For this exercise, you’ll need three columns and seven rows. Label the first column “who/what.” Label the second column “where.” You choose whether where means location or destination. It doesn’t have to be the same for each who/what. Label the third column “why.”
Complete your chart. You will have seven who/what‘s partnered with their own where‘s and why‘s.
Write one sentence for each, using your most magnificent sentence-structuring skills.
Prompt #23 – Challenge:
Select a mood that you feel works well with the concept of scurrying. Write a scene that includes 3-4 of the who/what‘s from the base prompt. Keep the where‘s and why‘s too.
You don’t have to use the same sentences you created earlier, but you certainly may. Choose diction that best conveys a scurrying mood. Craft imagery that makes your reader feel, well, scurried.
Hint: You might even want to look up scurry to maximize its meaning(s).
Fall is the season for college applications and teacher recommendations. While students are snowed under the back-to-school course load, extracurriculars, and senior activities, teachers are slammed with parent communications, lunch-hall-carline-whatever duties, lesson plans, in-class engagement, and grading.
Adding a stack of college recommendations to a teacher’s otherwise overstuffed life is a necessary burden. Most teachers who have been around the block a time or two have a go-to formula to help save time and still write insightful information that is helpful to the admissions offices.
For those teachers who are new to the teacher rec-writing game, here are a few suggestions to help develop guidelines for writing college recommendations that give admissions readers crucial information in their decision-making process and also save the teacher a little time in completing this added blessing on the fall to-do list.
1. Be sincere. Your personal integrity with colleges and universities is riding on your honesty and authenticity. Not every student you teach is in the top one-to-two percent of your career or the top ten percent either. Overestimating a student’s ability or character could get that student into a college that is not a good fit. Moderate your language and try not to write everything as a superlative. On the other hand, if a student is at the top of all the students you have taught through the years, break out your strongest endorsements and superlative statements for them.
2. Be up-front. In everyone’s best interest, if you feel like what you can sincerely say about a student will not help their chances of getting into a college or university, let them know so they can ask a different teacher to write the recommendation. One year, I agreed to write recommendation letters for two editors on our student magazine staff. Shortly after, these two students started showing up for class a few minutes after the tardy bell a couple of times a week. Each time, they would apologize profusely and say it was because they were coming from an AP lab course and their lab ran long. When I began to doubt that their AP science class would be doing labs that often, I pulled them aside and told them I could no longer excuse their tardies. They apologized, as usual, and started getting to class on time for about a week. The next time the students were tardy, they came wandering into class halfway through the period, without excuse notes. I asked them where they had been and one student said, “Well, you know, boy problems. We had to have a little girl talk.” I looked at the other student and she said, “Well, I couldn’t tell her no.” Nope. That moment was not one of my better teaching moments, but ultimately, I let both students know that, in their own best interest, they should probably find a different teacher to write their recommendations. Nothing I could say about their character would be helpful in their college admissions process.
3. Be concrete. Open the letter with a significant narrative. Explaining the situation that first made the student stand out to you is a good way to start. Maybe it was a class discussion. Or maybe that student stepped in to defend another student who was being bullied. Or maybe the student routinely spends all of lunch hour tutoring a friend who is struggling to understand a complex concept. Maybe the student’s research project was so well-researched and written that it had an impact on your personal beliefs about the topic. Whatever the story is, tell it. Let your opening paragraph be a verbal “video” of what you remember as most remarkable about this student.
4. Be thorough. Follow your opening narrative with a discussion of one or two character traits that best describe the student. Again, the strength of your own writing will come in your ability to help the reader “see” the student’s character by sharing narrative examples. Tell the story. Tell the story. Tell the story. Don’t shy away from sharing examples of growth… situations in which you’ve seen a student become more confident, kind, or hard-working. While it is easy in the body of the letter to recite the student’s resume, that information is already on the application. What is most helpful for the admissions team is knowing the person behind the accomplishment. Therefore, if an honor or award has a story behind it that shows the student’s character, then tell the backstory. The journey to success is always more interesting than simply knowing there was a success. While most teachers want to paint a picture of perfection, the authenticity of a struggle that leads to growth is often more valuable in identifying whether a prospective student is a good fit with the university’s culture.
5. Be clear about what you see for the student’s future. Try not to end the recommendation letter with something like this: “Therefore, I highly recommend this student for admission to this university.” If you can see that student spending summers as an undergrad volunteering as an office assistant for a pro bono legal services agency near campus in preparation for law school where you are confident they will become a civil rights attorney, then say that. If you believe that the student will be more successful in college than high school because your school has few technology course options, and the student spends every free moment reading coding books and just needs an environment rich in technology to thrive, say that. Get into the specifics of why this student is a good fit for this college and this college is a perfect environment for this student.
