Teachers at all levels often begin the year having students write “a personal essay” in which they are expected to describe some aspect of their character brought out by personal experience. Others ask student to reflect on an influential person or perhaps a significant event from the summer and explain its meaning. Part argument/analysis, informative/explanatory, and creative/narrative it cuts across all genres. For high school seniors, they write even more of these as part of their college applications. Here are some considerations from teachers we have known that we applaud.

Focus on audience to improve voice.

Who is the expected reader of this essay? The nameless, faceless, college admission’s officer? The teacher who has known the student for 5 days? When we focus the assignment on naming an audience, we improve the questions we can ask students about their writing? “Why would [audience] need to know this fact?” “Why is [audience] likely to be persuaded by this information?” “How is this essay’s organization going to help [audience] understand your idea?” 


Student writers’ understand expectations and possibilities when they have models to read first. Students who see professional writers using the pronoun “I” recognize how the context dictates the conventions. They see how a writer extrapolates ideas from experience. Models should not be used as a bar to exceed, but rather a writer’s singular expression that can inspire. Good follow up questions to reading models include: What other examples could this writer have chosen? Is that the only interpretation of the events possible? Are the people mentioned who may have experienced this event differently? These are examples of critical reading questions that show a model is just a model other ideas and views are possible on a topic. 

Peer Review

Students as writers students as readers. When students are expected to engage with each other as readers to a writer, we need to teach and they need to see -themselves in the audience perspective. Using the ideas of the other two considerations (above,) teachers who emphasize the audience and the questions they use with the models find peer review to be more successful. In many ways, the readers become an actor playing the role of the target audience.

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