6 Tips to Help You Master the College Essay

By Kim Lifton
President, Wow Writing Workshop

Kim Bryant, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions, University of Michigan wants to hear the student’s voice in the college essay.

Good news for the graduating class of 2015! Several college applications that allow you to apply to multiple universities at once are already out; the largest, the Common App, goes live on Aug. 1.

Each of these applications requires at least one college essay. Many colleges require additional supplemental essays.

At Wow Writing Workshop, we talk to admissions professionals at top universities across the entire country, and we know what they are looking for. We’ve used our unique insight into the world of college admissions to create a variety of materials that take the stress and confusion out of the process of writing a college application essay.

During our interviews, most admissions professionals noted a few common mistakes that they see students make over and over again. Below are 6 important tips for writing your application essay.

  1. Listen to your voice. Be truthful, and write in your own voice. “This is your interview,” University of Michigan Assistant Director of Admission Kim Bryant told Wow. “Let me know who you really are. I like it when I can hear a student’s voice.”  What does yours sound like? To find out, do a little stretching with a warm-up exercise you can get by signing up for Wow Writing Workshop’s free resources.
  2. Decide what you want readers to know.  What do you want college admissions counselors to know about you that they won’t discover from your grades, resume and extracurricular activities? College admissions already know a lot about you, but they do not know whether you are a hard worker, a good listener, creative, decisive, determined, self-motivated or cautious. They do not know how you have changed or why you might be a good fit for their school. Make a list of what college admissions officers already know about you from your application, transcripts, recommendations, resume. Then, list the qualities you want to share. As Matt Price, Brown University’s Assistant Director of Admissions, explained: “We are looking for someone who gives us insight into who they are, not what they think we want to see.”
  3. Keep it positive. What message are you sending to colleges if you write about how much you dislike your father? If this story demonstrates something positive about you, then use it. But be careful. “There are very few absolutes when it comes to writing an admissions essay; one is to write about something positive,” said Brent Benner, director of enrollment management, University of Tampa.“Every kid has had a hardship, but life is about problem solving and conflict resolution. I want to read anything that paints a picture of moxie, drive, determination and courage; those are compelling, and tells me how someone problem-solves.”
  4. Brainstorm ideas. Don’t just dive in and write. Brainstorm alone, with a friend, parent, consultant, teacher or sibling. Just don’t let anyone else tell you what you should or shouldn’t write. Ultimately, the only idea that will work is the one you choose.
  5. Stay focused. If you want readers to know you are hard-working, describe a time when you worked hard. Focus on an important moment or a small piece of your experience, and then demonstrate why that moment matters. How did your experience change you or prepare you for college?  As Tamara Siler, senior associate director for admission, and minority recruitment coordinator, at Rice University in Houston, suggested, “Focus on a moment you feel has defined you as a person, and as a student.”
  6. Write it yourself. If you do not write your college application essay yourself, or if you get too much help, admissions people will know. They know what a high school senior’s voice sounds like. “You can get help, but in the end, it must be your voice, and a savvy admissions officer will know if it isn’t.” said James R. Fowler, Jr., assistant vice president of enrollment, Dean College.

For a more in-depth look at how to give admissions officers what they are looking for, download Wow Writing Workshop’s free eBook, Write Your Way Into College. Wow offers a variety of products and services that can help your college application essay stand out.

We can guide you through the essay writing process more quickly, with less stress, and toward an essay that will give you a better chance of getting into top choice schools.

Find out more at www.wowwritingworkshop.com.

Meet Wow’s Writing Coaches

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Wow is off to a busy college application essay season, and to meet the increasing demand for personal writing support, we’ve hired four fabulously talented writing coaches. They are ready to help college-bound high school students write their way into college!

Each team member is an expert at writing and teaching and must meet our high standards before working with any student. They are trained extensively in the Wow Method, which simplifies and streamlines the writing process in a way that calms students, puts parents at ease, and helps students stand out where it matters most—inside the admissions office. Year after year, our students get results and gain admission to their top choice schools, including the Ivies, prestigious liberal arts schools, and top state institutions.

