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Demystifying the College Admission Essay Genre by Jessica Singer Early and Meredith DeCosta (2012)

Author: Jessica Singer Early and Meredith DeCosta

Early, Jessica Singer, and Meredith DeCosta. “Chapter 4 Demystifying the College Admission Essay Genre.” Real World Writing for Secondary Students: Teaching the College Admission Essay and Other Gate-Openers for Higher Education, Teachers College Press, New York, NY, 2012.


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I am a girl who will do anything to be someone in life. I want to have a career and make my parents proud. In this workshop, I learned that when I put all my effort into writing something that matters to me and helps me move closer to achieving my life goals, then my work really shines.

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—Roxanna, 12th-grade student, written reflection

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Roxanna, a student from Dan’s class, describes in this written reflection a sentiment shared by many of her classmates about the way the college admission essay workshop aligned with her future goals. She realized that she is more invested in her writing when she sees a clear connection between a writing task and her next life steps. The purpose of this chapter is to offer insight into the specific curricular and teaching choices involved in designing and implementing a real world, gate-opening writing workshop so teachers and researchers may draw from these pages to create similar opportunities for their students. This chapter provides:

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  1. an overview of the college admission essay genre
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  1. the key components of the college admission essay workshop
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  1. examples of student writing produced in the workshop
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  1. extensions and professional resources for teaching the college admission essay.
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The Importance of the College Admission Essay

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The college admission essay, personal statements, application letters, and other similar writing tasks hold a great deal of power. However, as with so many writing genres students encounter in their transition from high school to college and from college to the workplace, an air of mystery prevails. As reading skills and literary analysis become increasingly important in the classroom due to high-stakes testing, many students are not provided opportunities to engage in writing tasks that are of any-substance, depth, or complexity (Applebee & Langer, 2009). This is disconcerting for students who aspire to attend college and will encounter challenging and complex writing tasks in their college courses, as well as for those students who want solid-paying jobs with high literacy demands (American Diploma Project, 2004).

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What is even more concerning is that low-income, second language, and ethnic minorities often miss out on these rich writing opportunities and are more likely to be exposed to skill and drill learning in the classroom due to issues of sorting and tracking as well as ongoing political pressures and scripted curriculum (Kohn, 1999; Oakes & Wells, 1998). Rather than engaging in a rich curriculum that helps them become productive members of the community and find success in college, the workplace, and beyond, far too many ethnically and linguistically diverse youth are immersed in remediated curriculum that is designed to help them perform well on standardized tests. However, engaging in gate-opening writing tasks helps students begin to understand how these tasks function both rhetorically and socially, and provides them with a form of currency that they may use to access and participate in various institutions of power, including universities, businesses, and community organizations.

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Most colleges and universities in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and other countries around the world evaluate students’ admission applications using multiple criteria. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC, 2008), these criteria include:

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  1. ability to pay
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  1. recommendations from high school counselors and teachers
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  1. interviews
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  1. high school grade-point averages
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  1. high school class rank
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  1. evidence of extracurricular activities
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  1. admission test scores
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  1. quality of a written essay.
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The college admission essay is one example of a real world, gate-opening genre form because it is a basic requirement of many higher education institutions that has real consequences. That is, it is clear that this genre of writing serves as a gate through which students must pass to gain admittance to many universities and colleges around the world.

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Post-secondary-bound high school students typically write these essays during the first semester of their senior year as part of the college application process. Some students seek assistance from English teachers, guidance counselors, or parents, whereas others write the essay on their own. This genre is especially tough for students who are in the process of learning English or whose parents do not speak English and may not be able to offer feedback on the essay. To complicate matters, 12th-grade students generally write these essays for a particular yet unknown audience: college admission officers and admission committees. If students do not have a clear understanding of the audience, it is challenging to compose an essay that meets that audience’s needs and expectations.

