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Mini-Lesson Monday: College Applications and the Six Word Memoir

College applications are a daunting endeavor for many of my students each year. Their mailboxes and email inboxes fill with opportunities to apply everywhere from the local community college, to pricey Ivy League schools across the country, to study abroad programs in countries they may never have heard of.

As if that wasn’t enough to sort through, lurking in these countless pages and pamphlets is another overwhelming prospect – The college application essay. Also known as the “tell us who you are as a human, what your soul’s greatest desires might be, and every intimate struggle you’ve had that define you as a young adult” essay. No wonder my announcement that our first paper in AP Language will be the college application essay is usually met with huge sighs of relief. However, that relief is also somewhat short lived as we start to take a look at prompts:

  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act?
  • Please tell us why you think you would be a good fit for __________.
  • Consider something in your life you think goes unnoticed and write about why it’s important to you.

As I tell my AP classes, “Colleges want to know the real you. The honest, gritty, learned from your mistakes, can bring something unique to their campus you. Your transcripts say keep-calm-and-apply-to-college-27-resized-600a lot about your work ethic, experiences, values, and achievements, but once you put pen to paper, you are a writer, and your story might just help them see the real you and decide that you are far too good to pass up.”

Their horrified looks usually tell me I should follow up with an explanation along these lines:


Don’t worry. We are going to do this together. Sharing your story might not be easy, but take it from this girl, everyone has a story to tell. I was your stereotypical upper-middle-class white girl with loving parents and a blissfully happy childhood. I pretty much seized up when my senior composition teacher said that we needed to write something deeply emotional and challenging in our college application essays. He had me convinced my happy life was going to keep me from going to college. Without a car wreck, lost dog, or deeply wounded heart, what compelling story did I have to tell?

Well, it turns out that one can write from the heart no matter the circumstances, and that’s what I want you to use for your own applications. An experience, belief, value, or direction for your life, can all be deeply emotional and revealing of the type of person any college would want to accept. I spoke about my desire to be a teacher in my application. Teaching is in my blood, and I had known I wanted to be a teacher since I was little. My dad used to bring home an extra gradebook for me and I’d line up my babies and stuffed animals and teach class. See…? I have the beginnings of a narrative right there. I expanded on what it would mean to me to become a teacher and how I knew the patience and passion I already possessed would not only make me a good teacher someday, they would make me a great addition to any campus because true teachers know the value of lifelong learning.


So…how to help students concisely sum up who they are?

Examples, examples, examples.

Let’s try six words. Total.

Objective: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will create six word memoirs as written artifacts in their writer’s notebooks to either spark ideas for drafting their college application essays, or serve as possible opening sentences for those essays.

Lesson: The timing of this lesson is after several class periods of having students explore who they are and what they value through quick writes and other activities. On one occasion, I have students write a quick write on the story they would tell to demonstrate positive elements of their character. We share stories about helping those in need, commitment in the face of certain defeat, and encounters with temptation, and then bullet point some of the “college friendly” attributes these stories suggest.

During another class period, I had students read, analyze, and then emulate Amy’s recent suggestion of the poem “Possibilities.” This was the first year I used this poem during this unit, and I could not be more happy with the results. Students did some beautiful work in analyzing Szymborska’s structure in order to write a poem with their own preferences. I made sure to discuss with students the variety of topics that Szymborska uses in the poem from straightforward preferences of activities and food to those that reveal character and life experiences. I challenged students to do the same with some wonderful results.

Finally, for this specific lesson, I reminded students of my suggestion to keep their college application essays brief, as most applications would demand that they be so with limited word counts.

“So today, I want you to be really brief. Six words brief. We’re going to try to capture some of who you are and what you believe in exactly six words.”

I begin by sharing with them a few six word memoirs of my own and talking them through sixwordthe back stories. We then head to Smith Magazine’s Six Word Memoir page so students can look around. They are to write down a few favorites and also write what they think the larger message of those snapshot memoirs might be. We discuss at our tables and then share out a few to discuss what their favorites might reveal about the authors that crafted them.

Throughout the lesson, I remind students that just as we saw in “Possibilities,” brief snippets can reveal an awful lot about who we are. This is our goal in the college application essays as a whole, and this is our goal in the exercise.

Students spend some time drafting, sharing, and then praising the work of their peers. I suggest to students that these memoirs might be great hooks for their essays, they might spark an anecdote they could include along the way, or they might simply keep students focused on their own beliefs and values in order to use those to guide what they write about themselves.

Follow-Up:  Students are working hard on their college application essays and will be doing some peer editing early this week with submission to follow later in the week. To extend the work even further, I’ll be sharing a unique extension activity with my classes.

On September 22nd, 2016, the team at Six Word Memoirs will be participating in the 3rd annual Character Day, which is a global discussion about the importance of developing true character in the world’s citizens. I’ll be encouraging my students to participate with some of the six word memoirs they’ve already created and perhaps with contributions they craft especially to speak to developing, according to the Six Word Memoir site, “curiosity, empathy, and grit.”

How do you challenge your students to write about themselves in meaningful ways? Please share your ideas in the comment section below! 

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