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Noting Details Essay Examples

By 6th grade, our reading program’s (Houghton Mifflin) comprehension skills have become a bit basic for most of my gifted students. I’ve been working on increasing the depth and complexity of these skills.

Noting Details

We begin the year with the comprehension skill “Noting Details.”  Let’s differentiate this skill by adding the academic language “explicit details” and “implicit details.” I originally introduced these words to help correct responses to literature that looked like this:

Brian is frightened in the cave. You can tell because he is scared.

Introducing “implicit” and “explicit” to my students gave me a way to accurately communicate this issue. This lesson is also differentiated by including classic examples of art.


Ask an athletic student to stand up in class. Point out that you have a feeling that this student is skilled at basketball. Write this detail down on one half of your paper. Ask your class for evidence that would back up your statement. Give time for discussion. Then write their responses on the other side.

Frank is good at basketball.“He is wearing basketball shorts” “He’s the tallest person in the class” “His hands are dirty from the basketball court” “His shirt has LeBron James on it”

Introduce Topic

Explain to students that they have named several explicit details which back up the implicit detail. Label the two sides of your paper.

Implicit DetailExplicit Details
Frank is good at basketball.“He is wearing basketball shorts”
“He’s the tallest person in the class”
“His hands are dirty from the basketball court”
“His backpack has LeBron James on it”

Rather than delve into the definitions of explicit and implicit, set up a little drama and inquiry by asking your class:

What attributes do the explicit details share that contrasts them from the implicit detail?

Give some time (a minute or so) for students to discuss with their group or neighbor. Call on students to explain the specific attributes that make implicit different from explicit. Jot these down.

Implicit DetailExplicit Details
Frank is good at basketball.“He is wearing basketball shorts”
“He’s the tallest person in the class”
“His hands are dirty from the basketball court”
“His backpack has LeBron James on it”
a detail we can’t really see, a vague detail,more specific detail, details we can see, measurable details

Now that students have defined explicit details, give them an “expert’s definition.”

stated clearly and in detail, leaving no room for confusion or doubt from The Oxford Dictionary

And here’s the definition of “implicit”:

implied though not plainly expressed from The Oxford Dictionary

Write these dictionary definitions under the students’ definitions. Compare and discuss student definitions with the dictionary definition.

Implicit DetailExplicit Details
Frank is good at basketball.“He is wearing basketball shorts”
“He’s the tallest person in the class”
“His hands are dirty from the basketball court”
“His backpack has LeBron James on it”
a detail we can’t really see, a vague detail,more specific detail, details we can see, measurable detail
implied though not plainly expressedstated clearly and in detail, leaving no room for confusion or doubt

Structured Practice

Now you’ll need a visual with implicit and explicit details to demonstrate. I’ve picked Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet. This has a double benefit of exposing my students to a classic artist and being in the public domain.

Begin by asking for an implicit detail, what is this man’s mood?

  • He’s sad!
  • He’s unhappy!
  • He’s distraught! (encourage high-level vocabulary)

Now ask for the explicit details that prove this implicit detail. Remind students that an explicit detail is “on the surface” or something that we can point to. Demand exactness and specificity in these details.

  • His eyes are sloping down.
  • His head is resting on his hand.
  • The picture is blue.
  • The man is frowning.

Now you’re going to move this information into a paragraph. Explain that the implicit detail becomes a topic sentence.

Dr. Gachet is a distraught man.

Next the explicit details prove that the topic is true. Use the explicit details your students generated to write the rest of the paragraph.

Dr. Gachet is a distraught man. Van Gogh shows this through Dr. Gachet’s frown. The downward slope of his eyes also demonstrates sadness. Finally, Dr. Gachet is resting his head in his hand in a way that confirms his unhappiness.

Guided Practice

Pick another visual for students to practice with. I’ve selected Monet’s Woman With A Parasol, again exposing students to a classic piece of art and selecting a work that is in the public domain.

Ask students to write a paragraph answering the question “How is the woman feeling?” or “What is the mood of this picture?” Remind them that their answer will be an implicit detail but they will need to back this up with three explicit details. Keep the Dr. Gachet paragraph displayed as a model.

Consider partnering students up at this point. Give them time to create a paragraph. Walk the room and/or work with a small group that needs help. Finally, have students share out or collect outstanding examples to display.

Independent Practice

Now we’re getting to the meat. In 6th grade, this skill goes with Hatchet. I’d ask my students to write a paragraph following the pattern from our previous examples (that means including three explicit details) to answer:

“How would you describe Brian’s mood in the beginning of this selection?”


How does the setting contribute to Brian’s mood?

Now, if you receive a vague answer (“the setting makes him afraid because it’s so scary”), point out that there aren’t enough explicit details. On the other hand, if you receive a list of attributes about the setting (“the setting is dark and full of animals”), point out that there’s no topic sentence with an implicit detail.


  1. Ask for multiple paragraph responses: “In two paragraphs, describe Brian’s mood from the beginning of the story and then what his mood is in the end.” This will continue the development of a response to literature.
  2. Ask students to critique a set of paragraphs using a rubric. This is a great exercise to use authentic (but anonymous) student writing. Type out a handful of interesting examples and ask students to analyze them.


