Reading for Understanding: The Personal Statement

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SWBAT utilize outstanding examples of college application essays as "models" for their own application essay, understanding the "writerly" techniques of excellent college application essays.

Big Idea

... there is an art to the 500 word Personal Statement (for a College Application) ...

Introduction and Context

10 minutes

At the beginning of this unit, I inform students their “Memory Narratives” are for our course but this narrative can be trimmed and shaped into an essay acceptable for college admissions.  (In an informal poll of my students during the fall, I discovered that only four of my 72 students will not need an essay for college admissions, so this assignment is “high interest” to say the least!)

To be clear though, for my assignment students are completing a narrative now that they may use as fodder for or as a draft of an admissions essay.  This is an important distinction to make.  My course (as a required assessment) expects a narrative essay, but I have found that students do nor perform well with regard to my rubric if they are limited to, say, 650 words (the max. length of a Common App essay). 

In many, many instances, students lack sufficient details to provide a strong context to their narratives, details that require some long-ish development in prose.  In short, I recommend you keep the distinction between "Memory Narrative" and "college app essay" clearly in mind as you proceed. More on this process, though, in a future lesson …

Nonetheless, in order (eventually) to write the best shorter essay -- the actual one a student would submit to a college -- we need to read some “award winning” essays first.  I’ve had good luck with an excellent piece from a 2006 Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine article called “The Naked Truth,” a short collection of numerous college app essays, submitted by Chicagoland seniors for the app season of 2005-2006.

In some instances and in some respects the essays from the Trib. are "Memory Narratives," too, but they are certainly not all "narratives" in a strict sense.  Again, keep this distinction in mind, so your own students will not be confused about your final expectations.


20 minutes

Generally, I introduce the Trib.'s collection about 5 - 8 school days before this current lesson, and I ask students to read the collection over the course of a few nights homework time.  I provide a “notes template” to direct their reading, and I allow their notes on the test.  My test over the first 10 essays takes about 20 - 25 minutes for students to complete.

The Crucial "Take-Away"

18 minutes

Once students have completed the test of the first ten essays in “The Naked Truth” collection, I re-project/distribute the Common App essay prompts, the new ones from August of 2013.  

I give students a few minutes to read the page from The Common App, and I ask them to number the bulleted prompt choices from 1 - 5.  Then, I read aloud the essay by Oscar Guzman and Alex Wolf.  As I read aloud, I point out some of the strong “writerly” points in these two essays like the use of dialogue and characterization.  

After reading aloud each essay, I ask my students to vote on their choice for which prompt these writers were answering.  For Guzman’s students are pretty evenly divided between #1 and #5, and for Wolf’s students generally believe he wrote to #3.  

Then, I reveal a BIG secret … wait for it … Guzman and Wolf did not in fact write to any of these five prompts as The Common App questions were different in 2005-2006.  I point out that Oscar and Alex were, in fact, answering former option #3: “indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.”  I perform this “trick” on my students to point out one thing, one big “take-away”: never, ever overtly reference the question.  I stress this so that students will have an easier time at showing rather than telling.  

I have found, over the years, that phrases like “so, I now knew I was a man” or “this experience has stuck with me for years” or “at that moment I knew my belief was wrong” only drag on the reader by explaining the writer’s feelings or “telling.”  I find that a great rule of thumb is to point out that this kind of writing is a “story” and the reader should interpret the meaning and thereby the “prompt.”