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For many post-secondary institutions, the admission essay is the only opportunity to learn about applicants personally. It also is one of the only ways these institutions are exposed to students’ writing prior to admission. The importance of these essays is evidenced by the large university systems in the United States that have adopted common prompts and instructions that help define the genre. For example, the University of California requires all applicants to write two personal statements based on prompts like these (UC Regents, 2010):

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  1. Describe the world you come from—for example, your family, community, or school—and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
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  1. Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution, or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are? (UC Regents, 2010, para 3 & 5)
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The importance of admission essays has increased recently as more colleges and universities have opted not to require SAT scores as one of their criteria for evaluating students’ admission applications. In 1993, only 14% of colleges thought the essay was of “considerable importance,” but by 2006, 28% considered the essay to be a significant admission factor, and that number continues to grow (NACAC, 2008; National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2009). Currently, 414, or approximately 15%, of 4-year degree-granting institutions in the United States use the Common Application, which is accepted at private and public schools around the country (n.d.b.) . The Common Application (n.d.a.) essay prompt is open-ended and allows students to choose from six essay topics:

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  1. significant experience, risk, or ethical dilemma
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  1. issue of local, national, or international concern
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  1. significant person
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  1. important character from a text
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  1. personal experience that represents diversity
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  1. topic of choice.
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Although numerous guides have been published on how to write successful college admission essays (see Gelband, Kubale, & Schorr, 1986; The Harvard Independent, 2002), there is little empirical support for the efficacy of these methods (Samway, 2006). Of the writing workshops and research studies that focus on ethnically and linguistically diverse secondary students, none examines the impact of features-based instruction on improving the writing quality of college admissions essays (Graham & Perin, 2007a). This is where our workshop comes in.

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The college admission essay workshop took place during the fall semester and involved explicit teaching, modeling, and practicing of writing skills connected to the college admission essay genre. All instruction was provided during the students’ regularly scheduled, 55-minute English class and was offered 2 to 3 days a week over the course of 6 weeks, for a total of 13 class sessions (see Appendix A for a detailed schedule created by Jessica). Students received instruction from members of the teaching and research team and from their classroom teachers. All curriculum for the workshop was created and designed by Jessica, with assistance from Arturo and Cynthia, the two doctoral students who assisted with the teaching of the workshop.

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Overview of the College Admission Essay Workshop

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There were three phases of the workshop process, including the introduction to the workshop, teaching key genre elements, and the conclusion to the workshop. Students wrote three drafts (one draft for each stage of the workshop) of their essays over the course of the workshop: an initial draft, a working or instructional draft developed as part of the curriculum unit, and a third and final draft. Students wrote the initial draft during the second class session of the writing workshop, prior to instruction on the key genre elements. This draft was an essay responding to a written prompt from the Common Application (n.d.a.), which is also the required prompt for one of the major universities in the state where the study took place. The research and teaching team wanted to collect an initial writing sample to gain an understanding of students’ strengths and weaknesses in writing this genre prior to instruction. In the second phase of the workshop, students received instruction on the key genre elements for the instructional essay. For this essay, students chose from three open-ended essay topics taken from the Common Application prompts, which required students to write about personal experience. For example, one of the questions asked students to evaluate a significant experience, achievement, or risk they have taken, or an ethical dilemma they have faced and its impact (The Common Application, n.d.b.) . The third and final draft was completed at the conclusion of the workshop. It was important to give students multiple opportunities to write and revise in this genre and see what challenges presented themselves with this type of writing. The three drafts also gave the research team a chance to gauge student progress over the course of the workshop.

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Each class session of the college admission essay workshop consisted of seven steps:

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  1. a skill lesson to introduce and define the genre element or skill
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  1. use of models/examples
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  1. opportunity for students to practice skill(s)
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  1. opportunity for students to share writing
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  1. opportunity for students to practice skill(s) again as part of a college admission essay project in progress
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  1. opportunity for students to receive feedback from peers or instructors
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  1. opportunity for students to revise.
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Although each session was structured in this way, the research and teaching team used examples of successful writing strategies, conferenced with students, and continually revised curriculum and lessons to address students’ questions, strengths, and needs. Because the research and teaching team wanted the workshop to be dynamic and not prescriptive, it was important to mold the curriculum around students’ unique needs.

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The following sections cover the introduction to the workshop, the key genre elements for the college admission essay, and the conclusion of the workshop. Excerpts of student writing appear throughout the description and analysis of the different stages of the workshop to illustrate students’ writing before and after the explicit skill lessons devoted to this gate-opening genre.