We continually interview admissions representatives to stay current on the industry. Because we know what admissions officers are looking for, we are able to train our coaches to meet the specialized needs of the application essay using the Wow Method. We bring this insight into the admissions industry to all of our work with students. We also train high school counselors and independent educational consultants.

While each of our writing coaches brings a different style to Wow, we all follow the same proven process with each student who comes through our door.

Our Writing Coaching Team

Missy Borman
Head Writing Coach

Missy Borman loves a challenge, which makes her a perfect fit for the Wow team. Organized, focused, and process-driven, Missy works closely with Wow CEO Susan Knoppow and President Kim Lifton to develop all of Wow’s writing coach and other training programs. Missy teaches staff and independent educational consultants how to use the Wow Method with students, and she supervises our team of skilled coaches. Before joining Wow, Missy was a K-12 English teacher who also worked extensively with community outreach youth programs. She received a BA in English and an MA in Education. She is an avid movie buff and sports fan; Missy watches Sports Center every day and charts team statistics with her two young sons. She is married to Alan, an advertising industry web producer.

Joe Kane
Writing Coach

Joe Kane wrote his first poem at his childhood home overlooking Lake Huron, where he also spent many days at the beach playing volleyball. He loves to write—and teach! A poet and copy editor, Joe has been teaching college and high school writing for nearly a decade. He comes to Wow after working as a writer-in-residence for the nationally recognized Inside Out Literary Arts Project, where he used the Wow Method to teach Detroit Public Schools students how to write college application and scholarship essays. He holds a BA in English and an MA in creative writing, and his poems and stories have been published in a variety of magazines.

Lauren Sterling
Writing Coach

A piano and guitar player, Lauren Sterling likes to find the music in language. A favorite K-12 writing teacher to anyone who has been fortunate to experience her warm, engaging style, Lauren has also collaborated on the development of K-12 writing programs and integrated project-based units of study. Lauren dual majored in English and psychology and holds an MA in Education. She is married to Jonathan, an attorney, and is a mom to two young children. Lauren enjoys traveling and has been to many distant places, including Africa and Israel.

Norene Cashen
Writing Coach

A veteran writing teacher and poet, Norene Cashen is a writer-in-residence with Inside Out Literary Arts Project and Wow’s newest team member. Before joining Wow, Norene coordinated Citywide Poets, Detroit’s youth poetry slam team, which earned the prestigious Coming Up Taller award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Norene, also a former music journalist, holds a BA in English. She is the author of a poetry collection, The Reverse Is Also True, which was released by Doorjamb Press in 2007.

Get a Jump on the Application Process

Summer is the perfect time to get a jump on the application process! If you would like a writing coach to supplement the online writing program, it’s best to sign up now before the end-of-summer rush. The more you get done now, the easier time you’ll have meeting college deadlines this fall! Remember, good grades and test scores are not enough to stand out. Wow them with your college application essay.

6 College Essay Tips to Help You Find the Perfect Idea

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

brainstorm1Before you decide what to write about in your college application essay, first consider two things: 1) What does the prompt mean? and 2) What do you want colleges to know about you beyond grades, test scores and extracurricular activities? Once you have answers to those two questions, you’re ready to brainstorm ideas! Here are some great brainstorming tips from our FREE eBook, Write Your Way Into College.

(To get your copy, join WowWritingWorkshop.com!)

