Top College Essay Myths Debunked

By Kim Lifton
President
Wow Writing Workshop

College essay mythsYou’ve done all you can up to this point to get good grades and test scores. There’s only one thing left you can do to stand out: nail that college essay!

We teach students just like you how to write stellar application essays year after year, so we’re going to share some insight to help you improve your chances of admission to your dream school.

Consider these college essay myths and facts:

Myth #1: No one really reads the application essays.

Fact: Of course admission officers read your college essays!

Colleges wouldn’t ask you to write something they did not plan to read.

We polled about two dozen admissions representatives last fall during the National Association for College Admissions Counseling’s annual conference in Indianapolis; we asked them if they really read college essays. The collective answer was yes!

“Last year we received 25,000 applications, and we read 25,000 essays,” said Amy Hoffman, Assistant Director of Admissions at Miami University of Ohio.

Myth #2: An application essay has to be written about an impressive topic.

Fact: You are impressive, not the topic.

The subject is you; the topic is secondary. A college application essay is your opportunity to share something meaningful about yourself. Colleges want to know what you learned, not what you did.

Many of our students come to us with topics in mind.  One young woman started the process confident that discussing a trip to help the poor in Central America would impress admissions officers. It was a big trip, and she was sure someone would want to read about it.  Using the Wow Method, the student realized that her most important personal moment occurred during that service trip when she overcame her fear of heights by jumping off a cliff into the water. She wrote a gorgeous, meaningful story that showed what she learned about herself during the terrifying jump, and she got into her stretch college.

“The essay does not have to be about something huge, some life-changing event,” said Calvin Wise, the Senior Associate Director for Undergraduate Admissions at Johns Hopkins University. “You can write about an ‘a-ha’ moment, what defines you as a person. But it doesn’t have to be really extensive. Students think they need a monumental experience, but the essay can be about something small. What does it mean to you? That is what we want to know.”

Myth #3: Your college entrance essay should sound sophisticated, like Hemingway or a college professor.

Fact: Nope, admission officers do not expect you to sound like a professional writer.

The college essay is your story, and only yours! 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 one of the most revered writers of all time!

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

While parents and others cannot always tell the difference, admission officers know when someone other than the student writes a story. And they don’t like it.

“If a student has an adult write it, the admission committee can tell,” said Michigan State University’s Director of Admissions Jim Cotter, a 30-plus year industry veteran.

Keep in mind, many schools will automatically reject a student’s application if they suspect plagiarism.

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 gimmicks, magic formulas, tricks or shortcuts to writing the “perfect” college application essay.  Just trust the process.  We break our process down into small, manageable steps that will free you up to focus on what matters most: finding and writing stories in your own words and in your own voice.

“We need to dig deeper where the essay comes into play,” Hopkins’ Wise said. “That’s where we find out more about the student. The essay is a student’s opportunity to speak directly to the admissions office.

Myth #5: Only superstar students impress admission officers with their essays.

Fact: Anyone can stand out with a great story!

You are all superstars! You certainly don’t have to rescue a child from a house fire, get a million downloads for an app you developed, or train seeing-eye dogs to impress admissions officers.

Last season, I read a fabulous college essay about a girl who found her passion for nature while pulling weeds in a community garden. Equally compelling, another boy discovered his problem-solving skills when he forgot his cello for an orchestra concert and improvised his performance with a bass guitar.

“I think sometimes students feel that because they haven’t found the cure for cancer they have nothing to share,” said Vanderbilt University’s Assistant Director for Undergraduate Admissions Jan Deike. “Life is truly lived in the smaller moments.”

Want to learn how to catch the attention of the admissions office at your dream school? We teach our students how to write application essays using a proven step-by-step process that is easy to follow and gets positive results.

Wow students get into their dream schools year after year. You should too.

Answer One Question to Stand Out in Common App Essay

By Kim Lifton
President
Wow Writing Workshop

Common AppThe 2015-16 Common Application went live August 1; that means it’s time to create your account and start writing your Common App essay.

Here’s our single best piece of essay writing advice to help you stand out and improve your chances of admission to your dream school: Before you start writing the Common App essay (or any other personal statement), ask yourself this question: “What do I want colleges to know about me that is not apparent from the rest of my application package?”

The question may not seem like such a big deal. But your answer is crucial.

College admissions officers want you to reflect on your life in your Common App essay. You’re only 16 or 17; most of you have not had much practice delving deeply into your lives. You are focused on the future – thinking about education, career, travel, and dreams.

