The College Application Essay as a Descriptive Narrative

A lesson to help students generate ideas and practice writing college application essays. 

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



Amina Henry is a Brooklyn-based playwright and educator. Recent local productions include PS (Ars Nova), Little Rapes (The New Group/Long Island University), and The Johnsons (JACK). Her work has been produced, developed by, and/or presented by: Atlantic Theatre, The New Group, Clubbed Thumb, New Georges, The Flea, Page 73, Project Y Theatre, National Black Theater, Little Theater at Dixon Place, The Brooklyn Generator, The Brick, HERE Arts Center, The Cell: a 21st Century Salon, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the 2013 Black Swan Lab Series (Ashland, OR), Kitchen Dog Theater (Dallas, TX), and HERO Theatre (Los Angeles, CA), among other organizations. She was a 2017-18 recipient of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Space Residency and is a 2018 recipient of a space residency at Dixon Place. She is a member of the Women's Project 2022-24 Lab and an affiliate artist at New Georges. She is currently an adjunct lecturer at Brooklyn College and SUNY Albany. She is also a teaching artist for Teachers & Writers Collaborative and the Hunts Point Alliance for Children.