  1. Talk to yourself. Your story is inside your head, waiting to come out. Start by asking yourself a series of questions to get those ideas flowing. What did you learn while fishing with your grandpa? Describe your study plan for final exams. What is your favorite subject? Follow up every question with WHY?
  2. Keep a journal. Journaling is like talking to yourself on paper. Think of your journal entries as though they were quick snapshots from your cell phone. Their purpose is to jog your memory and remind you of an experience, not to capture it in spectacular detail.
  3. Focus on YOU! Whether you write about shopping for sneakers with your little brother or building houses for disadvantaged residents of rural Arkansas, the topic is secondary. You are the subject of your essay. Choose a topic that will allow you to share something genuine about yourself.
  4. Start with a cliché. When in doubt, go for the obvious. It’s okay to start brainstorming with a cliché, like I play to win or I give 110%. Think of examples that exemplify that characteristic. Jot down notes. Talk it through with a friend, parent, coach or counselor. You never know where or when the story will emerge. Be patient. Trust yourself.
  5. Don’t let anyone tell you what to write. To be genuine, your essay has to start with an original idea – not an idea from a blog or a book, not your mom’s idea, not something your tutor thinks you should write. Admissions officers want to know what you think about yourself, what you learned, how you got to be the person you are.
  6. Get FREE tips. Join WowWritingWorkshop.com and get the eBook, Write Your Way Into College for free. Lots of companies will tell you WHAT to do. Wow can show you HOW. Make your ideas sizzle so your application can make it to the top of the pile. Our students get into their top choice schools. You can too!


6 Super Summer Strategies for Rising Seniors

By Julie Tschirhart
Marketing Associate

summer1Summer before senior year can be stressful for rising seniors who have college on the brain. To help you stay calm, and get the job done, we’ve put together some tips taken from last month’s webinar: Super Summer Strategies.

The webinar featured two national college admissions experts, Patrick O’Connor, Associate Dean of College Counseling at Cranbrook Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills, MI, and former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and Rebecca Joseph, professor of education at California State University, Los Angeles, and founder of the All College Application Essays app. Susan Knoppow, Wow Writing Workshop CEO, moderated the panel and provided insight into the college essay.

Here are 6 Tips:

  1. Be yourself. Embrace who you are and pick activities that make sense. Don’t spend too much time worrying about how you are going to appear to colleges. It’s really important to be genuine in your choices for summer.
  2. Be easy on the pocketbook. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars for a leadership program or summer service trip to bolster your college application. Do something that reflects an authentic interest. Consider a summer job or producing a film with friends. And have fun! Make sure to recharge your batteries by going to the beach, and hanging out with friends.
  3. Reflect. Summer is a great time to start digging deep and reflecting on who you are. That will help you begin the process for writing your college application essays. WowWritingWorkshop.com can teach you how to stand out inside the admissions office with a stellar story about yourself.
  4. Research colleges. Do your homework, and identify the qualities you are looking for in a college; do you want big or small, rural or urban, private or public? What programs interest you? Do you like sports? Summer is quiet on college campuses, and is a great time to visit or reach out to the admissions office with questions.
  5. Begin your college essays. You don’t have to know just yet what the topic of your essay will be, but you should start thinking about what you want colleges to know about you that they wouldn’t otherwise know from your application package. Are you a hard worker? Are you passionate about something? What are your best qualities? What have you learned? Why does it matter?
  6. Get your FREE Wow membership. Wow Writing Workshop is the leading authority on writing for college admissions. A FREE membership will get you get started on writing your application essay that stands out, and gets you the results you desire.

Graduating from College with Minimal Debt

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Wow marketing associate Julie Tschirhart (center) with friends at her college graduation.

As we gear up for our June 5 webinar, Paying for College Without Going Broke, we wanted to share an inspirational story about our marketing associate, Julie Tschirhart, who graduated from a prestigious east coast liberal arts college in 2011 with relatively low debt.

How did she do it? Julie got stellar grades, researched schools, learned how to navigate the complex maze of financial aid, and weighed several offers before saying yes to Middlebury College.

Julie was admitted to several other small liberal arts colleges, including Kalamazoo College, Knox, Denison and Wesleyan, but none matched her total aid package from Middlebury – nearly $160,000 toward a $200,000 retail price!

“At a school costing $50,000 a year before books, travel, and other costs, my family could not afford to pay even close to full tuition.” Julie said. “I graduated with student loan debt totaling less than 10% of the cost of attendance.”

