The College Application Essay as a Descriptive Narrative

By Amina Henry 

In this essay-writing lesson, T&W writer Amina Henry helps students generate ideas and practice writing the college application essay. 

Grade: 11th–12th 

Genre: Personal Essay

Download: The College Application Essay as a Descriptive Narrative

Common Core State Standards (Refer to the ELA Standards > Writing > Grade 11–12):

  • ELA-LITERACY.W.11–12.2.D: Use precise language, domain-specific vocabulary, and techniques such as metaphor, simile, and analogy to manage the complexity of the topic.
  • ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.2.E: Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing.

Lesson Objectives:

Students will:

  • Reflect on the Common Application essay prompts. Note: the prompts change annually.
  • Invite students to brainstorm how each prompt has played a part in their own life.
  • Engage in free writing personal narratives.
  • Incorporate description into those narratives.

Guiding Questions: 

  • What is the relationship between specific details, description, and storytelling?
  • How can details enrich a story?



Warm-up (10 minutes): 

  • Instruct students to look around the room and pick one object to observe. Then ask them how they would describe this object in three adjectives, without explicitly naming the object.
  • Go around the room and have each student share their adjectives.

Mentor Text and Discussion (10-15 minutes): 

Read a preselected college essay sample as a class and discuss. Here are a few to choose from the New York Times.

Invite students to discuss the narrative aspects of the essay. Ask students:

  • What drew you into the essay?
  • What images are still echoing for you?
  • Is there a beginning, middle, and end?

Ask students to recall what they learned about the author from the essay; pinpoint what was most memorable.

Ask students to share adjectives they would use to describe the author.  Ask students:

  • How would you describe the author?
  • What did you learn about her from the essay?
  • What is she passionate about?
  • What are her strengths?
  • What is one thing that you like about this story?
  • What is one editorial revision you might offer the author?

Writing (20 minutes):

Introduce students to the Common Application essay prompts. After reading the prompts aloud, students will have 15 minutes to free-write a paragraph inspired by one of the prompts.

Closing (5 mins):

Have a few students share what they have written. Provide students with guidelines for listening by asking:

  • What is one good detail in this paragraph?
  • Where in the paragraph might there be an opportunity to add a descriptive word, an adjective or adverb?
  • What questions do you have about this paragraph?

Materials Needed:

Common Application Essay Prompts
Sample College Essay 

Multi-modal Approaches to Learning: Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Verbal-Linguistic


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