Many of our students tell us they cannot answer that question. We assure them that they can, and we teach them how to reflect. Without an answer, you will have trouble writing a college essay that will help admissions officers decide if you are a good fit for their school.

How to Answer the Big Question

First, get a little help from someone who knows you well – a parent, a friend, a trusted teacher or other adult. Ask what he or she thinks of you. What are your best attributes?

Are you industrious? Funny? A leader? Shy? Outgoing? Curious? Are you a risk taker?

Think characteristics, not accomplishments. Consider what colleges already know from your application. They know your grades, test scores, awards, clubs, jobs, and the names of your brothers and sisters. They will know if your mom is Canadian or if your grandfather is an alumnus.

Now, ask the question again: What do I want colleges to know about me that is not apparent from the rest of my application package?” With input from someone who knows you well, you should be able to come up with an answer. Then you will be more than ready for the next part of the essay writing process.

How to Select a Prompt

Once you know which characteristic(s) you want to share, look at the five prompts on the Common App, and consider one or more of them more closely. Any prompt will do. Colleges do not choose favorites.

Now you can find a story that illustrates the trait you want to share, and answers the prompt.

Need more help finding your story? Wow has something for every type of student, from a do-it-yourself essay-writing program with a “virtual coach” to essay reviews and private coaching.

We can answer your parents’ questions too. Ask Mom and Dad to join us for one of our free 30-minute calls, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET this summer to learn how they can help you get through the process without taking it over. Encourage them to sign up for a FREE parent chat today.

Finish At Least One College Essay Before Labor Day!

By Kim Lifton
President
Wow Writing Workshop

Rising seniors, if you want to improve your chances of admission to the school of your dreams, complete at least one college essay by Labor Day.

It’s too late to fuss over grades and test scores. Junior year grades are the most significant. Test scores are important, too. But without time and additional prep, your scores are unlikely to improve much if you retake any test.

Focus on the college essay, the one thing you can control.

At Wow, we talk to admissions officers all the time, and we know the essay is more important than ever. We also know what they want to read, and how to help you deliver it.

You have probably heard time and again what colleges want, and what to do in that essay. But that’s generally not going to give you enough information or instruction to get the results you desire – and deserve. You need to learn how to write it!

Student writing college essayWow developed the industry’s only proven process for teaching you how to think about and write the essay so admissions officers will pay attention to your application. Our students get noticed and get into their top-choice colleges, year after year. You should too.

So don’t procrastinate. The essay is the most important thing for you at this point in your journey to college. It is also the one thing many students put off till the last minute – and that won’t give you time to reflect and show colleges who you really are.

Meet your Labor Day deadline!

Wow can guide you. We have something for every type of student, from a do-it-yourself essay-writing program with a “virtual coach” to essay reviews and private coaching.

We can also answer your parents’ questions. Please ask Mom and Dad to join our free program Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET, to learn how they can help you meet your deadline and get through the process without taking it over. All they need to do is register and call in to join our FREE Parent Call-in Chat program to understand how to best help you with the essay.

Help Your Senior Hit Essays Out of the Ballpark

By Kim Lifton
President
Wow Writing Workshop

Help Your SeniorParents often ask us, “What’s the best way to help my senior with a college application essay?”

Many college admissions experts will advise you to keep your hands off everything; after all, it’s your child’s journey, not yours.

There’s a fine line between helping your child grow into an independent adult, and doing too much. We get it; we are parents too. We understand that you want to help your senior grow into a successful adult.

I’ve taught thousands of kids how to write college application essays. This is my first season working with my own rising senior, Sarah. She’s pretty relaxed about the whole college journey, and I don’t make a big deal about it.

Mom and Dad, you cannot freak out on your kids if you want them to focus on getting into college. There’s not much else left for them to do at this point beyond filling out applications and writing meaningful essays.

This is the really hard part of the journey. Remember to breathe, and think about the three C’s: Cool, Calm and Collected. Colleges want reflection, and most of our rising seniors have very little experience looking back and reflecting. At Wow, we break the process down for our students into simple, manageable steps so they can reflect and stay calm. You may not be able to do everything we do on your own, but you can at least try these three things to reduce stress and help your child feel confident:

1) Slow them down. Our students come to us all the time with story ideas. Wrong approach. The essay topic is secondary; the subject (your child) is most important. Before your teen begins writing anything, do what we do with our students. Before considering topics, we ask this question: “What do you want colleges to know about you that they wouldn’t otherwise find out from the rest of your application package?” Do you want them to know you are smart? Resilient? A self-starter? Funny?