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Introducing the Workshop

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In the first phase of the workshop (Days 1–4), the research and teaching team spent time getting to know students in both classes through writing, discussion, questionnaires, and surveys. These days were also devoted to introducing students to the college admission essay as a genre so they could think about the purpose, audience, and context for this writing task. On the first day of the workshop, the research and teaching team distributed one questionnaire and one survey. The questionnaire asked students to respond to a series of questions regarding their experience with and understanding of the college admission essay genre. The questionnaire invited students to answer questions such as:

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  1. Please describe any prior experience writing the college admission essay.
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  1. Describe your feelings associated with applying to college and writing admissions essays.
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  1. What would you like help with in the process of writing college admission essays?
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The survey was a writing self-efficacy survey and asked students to rank their confidence in a variety of areas. Jessica derived the questionnaire from Bandura (1986) and Shell et al. (1995). This questionnaire consisted of 15 questions connected to facets of writing associated with the college admission essay genre in a response format of an 11-point confidence Likert-like scale ranging from “not at all confident” to “completely confident.” Seven of the survey questions asked students to note their confidence with particular genre elements of a college admission essay:

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  1. overall writing of a college admission essay,
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  1. understanding different parts of the college admission essay,
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  1. writing an introduction,
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  1. writing a conclusion,
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  1. using description,
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  1. sharing lived experiences,
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  1. audience awareness.
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Five questions asked students about their confidence with general writing skills:

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  1. varying sentence structure,
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  1. expressing voice,
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  1. use of adjectives,
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  1. use of description,
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  1. writing about setting.
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Three of the questions asked participants to rate their confidence with elements of the writing process, including:

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  1. asking for help with the essay,
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  1. revising their own essay,
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  1. revising someone else’s essay.
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This questionnaire was administered on the first day of the workshop with all participants and again at the end of the workshop on the last day.

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Through their responses to the questionnaire and survey and in informal conversations, students described having no prior experience writing college admission essays, and many said they felt anxious or intimidated at the prospect. The research and teaching team used the first days of the workshop to understand students’ perspectives and to plan curriculum based on their needs. For example, from the first day of the workshop, students expressed how college admission essay questions felt intimidating, like a “test” or a “trick,” because they seem so open-ended and provide such a range of topic choice. The research and teaching team’s goal was to provide students with access to some of the unwritten rules of the genre so they could think of the questions as part of a larger pattern rather than a test or a trick. The first days of the workshop were also devoted to pre-writing and brainstorming work as a way to warm up to the writing task as a whole and to think about the importance of choosing a strong writing topic.

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Choosing a Strong Topic

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Paul A (Oct 17 2023 12:13PM) : Choosing a Strong Topic
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An entire class (Day 3) was devoted to strategies for selecting strong essay topics. The research and teaching team began by pointing out how most college admission essay topics, regardless of their wording, fall into three general categories:

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  1. questions regarding the writer’s interests,
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  1. questions regarding the writer’s values and beliefs,
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  1. and questions regarding the writer’s thought process (College Board, n.d.b.) .
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The research and teaching team then asked students to practice selecting a topic using a range of options taken directly from the Common

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Application prompt. (Most colleges and universities that require college admission essays as part of their application process provide potential students with more than one essay question.) Examples of some options follow:

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  1. What experiences have led you to select your professional field and objective?
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  1. Does any attribute, quality, or skill distinguish you from everyone else? How did you develop this attribute?
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  1. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, and so on) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
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  1. What was the most difficult time in your life, and why? How did your perspective on life change as a result of the difficulty?
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  1. In your opinion, what is the greatest challenge that your generation will face? What ideas do you have for dealing with this issue?
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The research and teaching team wanted students to practice selecting successful topics for their writing for a real world audience, but this step created anxiety and uncertainty for many students. Through class discussion, students shared that they were not used to having the freedom to choose their topic and were unsure of their audience. For example, Marco spent half of one session staring at the questions until Dan asked him to articulate what he was thinking. He explained, “I am not sure what I am supposed to write about. This feels like a test. If I choose the wrong topic, I am doomed from the beginning.” Other students, such as Tiana, shared Marco’s feelings and felt the openness of the questions created too much freedom. Tiana explained, “I feel more comfortable when someone just tells me what I’m supposed to write about and then I can go ahead and write. If I have too many options, I feel out of control. . . . I’m not sure what they want me to say.”