“In my junior year, I started visiting colleges and learned about need-based and need-blind financial aid,” Julie said. “I didn’t realize some schools had large endowments with lots of money to give. I have friends who have a ton of debt because they didn’t know what their options were.”

Here are some of Julie’s best tips:

  1. Make the most of high school: Julie graduated with over a 4.0 and scored a 33 on her ACT. She also participated in National Honor Society, sang in the choir, and had a part-time job.
  2. Do your homework: Find out which colleges have the most money to give away. Then make a list of schools based on what you think you can afford.
  3. Fill out the forms correctly: FAFSA determines your eligibility for federal aid. Your CSS Profile collects detailed information to determine qualification for non-federal aid. Understand the difference between need-based financial aid, which relies on the demonstrated need of your family, and need-blind admissions, which means the admitting institution does not consider the applicant’s financial situation when making admissions decisions.
  4. Set realistic expectations: Julie’s package from Middlebury was generous, but the costs associated with it were still expensive for her family. “I worked a part-time job during college,” Julie said. “And I took 24-hour train and bus rides for the 800-mile journey home during breaks. I tried not to eat out too much; instead I stuck to the school’s unlimited meal plan. I also bought used textbooks online. These choices weren’t always glamorous, but it was a small price to pay for being able to receive such an incredible education.”
  5. Ask for help: Julie got a lot of extra guidance from the Horizons Upward Bound program she participated in throughout high school. “We went on college campus tours and learned about financial aid,” she said. “Make sure you take advantage of your high school counselor’s expertise, or find supportive college counseling elsewhere throughout the process.”

Find out more by registering for Wow’s June 5 webinar, Get Ready! Get Set! Get In! Paying for College Without Going Broke. Our guests Jennifer Ramsey Wallace, a leading expert on financial aid programs with the Michigan Department of Treasury, and Dean Tsouvalas, creator of the free scholarship information app ScholarshipAdvisor will help untangle the complexities of financial aid, share scholarship opportunities, and suggest ways for parents and students to discuss these issues honestly at home.

9 Tips to Master ACT/SAT Writing Tests

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Are you registered for the June 7 SAT, or the June 14 ACT? In either case, you should brush up on your essay writing skills before the test. Time management and focused practice can make or break the writing score.

The SAT writing test is 25 minutes; the ACT is 30 minutes. For both tests, students will be asked to answer a prompt with an opinion you can support. Regardless of your personal experience or your viewpoint, you will be able to respond to the prompt.

It’s More Than a Writing Test!

The SAT/ACT essays are not just writing tests.; they are thinking tests, designed to evaluate how quickly you can organize your thoughts and get a first draft down on paper. While you need to follow the rules of written English, the real challenge comes in using your time wisely and expressing your thoughts clearly.

Be clear, concise and direct. Write legibly, and write on every line. You will have space to write notes and organize your thoughts.

9 Tips to help you master the SAT/ACT writing tests:

  1. Know your audience: You will have two readers grading your essay, each on a scale of 1 – 6. You do not need to restate the prompt. Your audience has the prompt in front of them.
  2. Outline: Create a high-level outline for your essay. Write topic sentences and list examples. These are notes only. One of your points should be a counter-argument. The structure “While many believe X, some say Y” is perfectly acceptable.
  3. Introduction: Use a nice opening (e.g., a quote, anecdote or statement).  Remember you need a thesis – it should be the last sentence of your introduction. The thesis should support your position. There is no right or wrong response. It doesn’t matter which perspective you choose, as long as you can support your position.
  4. Body: Use specific examples, and introduce one example at a time. Start a new paragraph for each new example. Don’t forget to include your counter-argument.
  5. Focus: Your points should be distinct. There should be a reason for every word on the page. Don’t repeat yourself.
  6. State your views: There is no need to say, “I think,” “I believe,” “In my opinion,” etc. Just make your point. Your reader knows that your essay is written from your point of view. This is not to say you can’t include personal anecdotes. First person is acceptable; just don’t waste time or space with unnecessary statements. Make every word count.
  7. Keep it simple: This is not the place for grammatical experimentation. If you know how to use a semicolon, then go for it. If you’re not sure, don’t try it here.
  8. Conclusion: Restate your thesis. Summarize your main points. You can wrap up with something clever or insightful, but don’t add new evidence.
  9. Plan: Remember to plan your essay, and leave time to proofread. When you’re done, your essay should sound like a coherent, concise, clear first draft.

