Compiled by Elizabeth Brunner
While teaching English 114: Exposition, a freshman composition class at California Polytechnic State University, I used the following essay assignments. Feel free to adapt for your own college classroom, but I appreciate source credit and email notification when any of my material is used. 
Goal:  To use description or narration to explore an aspect of your personal history as a writer or as a  student.  To concentrate on polishing and revising a short essay.  Grading criteria include the logical flow of ideas, precise language, specific examples, and grammatical clarity. 
Ideas: Any topic related to your education or your writing is acceptable.  For example, you could describe your favorite teacher, discuss your greatest academic accomplishment, tell a story about your award-winning fourth grade poem, use anecdotes to demonstrate how much you hate writing assignments, explain how you panic the night before a research paper is due, or explore your first day in college. 
Tips:  Read your essay aloud to hear how the words sound.  Use the spell check feature on your computer. Use Hacker's A Writers Reference to solve grammar confusion.  Consider using the Writing Lab for revision assistance.  Save your work on a back-up diskette.  Ask at least two trustworthy individuals to proofread.  Print two copies for the teacher and one for yourself. 
Format:  The essay must fit on two pages double-spaced at a reasonable font size and with reasonable margins (at least  500 words).  The page limit forces you to carefully choose your words and eliminate vague sentences.  Laser quality printouts are best.  The heading should include your name, the class "Brunner ­ Engl. 114," the assignment "Autobiographical Essay," and the date.  Do not use a cover sheet.  Choose an interesting title. 
Objectives:  To write a letter in the first person using  description, narration, or persuasion. To concentrate on formatting and revising a short letter. Grading criteria include emotional content, strong "voice," creative language, evocative detail, and grammatical clarity. 
Ideas: Any letter of love, friendship, admiration, or gratitude is acceptable. Be creative. You could write to a relative, friend, sweetheart, celebrity, or fictional character. For example, you might create an anniversary letter for  your future spouse ­- dated in the year 2026, a love letter between Romeo and Juliet or Mickey and Minnie Mouse, a thank you letter to University President Warren Baker for accepting you to Cal Poly, an appreciation letter to your favorite high school teacher, or a letter of gratitude to your parents. Feel free to be playful; you can write to your beloved computer, teddy bear, bank account, surfboard, automobile, library card, goldfish, textbook, or denim jacket. 
Page Formatting: The essay must fit on a single page at a reasonable font size and with reasonable margins. Single spacing is required on this assignment. Feel free to experiment with creative layout, borders, or paper. The page limit forces you to choose your words carefully and eliminate vague sentences. No mailing addresses are needed, but remember to sign your name. Laser quality printouts are best. 
Objectives:   To write a critical review which combines personal reaction, detailed description, original analysis, and cultural assessment. To consolidate "opinion" into a dense and provocative one-page format. To assess classical art forms or popular culture at a sophisticated intellectual level. Grading criteria include the use of specific examples, the justification for critical conclusions, the vividness of  "voice," the use of evocative detail, the organization of ideas, and the clarity of grammatical expression. 
Subject Matter:  Choose a work that you feel passionate about, whether a film you¹ve loved since childhood or  a provocative painting in the campus art gallery. Theater performances, short stories, sculpture, architecture, television shows, and documentaries are acceptable. Reviews of live bands, music videos, or certain songs must include sophisticated analysis. Even wacky topics ­- such as the artistic virtues of your favorite cashmere sweater or the theatrics of a hyperactive cat  ­- must demonstrate your intellectual capacity to use critical language. 
Suggested Process:  Take notes while watching the video, reading the poem, or observing the performance. Select two to four "areas of critical assessment," such as production values, special effects, visual beauty, emotional impact, artistic innovation, audience appeal, political implication, or moral significance. Focus on criticism rather than plot summary. Organize your ideas into a logical and clear outline. Ensure that each sentence conveys adequate detail and relates to your dominant theme. Qualify your opinion with both positive and negative assessments; for example, you might write: "Although I question the intergalactic stereotypes presented in the film,  the heartwarming story of two adorable Martians affirms my belief in planetary peace." Conclude with a recommendation, such as: "While unsuitable for children under the age of twelve, teenagers and college students will enjoy the satiric humor and frightening realism of the latest Brunner-directed masterpiece. Based on the brilliant acting of Elizabeth as Queen of the Universe, I give this film four neon stars, the highest rating possible." 
Find Models:  Read at least one current film or book review as a model.  Either use a local newspaper, search the Internet, or  ask the reference librarian for help. For those smart students who completed the library's Lexis-Nexis training as recommended, you might even search online for national reviews of the same artwork or film (NO plagerism ­- simply look for examples of critical writing as inspiration!). 
Objectives: Connect a personal experience to an issue of social importance using description, narration, and analysis. Grading criteria include unified dominant theme, coherent organization, evocative detail, meaningful insight, and grammatical clarity. To receive a passing grade, your essay must explore the moral, political, social, or humanitarian significance of your chosen topic. 