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To help students like Marco and Tiana, the research and teaching team told them to go with their gut and choose a topic they knew something about and felt invested in right away. The research and teaching team also gave students permission at any time to change their topics if they felt stuck or uninspired. In a conversation with Jessica after class, Mariah shared her relief once she heard she could change her mind:

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I initially chose to write about community service because I was working on a scholarship that addressed this issue and I had already written a little bit on this topic previously. I thought it would be easy. Now, after writing a little bit, I realize I am sick of the subject and I decided to make a change. It felt like a huge relief lifted off my shoulders to know I could start fresh with a new idea.

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But not everyone struggled with picking a topic. Talia knew immediately that she wanted to write about the loss of her mom, and she stayed with this topic throughout the workshop. Although choosing her topic came easily, she felt less sure of the focus of her essay because the loss of her mom was such an overwhelming experience. She noted, “I feel like I could write a whole book about my mom and her impact on my life. I know I need to focus my story to make it fit the purpose of the piece.” Victor explained that he quickly decided to write about feeling “trapped in my White skin” because he had always felt conflicted about being Latino and having very pale skin when all of his Latino friends have much darker skin. He shared, “I have more to say about this than anything else. I thought about what I wanted to write ahead of time and as I began brainstorming, more ideas came to mind and I knew I had a good match.”

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Pre-Writing

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The research and teaching team encouraged students to take part in pre-writing and invention work to see if their initial topic ideas were a good fit (Day 3). Invention work is a step writers often take part in before formally drafting. For example, writers often brainstorm, prepare outlines, and collect and read materials related to their topic. The research and teaching team first modeled various brainstorming strategies, including mapping, webbing, outlining, or listing ideas. Then students chose one or two of these techniques to practice. Jenissa, for example, was torn between topic ideas so she quickly scribbled two lists. Her first list was titled “Social Worker (CPS)” and included the following quick phrases: “bad experience on the rez [reservation]” and “they [Child Protective Services] don’t help like they need to.” Her second list was titled “Baseball” and included a list of five key words: practice, team, dad, pitching, and support. She said she was torn between an extremely personal and heart-wrenching experience with abuse and, as she described it, “a much safer and more generic memory about playing baseball with my dad.” Jenissa said she needed to figure out which topic felt most compelling to her as a writer. She also wanted to learn more about what a college admission officer would rather read. As the workshop progressed, however, Jenissa abandoned both ideas, along with a few that followed, to write instead about her relationship with her grandmother. She said the pre-writing “allowed me to try out ideas until one stuck.”

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Yobi used mapping and listing as forms of pre-writing. Unlike Jenissa, he knew immediately what he wanted to write about, but he wanted to experiment with different ways of thinking about the topic before drafting. The center of his map included his topic, “Mom’s death,” and he drew bubbles and arrows out from these central words to include key phrases to help him think about this life experience. He wrote, “Because I couldn’t cry I no longer felt anything” and “I was eight.” Below his map, Yobi created a list of 10 key words and phrases to help him think about the impact of his mother’s death on his life:

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  1. the death
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  1. the feelings
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  1. why I couldn’t cry
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  1. why I couldn’t feel anything for a long time
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  1. how I look at life now
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  1. how I treat women
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  1. how I treat my grandma and elders
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  1. why I’m so sensitive
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  1. how I protect myself
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  1. who changed my way of life after the death.
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During a writing conference, Yobi explained how mapping and listing not only helped him focus his topic but also served as an outline for his future essay.

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What We Learned

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After analyzing students’ preliminary topic ideas and writing from the first few days of the workshop, the research and teaching team found that many had powerful life experiences to share; however, the writing did not exhibit many of the genre elements necessary to share these experiences effectively with a college admissions officer. Many of the initial essays were incomplete and lacked detail, description, and focus. As we reviewed the initial drafts, we anticipated the writing would be rough because students had not had time to revise and polish the pieces, but these writing samples gave us one way to gain a sense of students’ needs and pinpoint specific strategies we could focus on to support their writing. For example, Rodrigo’s 11-sentence, three-paragraph essay about the positive influence of his father began with the following lead: “In my life my dad has influenced me greatly. His teachings of working hard, progression, and never giving up has served me well up to this point. It has shaped and molded the person I am today.” While Rodrigo’s love and respect for his father were clear, his lead did not have the elements of a strong opening. It lacked a powerful quote or a series of questions or a compelling anecdote.