Once you get a few teacher recommendation letters written, you will develop your own style and rhythm. Be careful not to slip into autopilot, though. Make sure your recommendations are genuine and thorough.
If your school’s college counseling office does not provide students with a personal information form to give you the details you need to write a spectacular personalized recommendation letter, you can use this one. Feel free to copy, modify, and share. Use these resources in whatever way makes your life a little easier.
The eight videos below walk you through brainstorming exercises that will spark memories, identify significant objects and events, and spotlight your core values. They help you discover the raw materials you’ll use to craft a high-impact essay that engages the readers and reveals your character.
Below each video, you’ll find a brief description of the content to help you decide which views are most likely to move you toward your essay goals. Since they are all in workshop format, you’ll need pen and paper, your laptop, or a tablet to participate.
The College Essay Guy’s Collection of Brainstorming Exercises
Think of these next few videos as a boxed set of Ethan Sawyer’s best brainstorming exercises. Together, they give you a STRONG content foundation for your personal statement and your supplemental essays. These four are my favorites and have traditionally yielded great results for my clients.
New content from the best of the best, Ethan Sawyer, this workshop video is a real-time brainstorming session. Grab a tablet or paper and pen and follow the directions Sawyer gives. He’ll even write with you. It’s a fun exercise. I tried it myself. He challenges you to brainstorm 21 ideas in 12 minutes, but you will probably be able to come up with more than the minimum. So keep going, even when you think you may be done. Sometimes the less-obvious topics yield the most notable essays.
Discover meaning in objects you love. One of the biggest challenges in writing college essays is to take an abstract idea and communicate it in tangible ways. Concrete details make your essays more engaging for the readers who are processing an unfathomable amount of writing each day. The Essence Objects Exercise is the #1 best exercise for generating great college essays that pull readers into your story. Sawyer guides you through identifying, describing, and analyzing objects that hold deep meaning for you. You don’t want to skip this one.
Pair concrete descriptions with profound insights, and you have a memorable essay. This workshop for identifying core values will equip you with the vocabulary to communicate insights about yourself and the world around you that come from the experiences you choose to share. It will be helpful to print out/upload the Values PDF before watching this video, so go ahead a view it on YouTube, where you can download the worksheet before you get started.
You’ll want to watch this one on YouTube too. There’s a PDF of “feelings & needs” words you’ll want to access to maximize this workshop experience. In this video, you’ll go into a deep dive through challenges you’ve faced, and you’ll analyze the feelings and needs that underlie the experiences and your responses. It’s a JOURNEY, but it is a great exercise. BONUS: This exercise both brainstorms content and gives you a structural outline. If you’ve procrastinated a little too long and are short on time, and if you have a challenge or significant life event, then THIS may be your saving grace on your personal statement journey.
One-Stop Brainstorming Sessions
Maura Allen, author of Write Now! Essential Tips for Standout College Essays, guides you through several great brainstorming exercises in this video from Khan Academy’s College Admissions channel. I love this exercise, especially for students who have gone a little too far in trying to figure out “what colleges want” and need to re-center their essay journey around who they are. These exercises feature Myers-Briggs personality types, My 3 Words, and Free Writing. If you haven’t waited too long to start, this video is one of the best places to begin searching for your story.
Rachel Lin’s brainstorming video is super-helpful as a self-guided workshop. She uses timestamps to mark the different exercises, so it’s easy to go to the next if one doesn’t work for you. This video gives you a full-blown brainstorming workshop. I highly recommend it. Rachel’s workshop will help you chart a course toward a personal essay that is uniquely YOU.
And a Couple More Random Brainstorming Resources
The College Essay Advisors team takes you through their “backwards brainstorm” process, which means that you ignore the prompts until you figure out what you want to say. They approach brainstorming in layers, giving you broad categories to ponder, followed by specific exercises and prompts to narrow topics. My favorite part of this video (which is a little more lecture-y and a little less workshop-y) is that it suggests ways to step back from the intensity of the experience and allow your brain to find your story.
You know how people have those lists of 100 questions to help you get started thinking about possible essay topics? And you make it through, maybe, the first 20 and skim a few more and then stop reading them because they all blur together? This video allows you to get through every one of those questions without bogging down. Jillian Goldberg rapid-fire reads 100 questions to you. It’s SO MUCH better than trudging through a written list. Instead, you can listen to her ask the questions, pause when you hear one that strikes a chord, and write. It’s a helpful exercise. (Excuse video’s typos because the content is very good.)
I’d love to hear which videos you find most helpful in identifying topics for your college essays. Comment below with reviews of these, or send me links to any others you recommend.