Wow Writing Workshop offers online and in-person services to teach high school students how to write college, ACT, SAT and scholarship essays that stand out. Read Kim’s blogs and get writing tips by signing up for Wow’s newsletter. Wow is on Facebook and Twitter. Check Wow’s calendar for webinars, writing test and online college essay course information. 

Five Things You Should Know About Standardized Tests

By Julie Tschirhart
Marketing Associate, Wow Writing Workshop

Miro Kazakoff, CEO/Founder of Testive

College acceptances are in, and for high school seniors the application process is winding down. Juniors, it’s time to get started!

As the final SAT and ACT test dates of the school year approach, we wanted to share highlights from our recent webinar on test prep featuring Miro Kazakoff, an MIT lecturer and CEO/Founder of Testive, a company that combines online and one-on-one test prep. To figure out what each student needs, Testive developed a cutting-edge algorithm that quickly isolates test-taking weaknesses.

This guy knows his stuff; Kazakoff takes the SAT every year, and he finds it exciting. We aren’t expecting that you will be as excited as he is to take one of these four-hour standardized tests, but knowing how to prepare for them can at least help you feel more calm come test day.

Here are a 5 things Kazakoff thinks you should know about standardized tests:

1. Tests are important! Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT allow students from different high schools to be compared to one another. It is the one metric that is the same for all students, no matter where they went to school or what country or state they may be from.

2. Studying helps! According to Kazakoff’s research, 100 is the golden number of hours students should study to reach their full potential score. Not everyone is capable of scoring a 36 on the ACT or a perfect score on the SAT. But everyone can improve their score by studying in a smart way and for an adequate amount of time. Plan to allocate time for regular test prep two to four months before the exam you plan to take.

Study smart, and you won’t look like this kid on test day.

3. Study smart! There is a smart way to study that maximizes the time you spend preparing. Many students have a tendency to slog through multiple practice exams without stopping to reflect on why they got the questions they missed wrong. Understanding why you missed a question is key to improving your score. Spend time on the areas where you are weakest, and don’t waste it on the questions you are already skilled at solving.

4. Don’t break from routine on test day! If you aren’t a person who eats breakfast, then yes, you might want to have a little something on the morning of the test, but don’t overdo it. If you are a person who chugs a Red Bull every morning, you should do the same on test day, but if you don’t normally consume that much caffeine, don’t start on the morning of the big test.

5. The new SAT will not be easier! The redesigned SAT will be more closely aligned with high school curricula. That means that what you do inside your classroom should better help prepare you for the test. The test will still be challenging. You’ll still want to take time to prepare for the exam by becoming familiar with the format and the types of questions being asked.

Click here to listen to Wow’s full webinar featuring Miro Kazakoff: Get Ready! Get Set! Get In! Making the Most of Standardized Tests. And register for our next webinar, How to Pay for College Without Going Broke, scheduled for Thursday, June 3 at 9 p.m. EDT.  Stay tuned to Wow’s newsletter to find out how you can become a FREE member of WowWritingWorkshop.com, and learn how to write your way into college!

The College Essay: The Secret to Getting Into All the Ivies?

By Kim Lifton

High school senior Kwasi Enin stands proudly in front of the penants of all eight of the Ivy League schools to which he was accepted — was it his essay that got him in?

A few weeks ago, New York high school senior Kwasi Enin got some remarkable news: he was admitted to all eight Ivy League colleges. No one has a clue how this happened at a time when the nation’s most selective colleges are reporting record lows for admissions offers.