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Many of the essays also lacked organization and audience awareness. Gisele’s essay, for example, focused on the struggles and the triumphs she faced working and attending school full-time to pay for gymnastics lessons her unemployed parents cannot afford. Although the topic was intriguing and the essay included important details, the 20 essay sentences comprised a single paragraph. Phrases such as “when I’m hit with some obstacle” and “so being myself I found a job during the summer” illustrated the essay’s inappropriate, informal tone. The issues the research and teaching team uncovered in Gisele’s essay are emblematic of the issues discovered in the student essays as a whole, and suggested a need to discuss the importance of the key genre elements and teach them explicitly.

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Getting to Know the Audience

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After analyzing the students’ initial essays, the research and teaching team decided to devote a class to understanding audience and purpose as a step toward successfully executing this real world, gate-opening genre (Day 4). Writing scholars such as Barry M. Kroll (1981) and José Brandão Carvalho (2002) have emphasized the importance of audience awareness and deemed it one of the major markers that separate novice from experienced writers. One aspect of what marks the college admission essay as a “gatekeeping” writing task for many students is that the audience is unknown.

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Addressing Preconceived Notions. In the skill lesson on audience awareness, students responded to a set of brief brainstorming questions asking them to think about the rhetorical situation for the college admission essay, meaning the audience, purpose, topic, and context for this genre (see Figure 4.1).

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As students completed their brainstorming questions, many said they imagined the audience of college admission officers as “old,” “conservative,” and “White.” Cody, a highly verbal student who always sat in the front row, blurted out, “I’ve never thought about who ends up actually reading these essays. I just assumed they would wind up in some file somewhere.” Lindsey, a quiet student, raised her hand to share, “When I think of college admission officers, I think of White men. I never picture anyone who looks or thinks like me.” On her questionnaire, Lindsey wrote that her audience would most likely be a “42-year-old, upper-class, male professor with a Ph.D., and Caucasian.” She also stated that this unknown reader would expect her to be “smart, well-rounded, and worldly.” Many students pictured “men in suits and ties with white hair and glasses” reading their essays with a critical ey

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Paul A

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Paul A (Aug 27 2023 7:17PM) : Jessica Early said some of this on TTT on August 23, 2023. And we started to think about how we might begin to create Thinking Partners who had the personas and perspectives of admissions officers.
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Brant P Brant P (Sep 24 2023 6:28PM) : More Information Please! more

Would a Thinking Partner be like a shoulder partner in a Kagan structure? Did you have students roleplay as college admissions officers?

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Figure 4.1. Thinking About the Rhetorical Situation for the College Admission Essay

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  1. Purpose: What is the purpose of writing a college admission essay? Explain.
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  1. Genre: How would you categorize the college admission essay as a type of writing? (e.g., fiction, autobiographical story, news article, review, letter to the editor, rhetorical analysis, criticism, persuasive essay). Explain.
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  1. Audience: Who do you imagine is the audience for the college admission essay? Describe using details (e.g., social class, age, gender).
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  1. Topic: What do you plan to write about? Why is this topic important to you and why do you think it will be important your audience?
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Once students shared their preconceived notions of the audience, the research and teaching team talked about the role of college admission officers and the purpose of the college admissions office. It was not possible to provide a concrete description of the admission officers, since they are diverse individuals and little information about them as a group is released publicly. However, the research and teaching team did tell students that their audience would most likely be employed by the university, highly educated, older than they are, and invested in recruiting and accepting new students who best exemplify the school’s mission.

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Understanding Context. The research and teaching team also wanted students to understand how many post-secondary institutions are similar to businesses seeking new customers. Our goal was to show students how universities provide information about what they value through their promotional materials and how this might offer some insight into the school’s mission and expectations for students.

