A Rubric for Strong College Essays

At the college where I’ve been teaching part-time since 1997, everyone is suddenly mad for grading rubrics, detailed illustrations of performance expectations for assignments. I embraced them myself for both my lower and upper division sociology courses a couple years back, and it occurred to me that a rubric of sorts might well help students more easily compose strong college essays. The following represents an effort in this direction on my part in this college application season. I chose to compose it as a series of questions, although my course rubrics tend to feature declarative statements.

Does the essay clearly address the prompt, or one of the identified prompts?

Is it well written with proper grammar, perfect spelling, varied sentence structure and appropriate paragraph breaks?

Does it reveal something essential about the author? Does it give the reader a glimpse into what makes her or him tick?

Does it feel authentic and honest, or forced, as if the writer is trying to impress the reader with what is shared?

Is it likely to engage the reader from the first sentence or paragraph? I ask my clients to imagine an admission’s office representative working his or her way through a large stack of folders over the course of a day, with the student’s folder and essay nearly at the bottom.

Does the essay fit within the maximum length permitted for this particular submission?

Recently a female client of mine was clearly a bit stalled out on her lead essay. She wrote an acceptable but pedestrian piece about summer camp. It would not have fully addressed bullets three and five above, and I knew she could do better. I also knew that she had a passion for something that has long been a part of her life that she wasn’t sharing: dance.

I invited her to come by my office for a writing session, and suggested she pretend she was composing a 30-minute timed ACT essay. I gave her some orienting questions that I hoped would spark her creativity on the subject and WOW, did it ever! In less than 15 minutes time she knocked off something that was absolutely compelling about the role dance has played in her life. It required very little editing, and shortly thereafter off it went to CU as her short essay.

For those of us who help students with essay development and editing it doesn’t always come this easily, but I offer the above in the hope that it might prove helpful to a student, or someone assisting a student with this task. The other thing that can also prove to be helpful is for students to read essays submitted by successful applicants to a variety of institutions. There are books featuring such essays, and pay per view-websites purporting to feature such essays, but my favorite thing to do is to share the essays of past clients (with their permission of course).

Good luck, and remember, everyone needs editing!


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