Today we will continue considering the rhetorical situation and possible pitfalls of the college essay using Harold Bauld’s book On Writing the College Essay. Yesterday students used their rhetorical analysis skills to identify the rhetorical situation of the college application, including how all the evidence works to define them as a person. Today we will look at chapters 2 and 3 of the book. Chapter 2 takes an in-depth look at the audience of the college essay, an important part of the rhetorical process when writing ( standard 8 of the Common Core standards focuses specifically on research, with a shift specifically toward attention to audience; while the college essay isn’t research per se, understanding how all the evidence of a college application appeals to a specific audience is nevertheless crucial), and chapter 3 gives students a tour of some cliché essay types, with the fatal flaw being that they don’t work toward the proper purpose.
Today I want to actually get students to some pre-writing activity at the end, so we will run through the information here as a whole group. In chapter 2 of the book Harold Bauld shows us the audience via a sort of play—two admissions evaluators at midnight reading a stack of applications and talking to each other about it. The students will have come in having read this, so the specific question to them will be ‘what about the audience is important to know as an applicant?’ I will ask students to review chapter 2 for about five minutes before beginning a class discussion. As students offer responses, I will write the list on the board for a visual. The basic take-away here will be that the admissions folks have a LOT of applications to go through, do it very rapidly, and do not care about you as an applicant at all except for how you would fit into the school (I plan to equate this to professional sports scouts, or even singing competitions like American Idol, where the evaluators are looking for the best “talent” to boost their own product. In the case of a college, the college is the product, and strong talent boosts future candidate pools and general demand). The other take-away is to re-iterate that they are people with biases, and are reading in a context you can’t possibly know about, so the best thing is to be yourself and not try to ‘game’ the system by writing what you think they want to hear.
We will move to chapter 3 in this section and the categories of poor essays that Harold Bauld calls “some of the most common snooze potions whipped up by seniors.” The archetypes include “the trip,” “Miss America,” “Jock,” etc. We will read each out loud (I will have different students do this to expand participation—there are ten total archetypes mentioned in the book, shown here in this video: College Essay Day 2-1.m4v), and with each I will build a common thread among them all in the discussion—that they are telling rather than showing, and tend to be too generalized to be able to show personality. I also want to emphasize that any topic is worthy of a college essay, including these—it is not the topic that is the problem in these archetypes, but how they are written. This will lead to a question for each, which is “how could you write a good essay about a trip, a tale of success, or even your own room?” I suspect that they will be a bit puzzled by this question at first, and that I will have to prompt them with the first couple (the first is “the trip”) by talking about letting observations show the reader what you learned rather than saying “I learned that. . . “, or writing about a particular moment of a trip or a sports event rather than a whole trip or season. The power is in the passion and in the details.
As we move on with these, I will spend less time on each, because I think after about five they will get the point (however, we will read them all to assure they all get it—One advertisement isn’t enough!). I also want to at least get them started with some pre-writing, since they will be primed to do so from this discussion (even though we won’t get far with the pre-writing, just a little will lead better to doing more tomorrow).
To begin some pre-writing activity I will use Bauld’s activity on pgs. 50-52 of the book called “The Obsession List.” Here he lists a long series of prompts such as “a smell (new playing cards, gasoline), a word, a day of the week, a skill or talent you do not possess,” and suggests that students just write what comes to mind for each in a rapid-fire fashion, just to get ideas flowing and realizing how many things you can write about. Today we will do the first five in about three minutes, then have a few people share. With each shared one, I will ask “how could that be expanded into an essay?” so students start thinking about how this is, in fact, a pre-writing activity.
Next Steps: Tomorrow we will continue with this pre-writing activity and then read some sample college essays so students can apply their new knowledge, and get a sense of the final product and how all that we’ve learned applies to real-life products.