Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Writing College Essays - College Preparation

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

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

  • Paper and pencils

  • Whiteboard or computer projection to record class responses in the Explain section

  • What are the characteristics of a well-written college admissions/scholarship essay?

  • College Essay 1

  • College Essay 2

  • College Essay ppt

  • Teacher's Guide to Essay 1 and 2

  • Essay Outline

  • Essay Outline Example

  • Essay Template - Issue of Importance

  • Essay Template - Activity Outside of the Classroom

  • Essay Template - Influential Person


Change to slide two.

Ask students to first think about what characteristics are needed to create a good essay. 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.


Change to slide three.

Next, give each student a copy of both "College Essay 1" and "College Essay 2" to read individually. (Note: These essays are good examples, and the students should be made aware of this before they start reading). As students read, instruct them to highlight or annotate sections that make these essays good examples of what a college essay might look like. This Why-Lighting strategy will help them quickly refer back to the good qualities they noticed.

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


Change to slide 4. Have students get with a partner to share the lists they’ve created and add to their lists, based on what their partner shares.

(Click the slide) Student pairs will then 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 5, "Brainstorm Relay."

Then, using the lists they’ve created, the groups will have a Brainstorm Relay. As the teacher creates a master list, 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 in slide 6. After reading the feedback for essay 1, have students look back at the essay for examples of cohesive structure, elegant style (what does that even mean?), details, and specificity. Have a short, whole-class discussion about what they find.

Next, display the feedback for essay 2 shown on slide 7. 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.

Teachers should explicitly explain to students that anything they learned from the feedback to the essays should be added to their lists. 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 eight, 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 "Essay Outline" handout to create a draft similar to the "Essay Outline Example" provided. The outlines should be informed by the list they compiled during this session as well as the template they may have filled out.


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

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://