You know your son or daughter better than anyone. Once your child has an answer to that question, it’s time to start exploring topics that illustrate what he wants colleges to know. Asking this question is one thing you can do to really make a difference.

2) Offer encouragement. Be a cheerleader rather than the coach on the field. When it comes time to start the writing process, encourage your child to express herself in her own voice, in her own words. We give our students writing activities that help them hear their own voices and feel good about their word choices; their final essays reflect that confidence. Be supportive, not critical.

3) Be realistic. We talk to admissions officers all the time, and we know what they are looking for. Sometimes well-meaning parents (just like you!) expect even more from an application essay than admissions officers do. Find out what colleges really want from an essay tonight at 8:00 p.m. ET during Wow’s first Parent Call-in Chat. It’s FREE. All you need to do is register and call in! I’ll be on the line for 30 minutes to answer questions and share tips so you can help your child with that essay without taking over.

We’ll be hosting parent chats all summer. Email me any time with questions you’d like answered during our parent calls. Let me know how Wow can help you navigate this journey so your child stands out and gets results!

How to Find a College Essay Topic

By Kim Lifton
President
Wow Writing Workshop

The college essay topic is you

The college essay is a story about you!

Rising seniors, as you dive into the college admissions journey this summer, you will be told over and over again what to do in your college essay.

Well-meaning adults will tell you, “Start with an anecdote,” or “Show your passion,” or “Don’t write about sports.” That type of advice is not going to help you; the secret to standing out and getting the results you want is knowing how to write a college essay.

At Wow, we focus on the how in everything we do.

To get that essay (or essays) to stand out at the top of the application pile at your dream school, you’ll need simple step-by-step instructions.

Today I am going to teach you how to think about your college essay before you get started so you can knock it out of the ballpark. I’ll give you a little taste of Wow’s virtual college essay writing system so you can get an idea of how it’s done.

To start, forget about college essay topics. Instead, answer this question:

What do you want colleges to know about you beyond your grades, test scores and extracurricular activities?

You will not be ready to share a meaningful story about yourself if you do not know what you want colleges to know about you. Are you smart? Funny? Resilient?

What do you want readers to know? After you have an answer to that question, you will be ready to start the writing process. With your answer in mind, consider these tips to help you start generating college essay topic ideas.

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.

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.

Start with a cliché. When in doubt, go for the obvious. Start brainstorming with a cliché, like I play to win or I give 110%. You never know where or when the story will emerge.

Once you have a few topic ideas, make sure they illustrate what you want readers to know about you. The best college essay topic shares something meaningful about you that readers could not otherwise find out.

If you really want to stand out and improve your chances of admission to a selective university, you’ve come to the right place! We have something for every type of student, including free videos and webinars, a low-cost do-it-yourself essay-writing program with a “virtual coach,” plus essay review and private coaching services. Sign up today, and we’ll get started.

5 Super Summer Strategies for Rising Seniors

College strategies for summerBy Kim Lifton
President
Wow Writing Workshop

The summer before your senior year can be stressful when you have college on your mind. To help you stay calm, and get the job done, we’re going to share some of our best strategies.

5 Summer Survival Tips

1. Be yourself. Don’t spend too much time worrying about how you are going to appear to colleges. Do you like playing tennis? So play tennis. Do you have a job? Keep working. Do you want to hang out in the den watching Netflix with your friends? Go ahead. Are you a dedicated researcher? Work in the lab. Embrace who you are, and pick activities that make sense. And don’t forget to have fun. Go to the pool, the beach, the theme park, the Fourth of July fireworks. Explore museums, attend concerts, play sports. The summer before senior year is a great time to hang out with your friends and relax.

2. Avoid New Expenses. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars for a leadership program or summer service trip to enhance your college application. Do it only if you love it! Your junior year grades are most important, and your grades are in; you can’t change them. You’ve already taken the ACT or SAT, though you can still take them again if necessary. What’s more, you’ve already participated in sports and leadership positions and done volunteer work. Moving forward, focus on what you can control (like the college essay; see bullet No. 4!).

3. 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 science? Urban planning? Psychology? English literature? Summer is quiet on college campuses, and is a great time to visit or reach out to the admissions office with questions.

4. Begin your college essays. The essay is your opportunity to let colleges know who you are and what’s important to you. Now is the best time to start writing, but don’t assume you know how. First, think about what you want colleges to know about you that they wouldn’t otherwise know from your application package. Once you can answer that question, you are ready to begin the writing process in earnest. Don’t count on the essay you wrote this year in your English class. It may be a good start, but most likely it needs to be rewritten for a new audience: the college admissions counselor. Look at your high school assignment as practice for the real deal.