But it’s been the talk of the town; Enin has earned a bit more than his 15 minutes of fame in the media as well. Word on the street is that his college essay sealed the deals.

Since Enin’s college application essay was published online, Wow has been been inundated with calls and emails from friends, high school counselors, teachers and parents, asking what we think of it. Many were not so smitten with the piece.

One college industry professional pulled me aside and said, “Did you read that kid’s essay? It wasn’t written that well. I didn’t like it.”

An English department head from a prestigious private school emailed this to colleagues: “I thought his essay was solid, but not brilliant in terms of writing quality. Maybe my expectations are too high.”

To be fair, our expectations are high as well, and I liked his story very much. But at Wow, we know what to look for. We read essays with an eye toward detail and reflection, searching for the things that intrigue college admissions officers.

I read Enin’s piece looking for something genuine and heartfelt, not empty words or polished prose. I certainly didn’t expect a short story in Raymond Carter’s voice or a sonnet that sounds like Shakespeare. I expected a story written in Enin’s voice.

His story, a simple testament to his love for music, showed who Enin was beyond his grades and test scores, which is key inside the admissions office.  Enin’s story explained how music sparked his “intellectual curiosity.” He also shared why music was so important to him.

He didn’t overwrite it or try to impress others with words pulled from a thesaurus. He wrote about one aspect of his life, and he brought readers inside his world.

Enin’s application essay had a strong theme that answered these two important questions:

What happened? He loved music.

Why does it matter? Music helped him solve problems, become a leader, and learn how to work as part of a team.

At this competitive level, the application essay can certainly help or hurt. If it is outstanding, it will stand out. If it is bad, it can ruin an otherwise promising application. In the piles of essays written by students just as smart and qualified as Enin, I am confident this story helped him stand out.

He answered the prompt. He showed passion for music and life. And it was genuine.

To the critics, I ask: Was his first sentence mesmerizing? No. Could the story have been tightened? Of course. Was it boring or over-edited by someone else? No. Was it a piece of literary prose? Probably not. Was it supposed to be? Not at all.

Now read it again. Did you smile? I did.

Forget what you didn’t like.

What do you like about Enin after reading his story?

You can read his essay here.

5 College Essay Myths and Facts

By Kim Lifton
President, Wow Writing Workshop

Juniors, by now you should be thinking about college, and you might seriously consider doing a bit of research to find out which schools interest you. It is also a great time to reflect on what matters to you and to learn about the college application essay. Will it help you? Can it hurt you?

What do colleges want? A story about YOU in your own words and voice.

“The college essay is value-added,” Jim Cotter, Director of Admissions for Michigan State University, said during Wow Writing Workshop’s March 6 webinar: Get Ready! Get Set! Get In! Inside the Admissions Office.

Cotter said a good personal statement can help a student on the borderline at a moderately selective school like MSU. At a highly selective school, a poor admissions essay can make the difference between being admitted or not, he added.

With that in mind, consider this important question before you begin the application essay writing process: What do you want your college of choice to know about you that they can’t find out from your transcript, test scores and list of extracurricular activities?

There is a lot of misinformation out there that will take you off track. Consider these college essay myths and facts before you get started.

Myth 1: An essay has to be written about an impressive topic.

Fact: You are the impressive topic. A college application essay is your opportunity to share something meaningful about yourself. The story, not the experience, is most important. Colleges want to know what you learned, not what you did.

One student came to us confident that a trip to help the poor in Central America would capture someone’s attention inside the admissions office. A Wow writing coach encouraged her to talk about what she learned about herself. Turns out, her most important moment occurred when she was hanging out with friends during the trip. She overcame her fear of heights by jumping off a cliff into the water. That experience would have been meaningful whether it had happened during a service trip in Costa Rica or on a family vacation.

“What does it mean to you?” asked Calvin Wise, associate director for undergraduate admissions, Johns Hopkins University. “That is what we want to know.

