Writing, Rubrics, and the College Application Essay

Blank notepad and pencilBy Elizabeth Jorgensen

Adam paces the back of the room, struggling to come up with an idea. “Do you think I can take a walk around the building?”

“Yes, good luck,” I say. “Maybe a change of scenery will help.”


Adam sighs, takes his notepad and pen with him and paces his stress in our high school’s hallway.

In the middle of Arrowhead High School’s College Essay Workshop, each student’s stress shows in a different way. While Adam paces, another student finds comfort in procrastination and college essay YouTube videos; another student reads excerpts from 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays; a group of girls discuss life-changing moments they might write about.

“I wish there were a rubric for this,” Adam says when he returns.

I cringe, as he reminds me students are taught—by teachers of all subjects—that good writing can be accomplished by checking boxes on a grid. “Adam, you don’t need a rubric. You know what you need to do. Just tell a story that shows your positive qualities. Take your best attributes—your humor, your helpfulness, your patience—and find a story that illustrates that.”

I remind Adam and the 84 other students in the workshop what they know about good writing: “Good writing is not the five paragraph essay, with the thesis at the end of the first paragraph, followed by three body paragraphs and a concluding re-statement. Good writing isn’t formulaic.” But I know that’s what students learn when each assignment in elementary, middle and high school comes with a rubric.

Arrowhead High School’s College Essay Workshop is not graded. Students attend to receive guidance on how to produce an essay that stands out in the pile of writing on a college admissions counselor’s desk. Students are nervous and unsure—and they want a rubric to ease them.

I say, “You’re in control of your own story. You can do anything you want. Your story could be one long extended metaphor. You could write your essay in poem form, or maybe as a graduation speech or even as a conversation. Do something that will make your essay unique. Let’s start with some examples.”

I show the class Justin’s essay that was read to all incoming freshmen during the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Welcome Week. I show them Molly’s essay that received a $5,000 scholarship. We read Ashley’s essay that earned a handwritten note from Marquette University’s president commending her writing, inviting her to be part of Marquette’s 2015 class with a scholarship. “What are these authors doing? What do you notice?” I ask.

Students instinctively recognize Justin, Molly, and Ashley’s good writing. The students respond: “Small paragraphs.”—“Stylistic devices.”—“They all tell an interesting story.”—“I see dialogue.”—“I see characters and a climax.”

Then the students take their observations and apply similar devices to their own words, sentences and stories.

To improve the students’ writing, my co-teachers and I read, comment, re-read, edit, and provide feedback on the drafts. We discuss, we interact, and we collaborate. The process can’t be reduced to boxes on a rubric. Because the writing is purposeful and authentic, students are invested and do A quality work (even though the workshop isn’t graded).

As Adam shifts his laptop into his backpack, he clutches his notebook. “I am really excited about my ideas. I know what I want to write about.” Adam struggles with autism and says he will write about how he uses movement to aid his learning.

“I’m really excited to see your first draft and talk about it,” I say.

“Me too,” he says as he walks out the door. “I want to hear what you have to say tomorrow.”

If you’re looking to read more about rubrics and writing, feel free to check out the following resources:

  • Broad, Bob. What We Really Value: Beyond Rubrics in Teaching and Assessing Writing. Logan: Utah State UP, 2003.
  • Kohn, Alfie. “The Trouble With Rubrics,” English Journal. March 2006, Vol. 95, No. 4.
  • Mabry, Linda.  “Writing to the Rubric,” Phi Delta Kappan, May 1999, pp. 678, 676.
  • Tchudi, Stephen, ed. Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. Urbana: NCTE, 1997.
  • Maja Wilson, Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006).
  • Maja Wilson, “Why I Won’t Be Using Rubrics to Respond to Students’ Writing,” National Council of Teaching English. English Journal. March 2007, Vol. 96, No. 4.


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