Not Too Early: How 9th and 10th Graders Can Benefit from Common Application College Questions

Every summer I offer a week-long class for entering 11th and 12th graders that focuses on the Common Application and University of California (UC) questions used for college admissions. These questions essentially ask students to tell a story about themselves.

This past summer, several entering 9th and 10th graders attended my College Application Workshop. At first, I was concerned that the younger students would be reluctant to answer these questions; most teens do not want to write about “something meaningful to your identity” or “a time you challenged authority.” However, the class went well, and student feedback has convinced me that 9th and 10th graders benefit from answering the college application questions ahead of time.

By answering one or two Common App questions every year, high school students can practice and hone their own personal writing style. Surprisingly, I have noticed that juniors and seniors have more difficulty writing personal stories with an engaging voice. The younger students often write better stories. Perhaps this is due to what is valued in higher education—conformity over creativity. After years of AP and honors classes, students learn to write in a formal academic style that earns them an “A.” However, this bland, generic style, full of SAT words and passive constructions, only leads to a bland, generic essay, easily ignored by a college admissions counselor who must plow through hundreds of applications each day.

To avoid writing a dull, application essay, I recommend that starting in 9th grade, students answer one or two of the Common App or UC questions each year. This will allow them to:

  1. Realize earlier in high school the need to pursue extracurricular activities and leadership roles that truly interest them. Teens can write a stronger personal essay about activities they love.
  2. Record their thoughts and personal growth during high school. Not all teens keep a journal and being forced to write an essay every year provides a concise summary of key events in their lives.
  3. Develop their own writing style and the introspection necessary to craft a meaningful narrative. Very few teens enjoy writing about themselves, but rather than wait until senior year, they can start practicing sooner.

At the beginning of each school year, teachers often ask students to write about themselves so that they can get to know them. Rather than waste this opportunity, teachers should have their students answer a Common App or UC question. So far, I have not heard of any teachers who do this. Suggest this to your child’s teacher. Here are links to these questions.

Top Three Essay Tips Students Need to Know

Happy New Year! School is back in session and to start off right, here are the top three essay tips students need to know for literary analysis. As a writing tutor, I see the good, the bad and the ugly of essay writing across all grade levels, from elementary school to graduate school.

These three core principles form the foundation for a clear, persuasive literary analysis essay and should be committed to memory as well as be included in a writing rubric or checklist. In my tutoring, I find that students who do not write well suffer from either not knowing or failing to use these simple, yet powerful tools.

  1. TAGS
  2. Thesis = Opinion + Why
  3. 2:1

Explanation of Terms

TAGS stands for Title, Author, Genre, Short Summary. For literary analysis, students must include TAGS in the introductory paragraph. Students who forget TAGS leave the reader lost. What are we reading? Who is the author? What are the basic plot details?

For example, I recently reviewed an essay with the following introduction: “Troy Maxson is a bitter man in Fences…” Although the student was in Honors English at an award-winning high school, the teacher had forgotten to correct the lack of TAGS in the intro. TAGS was not included in the teacher’s lengthy rubric nor ever discussed in class. Oops.

What the student should have written was the following: “Troy Maxson is a bitter man in the play Fences by August Wilson.” An even better TAGS would have added the 3Ws of Who, When, and Where. “Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, the play Fences by August Wilson features the main character Troy Maxson, a former baseball player now turned bitter by his life experiences.”

Students need to memorize TAGS and automatically include it every introductory paragraph for a literary analysis essay including AP English essay responses. TAGS is a basic writing requirement that should be in every teacher’s checklist. For the 3Ws of the Short Summary, students should focus on the basic plot details relevant to the literary analysis that follows.

Thesis = Opinion + Why. The thesis can be more than one sentence but it is rarely more than three sentences. Other synonyms for “opinion” are: “claim”, “argument”, “belief” or “perspective.” The “why” are the reasons to support the opinion and will become the topic sentences organizing the body paragraphs. The number of reasons can range from two or more, depending on the length of the essay. I have yet to find a student who has a better or more succinct definition of a thesis. Most will parrot back vague, meandering definitions of “what your essay is about” or “a roadmap of your main idea with subtopics.” Huh? If anyone has a better definition, please send it to me. So far, I have not found anything comparable.

2:1: This ratio comes from the Schaffer writing method. By giving students a minimum guideline of writing 2 comments for every 1 quote, teachers can ensure that students do not just regurgitate the plot but will include sufficient analysis. One student told me his teacher had the class chant “2-to-1” and “Commentary-Quote-Commentary” in English class. He was lucky as most students I have tutored have never heard of the 2:1 ratio, which may explain why they need tutoring. Applying 2:1 will greatly improve any essay. (564 words)

An Algorithm for Writing?

Excerpt from Mark Edmundson’s essay “Under the Sign of Satan: William Blake in the Corporate University”. (2012)

The engineering student sits in the fiction writer’s office and asks questions about her craft. This fiction thing, this art thing, what is it about? What is it about exactly? He has read some novels and plans to read many more. His grade point average is high. His SAT scores are also impressive. A nearly perfect score on the verbal test—he makes sure to mention this. He is—he knows—very smart.

But this fiction thing and poetry as well. How does one begin? … There are, he’s heard, guidebooks that give step-by-step instructions. Does the teacher advise trying one?

The teacher’s way of writing fiction is to find an image, something that lodges in her mind for no reason she can understand. She writes the image down. She describes it as well as she can from a vantage point that is—maybe—not quite her own.

And then what? The student is truly interested.

She waits to see what will happen from there.


Sometimes something happens. Sometimes nothing.

This is writing? This is what you do?

Other people do it differently. But yes. I wait to see what will happen. She tells the student that if she lets her attention float with just the right amount of freedom, she’ll eventually go somewhere she’s fascinated by going.

Why don’t you just start with what fascinates you?

I don’t always know, the writer confesses. I don’t always really know.


Edmundson is a professor of English at University of Virginia.  He has collected his various essays in the 2013 book Why Teach: In Defense of a Real Education. As the title of both essay and book implies, Professor Edmundson has grown increasingly more disconcerted about the transformation of the liberal arts college into a technical trade school.