5. Get a Taste of Wow for FREE! Sign up for FREE access to WowWritingWorkshop.com the leading authority on writing for college admissions. We talk to admissions officers all the time, and we know what they want to read. They tell us the essay is more important than ever; grades and test scores are not enough to secure a spot at your dream school. You can count on Wow’s free membership to help you start writing an application essay that stands out. Our online college essay writing system will teach you how to share your unique story in your words and your voice. You can use it on your own, with a parent as a guide, or with a Wow writing coach.

What Do You Want Colleges To Know About You?

By Kim Lifton
President
Wow Writing Workshop

Kim’s daughter Sarah at her junior prom.

A few weeks ago, my daughter, Sarah, a high school junior, took her first crack at a college application essay she was writing in English class.

Sarah said she needed help. She had no idea what story to tell.

I suggested my daughter take a step back and rethink how she was looking at this assignment. Instead of focusing on what story to tell, she should consider what she wanted colleges to know about her beyond grades, transcript and extracurricular activities.

This advice was new to Sarah. Her assignment said to read a sample essay, pick a prompt, and tell a story about herself that answered the prompt. There were some decent tip sheets included in the assignment.

It was not supposed to be a five-paragraph essay. And it had to be personal. The problem was, everything about the assignment focused on what do to and what not to do. There was no mention of how to get there.

It was a good class assignment; it just wasn’t enough to help a student master this task and write an essay that would stand out. At Wow, we know how to take it to the next level.

We know that reading a strong sample essay will not do much more than encourage you to imitate the one you read. Reviewing a list of do’s and don’ts is nice, but it’s not enough. Reading a 300-page book or searching for answers on the Internet might confuse you, make the process seem too complicated or give you wrong information. None of this will teach you HOW to write a great essay.

The Secret to Standing Out!

No one knows more about the college essay than Wow. Because we talk regularly with admissions officers and speak at industry conferences about the essay, we know what colleges want. Who you are? Can you write well enough to succeed in college? Are you a good fit for their university?

Letting them know who you are requires thinking and reflection. To start, you must answer this question: What do you want colleges to know about you that they can’t find out from the rest of your application? Are you smart? Resilient? Funny? Social? Are you a hard worker?

Sarah told me she wanted colleges to know she was responsible. That was perfect because it was her idea, and there was no right or wrong answer to my question. Once she answered it, brainstorming for story ideas was a lot easier.

At Wow, we’ve developed an entire online writing system to help students like you think about the essay in a new way, and also learn how to write it, step-by-step. It’s a simple, proven method that will give you the best chance to stand out from the crowd so you can  be accepted to your top choice school.

Don’t treat the college essay lightly. Good grades and test scores are not enough to land you a coveted spot at your top choice college in this competitive landscape.

Thousands of students use our services. Don’t miss out. Sign up for Wow FREE to get a taste of what we offer. Then choose the paid program that will best teach you how to shine, so you can get in! Year after year, Wow students get accepted to their dream schools. They also graduate and land good jobs! You can too!

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What Does Your Voice Sound Like?

By Kim Lifton
President
Wow Writing Workshop

VoiceEveryone talks about voice when it comes to the college application essay. Do you know what your writing voice sound like? We can help you find out!

Juniors, it’s a good time to start thinking about the essay so it is not so overwhelming when you begin filling out applications to college. Your voice is important because it is one of the biggest factors that can help you stand out inside the admissions office.

College admissions officers from every type of school tell us time and again that your voice is the only one they want to hear when they read your application essays; they often lament the numbers of essays they read year after year that are sanitized because they have been edited or “fixed” by well-meaning adults.

“If the essay is sanitized, there won’t be any value added to the application,” said Michelle Larkrith, the Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of California – Berkeley. “It won’t help you. The essay is the only opportunity we have to understand who you are. Take advantage of it.”

How can you learn to write in your own voice?

Relax and write freely, and your writing voice will shine through. To recognize and develop that voice, try this:

1. Open a new document or turn to a clean sheet of paper in your notebook.

2. Set a timer for 10 minutes.

3. Describe a place where you feel relaxed.

-Capture as many sensory details as possible.

-Write in first person, present tense (e.g., I am standing on the pier behind Melanie’s cottage, looking out on Lake Michigan.)

-Be specific, but don’t worry about making sense or sounding clever. You can write fragments, sentences, lists or run-ons.

-Don’t read your work as you go along. Just keep moving forward.