I’ve made this lesson plan available as a PDF along with the images I used in a Powerpoint file. You can download it here.

Tags: art, comprehension, download, Houghton Mifflin, Language Arts, Literary Response

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Below is a pdf link to personal statements and application essays representing strong efforts by students applying for both undergraduate and graduate opportunities. These ten essays have one thing in common: They were all written by students under the constraint of the essay being 1-2 pages due to the target program’s explicit instructions. In such circumstances, writers must attend carefully to the essay prompt (sometimes as simple as “Write a one-page summary of your reasons for wanting to pursue graduate study”) and recognize that evaluators tend to judge these essays on the same fundamental principles, as follows:

  • First, you are typically expected to provide a window into your personal motivations, offer a summary of your field, your research, or your background, set some long-term goals, and note specific interest in the program to which you are applying.
  • Second, you are expected to provide some personal detail and to communicate effectively and efficiently. Failure to do so can greatly limit your chances of acceptance.

Good writers accomplish these tasks by immediately establishing each paragraph’s topic and maintaining paragraph unity, by using concrete, personal examples to demonstrate their points, and by not prolonging the ending of the essay needlessly. Also, good writers study the target opportunity as carefully as they can, seeking to become an “insider,” perhaps even communicating with a professor they would like to work with at the target program, and tailoring the material accordingly so that evaluators can gauge the sincerity of their interest

Overview of Short Essay Samples

Geological Sciences Samples

In the pdf link below, the first two one-page statements written by students in the geological sciences are interesting to compare to each other. Despite their different areas of research specialization within the same field, both writers demonstrate a good deal of scientific fluency and kinship with their target programs.

Geography Student Sample

The short essay by a geography student applying to an internship program opens with the writer admitting that she previously had a limited view of geography, then describing how a course changed her way of thinking so that she came to understand geography as a “balance of physical, social, and cultural studies.” Despite her limited experience, she shows that she has aspirations of joining the Peace Corps or obtaining a law degree, and her final paragraph links her interests directly to the internship program to which she is applying.

Materials Sciences Student Sample

For the sample from materials sciences, directed at an internal fellowship, the one-page essay has an especially difficult task: The writer must persuade those who already know him (and thus know both his strengths and limitations) that he is worthy of internal funds to help him continue his graduate education. He attempts this by first citing the specific goal of his research group, followed by a brief summary of the literature related to this topic, then ending with a summary of his own research and lab experience.

Teach for America Student Sample

The student applying for the Teach for America program, which recruits recent college graduates to teach for two years in underprivileged urban and rural public schools, knows that she must convince readers of her suitability to such a demanding commitment, and she has just two short essays with which to do so. She successfully achieves this through examples related to service mission work that she completed in Ecuador before entering college.

Neuroscience Student Sample

The sample essay by a neuroscience student opens with narrative technique, telling an affecting story about working in a lab at the University of Pittsburgh. Thus we are introduced to one of the motivating forces behind her interest in neuroscience. Later paragraphs cite three undergraduate research experiences and her interest in the linked sciences of disease: immunology, biochemistry, genetics, and pathology.

Medieval Literature Student Sample

This sample essay immerses us in detail about medieval literature throughout, eventually citing several Irish medieval manuscripts. With these examples and others, we are convinced that this student truly does see medieval literature as a “passion,” as she claims in her first sentence. Later, the writer repeatedly cites two professors and “mentors” whom she has already met, noting how they have shaped her highly specific academic goals, and tying her almost headlong approach directly to the National University of Ireland at Maynooth, where she will have flexibility in designing her own program.

Beinecke Scholarship Student Sample

The Beinecke Scholarship essay is written by a junior faced with stiff competition from a program that awards $34,000 towards senior year and graduate school. This student takes an interesting theme-based approach and projects forward toward graduate school with confidence. This writer’s sense of self-definition is particularly strong, and her personal story compelling. Having witnessed repeated instances of injustice in her own life, the writer describes in her final paragraphs how these experiences have led to her proposed senior thesis research and her goal of becoming a policy analyst for the government’s Department of Education.

Online Education Student Sample

Written during a height of US involvement in Iraq, this essay manages the intriguing challenge of how a member of the military can make an effective case for on-line graduate study. The obvious need here, especially for an Air Force pilot of seven years, is to keep the focus on academic interests rather than, say, battle successes and the number of missions flown. An additional challenge is to use military experience and vocabulary in a way that is not obscure nor off-putting to academic selection committee members. To address these challenges, this writer intertwines his literacy in matters both military and academic, keeping focus on applications of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), his chosen field of graduate study.

Engineer Applying to a Master’s Program Sample

This example shows that even for an engineer with years of experience in the field, the fundamentals of personal essay writing remain the same. This statement opens with the engineer describing a formative experience—visiting a meat packaging plant as a teenager—that influenced the writer to work in the health and safety field.  Now, as the writer prepares to advance his education while remaining a full-time safety engineer, he proves that he is capable by detailing examples that show his record of personal and professional success. Especially noteworthy is his partnering with a government agency to help protect workers from dust exposures, and he ties his extensive work experience directly to his goal of becoming a Certified Industrial Hygienist.

Click here to download a pdf of ten short essay samples.