even if it’s about chocolate milk.
Hmmm. All this sounds very solemn. Your college application essay does not need to be solemn. It does not need to be profound. It does not need to be heart-warming or tragic or full of marvels. It can be funny or quirky. It can be plain and simple. (I often prefer plain and simple.) It can be about something or someone you like, not necessarily something or someone you love. In other words, it can be about lap blankets or Roger Federer, not necessarily about environmental awareness or your grandfather.
I once was paid good money for a little essay about the contents of my wallet. I believe that essay would have got me admitted to Harvard.
All this means your college application essay can be written only by you. Your mother can’t write it. Your guidance counselor can’t write it. That friend of the family who’s a writing teacher can’t write it. When my son applied to college, I refused to help him with his essay. I’m a professional writer and college writing teacher; I knew I could make his essay better. But I couldn’t make it his.
If colleges wanted to know what he had to say and how he said it, then the work had to be his. Otherwise, he was applying under false pretenses. (Who knows, you may want to write something you don’t want to show your mother or your guidance counselor. Do you really want them to know about your crush on Bonnie Sue or your fear of white milk?)
I know that many college applicants get help—some of them get lots of help—on their application essays. Maybe I shouldn’t judge them. But I do. I think they’re cheating just a bit. Your essay needs to be your essay.
And of course it needs to be no more than 500 words. Why? Because that’s the rule, and even if it’s a narrow and arbitrary rule, you need to prove you can color inside the lines. In my next post to this site, I’ll give you some advice about how to write concisely and make the most of those, or any other, 500 words.
Ed Weathers is a retired magazine writer, editor, and college writing instructor. His writing website is writeyourbest.blogspot.com.
For more college application essay tips, check out:
Tags: 500 Word College Application Essay writing tips, a good essay, college admissions officer, college application essay topics, ed weathers, free-writing