Model College Essay Analysis

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SWBAT differentiate between average and strong college essays by studying the effectiveness of various models.

Big Idea

It is important to look at both strong and not so strong models to gain a full picture of what a genre of writing should look like to be effective.


Today, after doing a ten minute warm-up where students continue the “Obsession List” pre-writing activity from the book, we will move to models of the end-product:  actual college essays.  Given the discussion we’ve had the past few days regarding the rhetorical situation of the college application and what it should accomplish, I think it is important for students to see some final products—the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Harold Bauld has a nice selection of pieces in On Writing the College Application Essay (this is the new revised edition), where he has four admissions officers offer their critiques.  These are great, because they not only show the real “end game” of the process, but also some perspective of the individual biases of readers.  I will also use a couple the New York Times published a few weeks ago, and a number of drafts from a former student, where I can show the revision process.

Warm-up: "The Obsession List" pre-writing activity

15 minutes

Yesterday we started doing this pre-writing activity on pgs. 50-52 of the book called “The Obsession List.”  Here Bauld 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 I will just have students complete the activity, but not share them, because I want to get to the models.  I will be able to demonstrate how some of them can turn into essays while talking about the models, too, so they see how these tasks are connected.

Analysis of Model College Essays

55 minutes

Models with Professional Critique

We will begin today by reading the introduction and first two selections from chapter 11 in the book, one of which gets mixed reviews by the admissions officers, and the other that everyone really likes.  Bauld, in the introduction, states that “as you read each one, ask yourself what you learn about the writer, and whether you like the person you see.”  This advice captures the essence of the whole application, so as I read each one out loud, and before we look at the professional critique, I will ask students to note their own observations, and answer the questions on their own.  We will then have a class discussion regarding what we learn and how much we like the person before reading the critique.

The second one (which is universally loved by the professionals) is an interesting contrast to the first one, because even though we explicitly learn more about the first one’s family, we learn more about the actual writer in the second one simply by the authentic voice and passion, and keen observations (College Essay Models-1.m4v)   This hopefully will show students the difference between showing and telling, and how showing your topic also shows a lot more about you as a person.


Critiquing Models

While we will read more of these as we go along, for today’s lesson I want to have students read some 2014 essays not from the book, that don’t have any critique (Bauld’s book has a number of essays, but some are older; there is some added credibility just from the fact that these others were published two weeks ago in the New York Times and are 2014--I copied them onto Word documents so students could annotate:  college essay samples.docxcollege essay samples 2.docx).  According to the article associated with the essays, these were selected for their common theme of the economy, and not necessarily for their exemplary status.   For each one of these, I will have the students read and annotate silently, considering the same two questions—“what do I learn about the writer, and do I like the person I see?”  After each, we will have a group discussion, not only about the quality of the work and the two questions, but whether they think the essay helps move the candidate from “the gray area” Bauld talks about in chapter one (I will remind students here that we are only reading the essay, and are not privy to the rest of the evidence in the essay—therefore, our assessment is somewhat limited).


Modeling the Revising Process

The final models I will show students is a series of drafts from a former student I worked with (who gave me permission to use these in class).   It is a great model because it is flawed, yet demonstrates the process; the student had sent this out electronically to English teachers a few days before it was due, so time was an issue.  I went back and forth with the student over a weekend, providing feedback for each draft; there was certainly more to do (I did not see the final product), and the three versions I have will demonstrate how much tinkering needs to be done (and my comments will show how much the things they’ve learned this year will help them take broader strides with each revision!).

I put together a packet of three drafts, with each draft having one “clean” copy and one with the suggestions for revising I made (Here is the packet, with some edits to hide the student's identity:  C samples draft edited.docx).   Many of the comments are very similar to ones they’ve seen this year; to many first person pronouns as subjects, showing rather than telling, etc. (I’ve included the packet here, though blacked out some information pertaining to the student).  This section is more a “show and tell” for the students—we will talk some about the first draft, and I will take questions/comments, but the packet is mostly for them to get an idea of the process, and that it takes many drafts.  I also want to encourage them to use each other as a resource.  I am one reviewer, but by no means need to be the only voice; they have developed a strong bond with each other this year, so they should depend on each other to provide strong, constructive feedback.

Next steps:  tomorrow we will do another round of  pre-writing with some activities from the text  before digging in to the writing process.