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The research and teaching team showed students examples of college admission websites so they could see how schools advertise themselves. They noticed the kinds of photos, quotes, and documents schools use to promote athletics, campus life, diversity, and quality education. Some of the sites include:

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  1. University of Texas (https://admissions.utexas.edu/%20freshmen/)—contains detailed information on everything from life in Austin, where the school is located, to profiles of current students
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  3. University of California at Berkeley (https://www.berkeley.edu/admissions/)—lists its acceptance statistics and the average SAT score average and GPA of incoming freshmen
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  1. Emory University in Atlanta (https://www.emory.edu/home/index.html)—offers a number of quick links to the university’s social media pages to help students get acquainted with the school community.
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Understanding a college or university’s context, student body, size, academic programs, and recreational activities is a way to gain insight into the school’s culture and community, and for the purposes of our workshop, it served as a way to give students a sense of agency when writing the admission essay. Rather than thinking of their audience as “people we can’t relate to,” “judges and critics,” or “old and conservative and not at all like me,” students gained more confidence and voice regarding the writing task when they realized that as students, they were the customers writing for real people.

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Many students had never thought about finding a school that was a good fit with their values, culture, academic and social goals, and financial means. Understandably, many likened success with the application and acceptance process to a shot in the dark. Mariah said, “I never realized that I can make choices about the kind of place I end up going. I didn’t really think I had a say in this until now.” Her comment highlights the importance of demystifying colleges’ and universities’ similarities and differences, students’ role and influence in the admission process, and the fact that they are writing an essay for a real audience.

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Lesson Results

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As students started brainstorming topics and drafting their second essays in the first weeks of the workshop, the research and teaching team reminded them to think about audience and purpose. After reading the working drafts of students’ essays, the research and teaching team noticed how some students made decisions about topic choice, voice, and their overarching theme based on audience awareness. For example, Maritza’s initial draft describing her mother’s impact on her life began as follows:

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My mother, Maria, is the person that has influenced me. She is a big part of my life and I’m really glad to have her. She influenced me by telling me about her life and not letting me go through the things she had to go through. She never had the opportunity to finish high school until she got older she went to take classes to finish it. She had showed me and encouraged me to never give up my education because without it my life would be full of struggles.

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Maritza initially felt her first topic was important and compelling, but after participating in the audience awareness workshop, brainstorming ideas, and talking to classmates, she realized she wanted to expand upon her topic to show the way her mother’s influence has led to her academic accomplishments and participation in extracurricular activities. After having a chance to think through and receive feedback on her original ideas, she realized that expanding her topic to share her academic accomplishments and extracurricular interests would help address the university audience and purpose more explicitly. She wanted to attend Brigham Young University and she realized that the academic enrichment programs she had participated in all connected well to the mission of the university:

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How many different ways can you get into a university? Many people just focus on their grades but not me. I’ve always been told “Maritza, you’re a very smart girl and you can get far.” Those words motivate me to try to get into a university. I didn’t focus only on my grades though. I always signed up for programs that will help me get into a university. Right now I am in the Hispanic Mother Daughter Program, the AVID Program and also the Reach Program. All three of these programs have showed me different ways to achieve my goals.

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While some students, like Maritza, chose to change topics as a result of the skill lesson on audience awareness, most expressed how the lesson made them feel more confident in the topics they had selected. Gladys explained how growing up with overprotective parents has influenced her:

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I realize I shouldn’t feel embarrassed writing about my topic because it reflects who I am. I am going to write about how my family has sheltered me and kept me from taking part in activities with my peers my whole life and how this has shaped who I am as a student, young woman, and person.

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Key Genre Elements of the College Admission Essay

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Paul A (Sep 05 2023 4:05PM) : Key Genre Elements of the College Admissions Essay
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As mentioned, students worked on the second working draft of the essay while receiving instruction—specifically, several skill lessons on key genre elements of the college admission essay. Jessica and Sara derived these elements by collecting and examining as many examples of this type of writing as possible prior to the workshop. A thorough review of successful examples of college admission essays provided insight into some of the most common features of this type of writing. After an extensive online and book search, Jessica and Sara collected 50 examples of college admission essays from college students who had applied and been accepted to colleges and universities in Arizona, Maine, California, Texas, Oregon, and Washington. These essays were read and coded to find specific elements and repeated patterns used for this genre. Several elements emerged from our analysis (see Figure 4.2).