Myth 2: Your college entrance essay should sound sophisticated, like Hemingway or a college professor.

Admissions officers do not  want you to sound like Hemingway!

Fact: The college essay is your story; it should be written using your words, and in your voice. You are a high school senior, and you should sound like one. Not your mom. Not your dad. Not your English teacher. And certainly not the writer down the street.

“I wish I saw more of a thoughtful voice of a 17 year-old,” said Duke University Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag. “By the time (the application) comes to us, many of them have gone through so many hands that the essays are sanitized.”

Myth 3: Admissions officers will never know if a parent, tutor, teacher or college coach has “helped” a student with an essay. They won’t know if you plagiarized, either.

Fact: There is a fine line between getting help and letting someone write part or all of your essay. While parents and others cannot always tell the difference, admissions officers know when someone other than the student writes a story; they don’t like it.

“If a student has an adult write it, the admissions committee can tell,” Cotter said during our webinar.

Many schools, including the University of Michigan, will automatically reject a student’s application, even if they merely suspect plagiarism. The U-M website states: “Plagiarism is academic fraud and will cause your application to be thrown out of consideration. You know those great websites that will write your essays for you? We know about them too. Aah, the power of Google.”

Myth 4: There is a right way and a wrong way to write an essay.

Fact: Your best story will grow out of the process of writing your college application essay.

There are no tricks, and no shortcuts. You just need to trust the process. Wow’s tried-and-true tips, videos and written instructions can help you manage the process and stay focused.

The college essay does not need to be so daunting. That does not mean it will be easy, but it can be a little less stressful if you allow it to emerge from a process of discovery that includes brainstorming, free writing, revision, review and editing.

Keep in mind, there is no magic formula to help you ace this assignment. To stand out, tell a genuine story about yourself using your words and your voice, and show some reflection.

Myth 5: Only superstar students will impress admissions officers with their essays.

Fact: Anyone can stand out with a great story!

You don’t have to rescue a child from a house fire, get a million downloads for an app you developed, or teach an autistic boy how to swim to impress admissions officers.

“Students think they need a monumental experience, but the essay can be about something small,” said Wise, of Johns Hopkins.

One Wow student wrote a fabulous college entrance essay about memorizing the general intestinal track to ace his anatomy final. A girl wrote a gorgeous story about finding her passion for nature while pulling weeds in a community garden. Another boy focused on the moment he forgot his cello for an orchestra concert and improvised his performance with a bass guitar. His problem-solving skills impressed admissions officers, and one college sent him an offer of admission that praised his essay.

Last September, during the National Association of College Admission Counseling’s annual conference in Toronto, Yale University’s Director of Admissions Margit Dahl told a group of high school counselors and independent educational consultants something that Wow shares every time we speak to professionals and students: Students should move away from the English paper formula and instead write a first-person story “that draws you in and starts right in the moment.”

“Be personal,” Dahl advised. “Even if the topic is an intellectual one, the reader is looking for a personal response. It’s your application, your experience, your thoughts, interests and personality.”

You don’t need to tackle this task alone. Go to WowWritingWorkshop.com to sign up for our bi-weekly newsletter and watch videos with tips from admissions insiders.  Wow students get into their top-choice colleges year after year.  Let the national experts on the college essay guide you to your best story, and  improve your chances of getting into the college of your dreams.

Does it Matter if New SAT Writing Test is Optional?


Salman Khan, Founder of Khan Academy, which has partnered with the College Board to offer free test prep for the new SAT.


By Kim Lifton

The College Board‘s announcement  that it will revamp the SAT by 2016, partner with Khan Academy for free test prep, and make the writing test optional, made instant headlines; the story was trending on Facebook and Twitter within an hour of the announcement. It made the cover of the New York Times Magazine the following Sunday.

Standardized tests are big news, which is why the next webinar in our college admissions series is on that very subject. (Thursday, April 3, 9 p.m. EST. Register here.)