-Feel free to be candid. No one will read this but you.

4. When the timer stops, you can either stop writing or continue. You can always write for more than ten minutes, but you should not write for less.

5. Look back at your free writing, and find three segments that sound like you.

-Each one can be anything from a short phrase to a multi-sentence description.

-They don’t have to be exciting or clever; they just have to sound like you (e.g., something you always say, do or think; a phrase you like; or a description of something that screams my house! or my backyard! or my sister!)

These are examples of your writing voice. This is what you sound like when you are not trying too hard to be clever or creative. This is also the voice you should use to write your application essays.

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Everything You Need to Know to Master the Common App Essay!

By Kim Lifton
President
Wow Writing Workshop

Common AppThe Common App (a streamlined college application that allows you to apply to multiple schools) just released its five essay prompts for the graduating class of 2016; there are some tweaks to existing prompts, plus an entirely new question.

And there are countless expert commentaries online about those tweaks and changes.

Juniors, you can ignore the commentary. None of it is relevant to you. It’s a lot of gibberish and hype meant for educational consultants, college admissions representatives and high school counselors.

The Most Important Piece of Advice You’ll Get: Understand the Prompt!

You do need to understand the prompt before you begin writing your essay. It’s important to learn what an essay prompt is, what it is asking, who you are writing for, and why you may be required to write one (or 10!) as part of your college application package. That way, you’ll be prepared to start writing your essays this summer as you begin filling out your college applications.

The Common App offers five essay prompts, and asks you to select one. Before you choose, answer this question: What do I want colleges to know about me? Figure out what you want colleges to know about you that is not obvious from the rest of your application.

This is your opportunity to shine, to offer readers some insight into who you are beyond your grades, test scores and activities. Write something that is important to you, and make sure it is reflective.

Are you industrious? Funny? A leader? Shy? Outgoing? Curious? Are you a risk taker? A passionate reader? Once you know what you want to share, look at the prompts. Then find a story that best illustrates the trait you want to share, and also answers the prompt.

Look at prompt #1, for example: “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”

The key word in this prompt is “meaningful.”

Ultimately, your essay is not about your background, identity, interest, talent or experience; it’s about you. What did you learn about yourself? What made the experience meaningful?

Admissions officers read these essays to find out something they don’t already know about you. They already know a lot. But they don’t know how your experiences affected you, or why someone or something is so important to you. They have no idea how you have changed and why you might be a good fit for their school. You can share these insights in your essay.

Your experience does not have to be particularly impressive; you do not have to share a story about climbing a mountain or rescuing children from a burning building.

You could write about something mundane, like babysitting or making meatballs with your grandmother. Just find a story that illustrates something meaningful.

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Is an “A” English Paper a College Essay?

By Kim Lifton
President
Wow Writing Workshop

English paper not a college essayYear after year, students send us college application essays to review that were written for English class. Most of the essays earned A’s.

Unfortunately, we’ve never read an essay written for English class that was ready to submit to college.

Danny sent us a beautifully written piece recounting many fabulous trips overseas; his essay offered vivid descriptions of buildings and places and emphasized how much he loved traveling. The sentences flowed; the spelling was perfect; the essay had a beginning, middle and end. This boy knew how to write.

While his essay was excellent by high school standards, it lacked reflection and needed more focus to catch the attention of an admissions officer.

It’s important to keep in mind that the application essay is not an English paper; it is an opportunity to show admissions officers who you are, that you will fit in, and that you can write well enough to succeed at their school. The admissions team that is responsible for making recommendations for next year’s class reads a lot of applications. So be careful: You don’t want to bore them or submit a piece that is simply uninspiring.

Forget about rubrics and grades. Ditch the five-paragraph essay format. Just write something genuine that is reflective, and that will make the person reading your essay smile and want to know more about you.

Danny used our 10-step Wow Method and turned his broad story into a more insightful piece about a single night out in Spain when he realized how much culture and community mean to him. Getting there took time and reflection, which we encourage. It was all worth it when he landed a coveted spot at his first-choice college, one of the most competitive public institutions in the nation.

Think of that college essay you write in English class as a draft, just as Danny did. He wrote it for his teacher – a person who already knew quite a bit about him. He later revised it for the admissions counselor. Don’t assume the college essay you give to your teacher is finished and will cut it for college.

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Sign up for Wow FREE, and stay in the loop! You’ll get our popular ebook, Write Your Way into College, plus video tips from top admissions experts, and other great resources. We’ll help you stand out where it matters most – inside the admissions office.