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Figure 4.2. Key Genre Elements of the College Admission Essay

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  1. Selecting a strong writing topic: Consider personal experiences, issues of importance, or influential individuals while taking into account the expectations of college admission officers.
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  1. Writing for the appropriate audience: Consider the unfamiliar audience of college admission officers.
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  1. Writing an effective introduction: Consider effective techniques for a lead, such as beginning with a powerful quote, a series of questions, or a compelling anecdote.
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  3. Using description: Use vivid details to show, not tell, anecdotes from life events.
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  1. Writing the “So What?” : Step outside the narrative to emphasize the significance of the particular topic and lesson learned. Share why the story represents the writer’s unique interests and potential contributions to a university community.
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  3. Making outside connections: Embed outside texts, events, or ideas; explicitly reference outside sources.
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  1. Writing an effective conclusion: End on a powerful and memorable note to stand apart from other applicants.
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These genre elements became the instructional focus of the workshop. The working draft of the essay served as an opportunity for students to take part in a process approach to learning about this genre (Atwell, 1987; Singer, 2006). For this draft, students were guided through different steps of writing an admission essay from invention to drafting to revising.

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Writing a Successful Introduction

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Paul A (Sep 06 2023 12:00PM) : Writing a Successful Introduction
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One of the first genre elements taught in the workshop was the introduction (Day 5). As part of the opening questionnaire, which students filled out at the beginning of the workshop, many expressed concerns about “how to get started” and how to “format” their essays. Students also worried about the rhetorical situation; they feared that they might not be able to write well enough for college admission officers. Explicit teaching of the introduction helped allay some of their fears.

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Figure 4.3. Lead Options and Directions for Using Them

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Option 1

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Question(s) or dialogue: Ask one or a series of questions to catch readers’ attention. Examples of question stems include: Do you remember _____? Did you know _____? Have you ever thought about _____? Or start your essay with an action or dialogue that immediately takes readers into the story you want to share. Keep in mind: The questions and dialogue should relate to your topic.

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Option 2

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A compelling anecdote: Open with a small story that personalizes the essay topic. It may introduce who you are as a unique individual, pose the thesis or dilemma that controls your argument, or provide insight into your interests and values.

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Option 3

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A powerful quote: Begin with a quote from a conversation, song lyric, poem, statistic, or historical fact, or an old saying. Make sure the quote is not a dictionary definition or a cliché. Once you select the quote, be sure to show readers in the opening paragraph that follows the quote how it relates to your overall message.

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Consider Effective Techniques for a Lead. The research and teaching team first provided sample introductions from the set of essays Jessica and Sara had collected and analyzed prior to the study to determine key genre features for the workshop. In the samples, many of the writers used particular strategies to begin their pieces, and the research and teaching team wanted to make these transparent for students. Students also had the opportunity to practice these strategies in their writing, so after the team shared these models with the students, students were then given three possible strategies to practice, along with tips for approaching these different leads (see Figure 4.3). Students were also reminded that successful leads are almost always brief and work to set up the essay topic.

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Enrique practiced all three options and decided the lead that seemed “the most natural and just clicked” was the one he had begun with a quote from Tupac Shakur:

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“Through every dark night there is a brighter day.” This famous quote by Tupac Shakur is one I live by. I look up to many famous people who have been successful despite starting out with nothing.

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I like reading quotes and motivational speeches from Tupac, Michael Jordan, and Donald Trump because they all found ways of overcoming hardship. It has always been a challenge for me to focus on school work being the youngest male in a Mexican family with six kids and with two parents who have very limited schooling. My dad has a second grade education and my mom a sixth grade education. Both of my parents went to school in Mexico and came to the United States as very young adults. Even though my parents did not stay in school and despite many challenges I have faced, education has become a big part of who I am.

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Students were given multiple opportunities throughout the workshop to practice writing and revising the college admission essay introduction, and expressed enthusiasm after learning this genre element. In a post-workshop interview, Victor explained to Jessica that learning new strategies for writing an introduction made a big difference in his overall writing. Below is a brief excerpt from his interview:

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Jessica: What did you find most useful about the overall college admission essay workshop?

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Victor: The lesson on how to get started in my essay helped me the most. Sometimes I have a hard time getting started and I have a hard time ending, but my middles are usually all right. I am tired of my basic way of writing. I always write papers using “First of all, second of all . . .” . I want to learn to mix it up. Until now, I have always started and ended my writing using a formula my teachers had given me. I don’t like formulas. It feels too forced and basic. I liked having more freedom and choice to try different ways of getting started. Formulas are so square. I am not square. It is important to have options. No one has ever shown me these writing options before.