We believe this is the biggest news: The company that has said students cannot prepare for the SAT will now partner with Khan Academy to provide free test preparation for the redesigned test. College Board and Khan Academy said they will build this program together; they expect to launch it during spring 2015.

In announcing the partnership with Khan to offer free test prep, College Board President David Coleman reiterated something most people already know: High-stakes exams highlight educational inequalities. He said the College Board would offer new strategies to help students who need financial assistance, among them free test prep. What’s more, all SAT takers who qualify will directly receive four admission-fee waivers.

New: Writing Test is Optional

Among the changes, the writing test, which is now required and asks students to respond to a statement using their own experiences and values, will be replaced with a more analytical test that will be optional.

What does optional mean in the high-stakes testing game? Not much. The ACT writing test is also optional.  But the decision to make a writing test mandatory or optional is really not up to the College Board or the ACT; colleges decide whether the test is required for admission to their institutions. Many do not require a writing test, but many do, including every Ivy League school, Stanford, the University of California system, University of Virginia, University of North Carolina, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University.

According to the College Board, the redesigned exam will:

  • Have three sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, Math, and the Essay.
  • Return to a 1600-point scale. The essay will provide a separate score.
  • Last about three hours, with an additional 50 minutes for the essay (which is now allotted 25 minutes.) The precise timing of the exam will be affirmed through research.
  • Be administered both in print and by computer in 2016.

In addition, points will no longer be deducted for wrong answers. The College Board will release the full specifications of the exam along with extensive sample items for each section on April 16.

The new SAT Writing Test will ask students to analyze a source. The essay will measure students’ ability to analyze evidence and explain how an author builds an argument to persuade an audience. Responses will be evaluated based on the strength of the analysis as well as the coherence of the writing.

The College Board will promote analytical writing throughout their assessments and instructional resources. It will also offer an incentive through an awards program modeled after the Pulitzer Prize for the best student analytical writing. The Atlantic magazine has agreed to publish the winners.

Michael Szarek, Vice President of Felician College in New Jersey, offered some perspective for the 2,300+ members of a Linkedin Group he founded, called College Counseling for the Rest of Us: “The score change reminds me of when they reintroduced “Classic’ Coke.  The content changes remind me of why they introduced New Coke in the first place – Pepsi (i.e. – ACT) was gaining too much of the market,” Szarek said. “This is a business decision for a struggling company. I just hope students, parents and colleges all realize the proper context – one Saturday morning doesn’t outweigh four years of academic performance (for good or for bad) as an indicator of future academic success. It provides some information, as part of a larger – much larger – picture.”

Robert A. Schaeffer, public-education director for FairTest, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that the partnership with the Khan Academy would not reduce the market for the expensive, personalized SAT tutoring that wealthier families can afford.

“Like most of the other College Board initiatives announced today,” he said, “this move is less significant than its promoters claim.”

With all of the focus on this test,  keep in mind that while the SAT and ACT are more important than we would like to believe, they are also less important than we have been told.

We are not sure whether it matters if SAT is a better test, or if the writing test is optional or required. Standardized tests cannot measure everything a college needs to know about a student, but that’s why most schools employ a holistic admission review process, and that’s also why more schools are becoming test optional.

So what’s all the fuss about? It could be hype, PR, good marketing. It could be an attempt to salvage the SAT, which has lost significant market share to the ACT.

In any case, it seems as good a time as ever to start a new, perhaps more important dialogue about brand names, college cost, fit and academic potential. As MSU’s Director of Admissions Jim Cotter said last week during our webinar about college admissions, “Students, don’t worry about getting in; worry about getting out.”

Read more about reaction to the test, and get some details about the writing exam in this article by Eric Hoover in the Chronicle of Higher Education. This chart from the Washington Post highlights the changes.

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop, one of the top college application essay experts in the US, offering resources devoted to teaching students how to master high school writing and writing for college admissions. Wow also offers webinars and resources to prepare for the SAT and ACT writing tests.