Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

College Preparation: Writing College Essays

Lindsay Hawkins, Andrae McConnell | Published: September 16th, 2020 by K20 Center


Students engage in activities that explore the characteristics of good college admission/scholarship essays. Then, using the generated list, they create a personal outline for a college admissions essay.

Essential Questions

What characteristics make a a good essay?

Learning Goals

  • Students will identify good characteristics of college admission/scholarship essays.

  • Students will write a personal outline for a college admissions essay.







Materials List

  • Lesson Slides (attached)

  • Characteristics of a Well-Written College Essay handout (attached; one per student)

  • College Essay 1 (attached; one per student)

  • College Essay 2 (attached; one per student)

  • Teacher's Guide to Essay 1 and 2 (attached; optional)

  • Essay Outline (attached; one per student)

  • Essay One Outline Example (attached; optional)

  • Essay Template - Issue of Importance (attached; optional)

  • Essay Template - Activity Outside of the Classroom (attached; optional)

  • Essay Template - Influential Person (attached; optional)

  • Paper and pencils

  • Whiteboard or writing surface


Start with slide 2 to introduce the topic “College Admissions Essay: It’s not just what you say but how you say it”. Show slides 3-4 to introduce the essential question and lesson objectives.

Switch to slide 5. Ask students to first think about what characteristics are needed to create a good essay. Have them fill out the attached Characteristics of a Well-Written College Essay handout, or, if you like, have them write "What are the characteristics of a well-written college admissions/scholarship essay?" at the top of their page then jot down their ideas on that paper.


Show slide 6. Give each student a copy of the attached handouts College Essay 1 and College Essay 2.

As students read, instruct them to use the Why-Lighting strategy to highlight or annotate sections that make these essays good examples of a college essay.

After reading the example essays, students will add characteristics that they noted to their original list.


Show slide 7. Have students get with a partner to share the lists they’ve created and add to their lists based on what their partner shares. Next, student pairs should get with another student pair (creating a group/team of four) to share their lists. Again, they will add to their personal lists based on what their group shares.

Change to slide 8. Using the lists they’ve created, the groups will have a brainstorm relay. Create a master list as groups take turns offering items from their lists until they run out of ideas. No repeats! The group with the most items wins.

After the master lists are completed, display the feedback from the exemplar essays shown on slide 9. After reading the feedback for essay 1, have students look back at the essay for examples of cohesive structure, elegant style (ask students what they think that means), details, and specificity. Have a short, whole-class discussion about what they find.

Next, display the feedback for essay 2 shown on slide 10. Have students look back at the essay and discuss how the author shows, rather than tells, the reader what he is passionate about. Have a short, whole-class discussion about what they find.

Explicitly explain to students that anything they should add anything they learned from the feedback to the essays. Explain to students that they will use the master lists they’ve created, as well as the feedback examples, during the next activity as they begin composing their own personal college scholarship/admissions essays.


While showing slide 11, have students choose one the following three common college admission prompts:

  • Describe an influential person in your life.

  • Discuss an activity outside of the classroom.

  • Discuss an issue that is important to you.

After students choose a prompt, change to the final slide. Have them use the attached Essay Outline handout to create a draft similar to the attached Essay One Outline Example. The outlines should be informed by the list they compiled during this session.


After students have finished their outline, have them share with a critical friend if time permits. Otherwise, the outline can serve as a formative assessment.

Research Rationale

Students who attend college after graduation and complete a four-year degree enjoy greater job satisfaction and better quality of life post-graduation, and college graduates have significantly better opportunities for upward career mobility and earning a living wage (Okerson, 2016). College readiness is a process, not a program. The reasons students do not matriculate to college are many and varied (King, 2012). To mitigate the college-going gap, high school students need both support and assistance in preparing for and attending college (Radcliffe & Bos, 2013; King, 2012; Sherwin, 2012). College admission processes are complex. Many students have no idea where to begin. King (2012) and Sherwin (2012) both notice students' need for appropriate steps and guidance to make sense of college entrance. Applying for financial aid and scholarships, navigating college admission requirement, participating in ACT and SAT workshops, writing the college admission essay , and securing needed recommendations are all college processes that often hamper students in securing admission. Alvarado and An (2015), Belasco (2012), and King (2012) all found that minority students, first-generation college applicants, and students whose families have low socioeconomic status (SES) rely more heavily on their schools for guidance. Therefore by providing students an intentional opportunity to understand the necessity of college essays and how to write them, will help create a college-going culture within the school and establish clear expectations that all students have the ability and opportunity to attend college.


  • Alvarado, S. E. & An, B. P. (2015). Race, friends, and college readiness: Evidence from the high school longitudinal study. Journal of Race and Social Problems, 7(2), 150-167.

  • Belasco, A. (2013). Creating college opportunity: School counselors and their influence on postsecondary enrollment. Research in Higher Education, 54(7), 781-804.

  • International Student. (2017). Sample college admission essays. Retrieved from

  • King, S. (2012). Increasing the college going rate, parent involvement, and community participation in rural communities. Rural Educator, 33(2), 20-26.

  • K20 Center. (n.d.). Why-lighting. Instructional Strategy. Retrieved from

  • Okerson, J. R. (2016). Beyond the campus tour: College choice and the campus visit (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from etd/1463413085/

  • Radcliffe, R. & Bos, B. (2013). Strategies to prepare middle school and high school students for college and career readiness. The Clearing House, 86, 136-141.

  • Sherwin, J. (2012). Make me a match: Helping low-income and first-generation students make good college choices (Policy brief). Retrieved from https://