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In an informal conversation after the skill lesson on introductions, Victor shared how he felt the skill lesson gave him “ways to help my ideas flow.”

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Lesson Results. By learning ways of approaching the introduction to this genre, many students’ leads showed marked improvement. Consider Carola’s introduction to her initial essay. She simply listed several areas of academic interest and then briefly described her interest in reading:

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Some of my academic interests are reading, English, and science. I enjoy reading during my free time because I sometimes get so involved in the book and I forget where I am. Other times it feels like the story is real. I like to read all sorts of books from fantasy to non-fiction. As long as it’s a good book, I’ll read it.

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After Carola had participated in the skill lesson on writing an effective introduction, she used vivid description to help introduce her father’s impact on her personal growth:

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It seemed like he was always in a bad mood. When he had a bad day at work he would let steam out on us, when we hadn’t done anything to deserve it. It was as if we could never make him happy. He always found ways to yell at us and make us feel bad. My dad never seemed to feel proud of me and I remember the many nights I cried myself to sleep wishing I didn’t have a dad.

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Carola not only switched the focus of her essay in this revised draft, but her writing became more fluid, descriptive, and compelling. She made the shift from listing her interests in a general and impersonal way to diving into the difficult story of her relationship with her father.

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Izzy’s first introduction, like Carola’s, was more general than personal:

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My mom has had a positive influence on me. I am the youngest of three children and probably the one who spends the most time with our mom. I am the only one to have lived with her after she and my father got divorced. I appreciate every moment I spend with my mom because I know when it is time to move out on my own I will never find as much love and care as she has given me.

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After the skill lesson, Izzy revised her introduction to reveal how she grew up in a challenging environment but thrived because of her mother’s love and support:

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Most homes have a father, a mother, and children living under one roof. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for me. After my mom and dad got a divorce, I lived only with my mom. I have lived this way for about twelve years now. For those first nine years, my dad never tried contacting us. At first I didn’t know why, but as I got older

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I didn’t care anymore. I was happy just having my mom around. Many people think I need a father figure in my life, but that wasn’t necessary for me. My mom filled both sets of shoes.

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Izzy’s revised introduction illustrates growth in a number of ways. First, every sentence in her first introduction other than the first began in with “I” and provided little to no detail. The second draft incorporates more sentence variety and more personal connection. In the revised introduction after the skill lesson, Izzy lets her reader in on the reality of growing up with a single mother and having little to no contact with her father. Her introduction established her connection to her mom, her growing independence, and her strength as a young woman. The skill lesson gave students strategies to more effectively tell their stories. Next, the research and teaching team taught a brief skill lesson reminding students of the importance of using description in their writing (Day 6).

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Using Description

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I’m the Tech Liaison for the New York City Writing Project. I… (more)

Sep 6
Paul A

I’m the Tech Liaison for the New York City Writing Project. I… (more)

Paul A (Sep 06 2023 12:05PM) : Using Description
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In many of the students’ initial essays, they “told” about significant people or events in their lives, but they did not “show” these using description. For example, Jenissa discussed the importance of family, but offered few details. She wrote,

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Ever since I can remember I have always been around my family. Growing up around them has definitely influenced me. They are always there when I need them, they are constantly teaching, and having younger members I learned responsibility.

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Although Jenissa’s love for her family could make for an interesting essay topic, the research and teaching team wanted to help her move beyond summarizing to make her essay stand out from others.

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In this skill lesson, the research and teaching team provided students with multiple examples of college admission essays as well as poems and nonfiction pieces that either modeled effective use of description or emphasized the importance of using this strategy in writing (Hillocks, 2006; Lamott, 1994). The research and teaching team also used a lesson from Chapter 4 of Hillocks’s (2007) Narrative Writing, on incorporating detail and figurative language. In this chapter, Hillocks explains that “the most important quality of effective stories is concrete detail. Specific details allow readers to see scenes in their own minds as they read” (p. 43). Hillocks emphasizes how writing with description can be challenging for young writers because the process of incorporating descriptive language into writing requires a number of steps and key decisions:

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Writers have to remember or imagine what it is they want to portray, search their memories for words to do it, arrange the words in effective syntax, evaluate the effort by comparing it with the vision in their mind, perhaps search for additional or different words or different ways to use them, write those down, and evaluate the effort again. (p. 43)

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