Process: First, choose a personal experience or memory that haunts you or fascinates you. Remember that classmates will see this essay. The incident can be beautiful, emotional, intense, tragic, or even humorous, but this experience must also reveal deeper meaning about our lives, our beliefs, or our society. As an example, your organizational strategy could use the first page for a dramatic, first-hand description of the experience; the second page to place this experience in context by analyzing what you learned or what the incident means in your life; and the third page to draw conclusions of  moral, political, social, or humanitarian significance. 
Ideas: You might connect your memory of a family cat delivering a litter of kittens to reflections on the preciousness of life. You could connect your roommate's drinking binge to the national problem of teen alcoholism. Or connect your own hospital operation to issues of national health care. Sometimes it helps to begin with an inspirational quotation from a famous writer and then think of a related personal experience. Or develop a topic from either your journal or an in-class essay exam. 
Research: Your essay must include at least one outside source of information: a quote, a statistic, a historical fact, or perhaps a line of poetry.  Internet sources are acceptable. Use a parenthetical footnote (see Rules of Thumb 83-91), as well as a single bibliographical "work cited" on the last page of your essay (see Rules of Thumb 92-97).  Also, please refer to the Kennedy Library handout on citing Internet and other online sources. Carefully avoid the sin of plagiarism; either use quotation marks or paraphrase in your own words while giving appropriate footnote credit.
Gratitude: At the end of your essay, after your "works cited" listing, you must thank everyone who helped with this paper. Your brief acknowledgment might read: "I would like to thank reference librarian Sally Harlan for helping me find a newspaper article, Writing Lab tutor Lori Levine for offering suggestions on organization, and my classmate Igor Humperdink for proofreading." 
Last Steps: Visit the Writing Lab. Tighten wordy sentences, eliminate passive verbs when appropriate, and carefully scrutinize punctuation. The essay should be three to four pages double-spaced (at 11-12 point traditional font). Laser quality printouts are best. 
Citation: Use the following sentences as examples of how to incorporate quotations within your essay. Note that in most cases, an introductory clause identifies the source of the quotation. 
Dr. William Michaels once said, "The mind is a mansion, but most of the time we are content to live in the lobby."
Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed, "Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not."
Consider the philosophy of Pablo Picasso: "Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."
Henry David Thoreau should inspire us to live independently: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
The words of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross comfort us during times of sorrow; she wrote, "People are like stained glass windows; they sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light within."
Objectives: Study an observed event or location using description, narration, interpretation, classification, and analysis. Grading criteria include unified thesis, coherent organization, evocative detail, meaningful insight, and grammatical clarity. Your essay must explore the cultural, moral, political, psychological, or humanitarian significance arising from your observation. 
Explanation: Ethnography is the in-depth observation technique used by anthropologists to study different cultures. This essay requires observing either a place or a group of people outside the range of your everyday experience. For example, a business major might spend the afternoon at one of the agriculture units and write about the role of technology in the lives of modern farmers. Or you could spend the day at an architect's office, loiter in an art museum, volunteer at a homeless shelter, visit a nursing home, sit in the lobby of a hospital, attend a poetry reading, observe the 2:00 a.m. waitress shift at a diner, watch interactions at the airport, monitor a city council meeting, tour behind-the-scenes at a factory, scrutinize a sports event, infiltrate a club meeting, or participate in a support group meeting. Obviously, be respectful and discrete! 
Objectives: To combine detailed description, personal reflection, and original analysis.  To assess a meaningful object or cultural artifact at a sophisticated intellectual level.  Your essay must reveal something significant about our lives, our beliefs, our values, or our society.  Grading criteria include organization of ideas around a central thesis, detail of examples, vividness of  voice, use of evocative detail, clarity of grammatical expression, and justification of critical conclusions.
Examples: (1) Describe your cherished teddy bear, allow the toy to trigger memories from childhood, and then analyze the type of family that you grew up in. Conclude by discussing the role of nostalgia in our lives or the fate of children in America. (2) Describe a treasured piece of jewelry, explain how you received this gift, and share memories of special occasions when you wore the expensive piece. Conclude by reflecting on the tradition of gift-giving in our culture or the overemphasis on material possessions.
Objectives: To provide a concise explanation of technical material for a general audience.  The "Technical Writing Option" can be used instead of the Personal, Ethnographic, or Analytical Essay.  Grading criteria include coherent organization, concrete detail, clarity in use of technical language, appropriateness for a general audience, and grammatical clarity. 
Process: Obtain a technical writing manual specific to your major from the library.  Consider supplementing your writing project with charts, graphics, diagrams, or a glossary of terms.  Use proper citation format for any secondary sources (either MLA or the bibliographic style preferred in your field). 
Topics: You must choose one of the following topics. (1) Re-write a laboratory report from one of your technical classes so that your procedures and conclusions would be interesting for a general audience. (2) Create a mini-manual to help inexperienced students use e-mail more effectively.  Your might provide instructions on creating a signature block, managing overflow mail, creating a personal online address book, and/or subscribing to electronic mailing lists. (3) Write a profile of a campus research project, technical club, or laboratory facility.  Use detail that will  make the subject interesting for a general audience. 

Created by Elizabeth Brunner
Updated September 24, 1999
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