How to Find a College Essay Topic

By Kim Lifton
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
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 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
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!

First Name
Last Name
I am interested in Wow as a:

What Does Your Voice Sound Like?

By Kim Lifton
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.


FREE ebook: Write Your Way Into College

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. Sign up here.

First Name
Last Name
I am interested in Wow as a:

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

By Kim Lifton
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.


FREE ebook: Write Your Way Into College

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. Sign up here.

First Name
Last Name
I am interested in Wow as a:

Is an “A” English Paper a College Essay?

By Kim Lifton
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.


FREE ebook: Write Your Way Into College

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.

3 Things Juniors Must Know About Getting into College

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

College questionsHigh school juniors, as you begin your college searches in earnest this spring, it’s important to know what to expect along the journey. Here are answers to the Top 3 questions Wow gets from students and parents about the college application process:

1) How do admission counselors rank the different application elements, like GPA, test scores, essay, and recommendations?

No matter what we read, or which expert we ask, the answer is always the same: High school grades are the No. 1 factor in any admission decision.

Colleges look first at college prep course grades, then strength of curriculum, test scores and college application essays. The National Association for College Admission Counseling surveys its member colleges each year; they found that colleges do not choose students based solely on highest grades and test scores. Rather, they use many other factors to add depth to the numbers so they can build a diverse class that fits a college’s mission.

Smaller colleges and the more selective institutions are more holistic in their admissions approach. In a holistic admissions process, the essay helps colleges:

  • Determine whether you will fit in
  • Know if you can write
  • Get a glimpse into who you are beyond your grades, test scores and activities.

As college becomes increasingly competitive, the essay becomes more and more important. It will not save you if you are not qualified academically for a college, but if you are qualified, and there are just a few select spots at your chosen school, the essay can push you to the top of the pile.

Think of every essay question, mandatory or optional, as an opportunity to stand out!

2) What are some of the cornerstones of a good application essay?

A good college essay can help you get in, and a bad one can sometimes keep you from being noticed. That’s why it’s important to do it well. A good college application essay will always answer this question, no matter what the prompt: “What do I want this college to know about me beyond my grades, test scores and extracurricular activities?”

To stand out, college essays must:

  • Feature YOU as the subject; the topic is secondary.
  • Feature meaningful stories that are focused, not broad.
  • Focus on what you learned from your experiences, not on what you accomplished.
  • Sound like you – a smart high school student who is ready for college!

3) Who can help me write my application essay?

Writing is not a group activity, and you should always write your college application essays on your own. You can get guidance, but make sure you seek out the right kind of help. There is a fine line between getting assistance and having someone write an essay for you. Calvin Wise, Johns Hopkins University Senior Associate Director of Admissions (and every admissions officer we’ve ever asked) says he can always tell when essays are over-edited or written by someone else.

“They don’t shine through the process as well because we’re not hearing their voice,” Wise said. “The essay is a student’s opportunity to speak directly to the admissions office, and we want to hear a 17-year-old’s voice.

Many colleges that require essays will scrutinize those that they believe have been forged, borrowed, heavily edited or influenced by someone other than the applicant. Some colleges have instituted their own verification processes, while others have contracted with businesses that double check essays for plagiarism. You may be denied admission if this is suspected, and you may never know the reason.

Do you want to stand out?

FREE ebook: Write Your Way Into College

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.

Does Anyone Really Read College Application Essays?

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Juniors, by now you should be thinking a lot about college. What schools sound interesting to you? Do you have any campus visits scheduled during spring break?

Whether you are busy with a spring sport, school play or selecting your classes for senior year, don’t forget to carve out some time to get ready for your first-choice college. Consider the things that are important to you, and explore what you’ve done beyond going to school, taking the SAT or ACT, or both, and participating in extracurricular activities.

College application essay

Will your essay stand out from the pile?

Before you know it, you’ll be writing a college essay – or four! And, if you want to stand out in the piles and piles of applications inside the admissions office, you’ll need to find a way to incorporate something you’ve learned during the past few years into a meaningful and personal statement.

Because we are national experts on the application essay, students, parents, and educational professionals come to us for help. As you can imagine, we get peppered with questions on the subject.

This is one of the most common questions we get: Does anyone really read the college application essay?

Of course admissions officers read the essays!

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

Admissions professionals want to read your story, the one you feel it’s important to share with them. It’s your story. Your voice. Your words. What they don’t want is to read a story you think they want to hear; they want to read a story about YOU that you want them to know!

Every essay is an opportunity!

At the September 2014 National Association for College Admissions Counseling’s annual conference in Indianapolis, we polled about two dozen admission representative to find out if they really read the essays. The collective answer: yes!

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

In addition to Hoffman, we have interviewed dozens of admission officers from around the country. Watch the video interviews here. If you are not already a member, get FREE access to our video library by signing up for Wow today.

FREE Writing Resources: What Does a Top STEM School Want to Read in the College Application Essay?

Sign up for Wow FREE, and stay in the loop! You’ll find out what University of Miami College of Engineering Director of Admission David Poole wants to read in a college essay, plus get video tips from many other top admissions experts.

Get College Information Direct from the Source

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

National college fairsHigh school juniors, it’s important to get information direct from the source, especially when you are applying to college.

The National College Fairs, which take place throughout the U.S. in the spring and fall, are great venues to start your college research and find out exactly what you need to know to find the right college for you!

Check the schedule to find a fair closest to you. If you live in Michigan, come hear Wow speak, and find out how to sign up for free information to help you write your way into college.

As one of the leading national experts on the college application essay, we speak throughout the U.S. at schools and conferences, and we also train professionals who work with students on their college essays.

We are pleased to be returning to the Metro Detroit (March 30 and 31) and West Michigan (April 1) National College Fairs to talk about why you need to write an essay, what admissions officers want to know about you, and to how you can best reflect on life experiences that matter so you can stand out in the crowded field of applicants!

Will the college essay help you? Can it hurt you?

Come to a session to find out. If you live outside of Michigan, or cannot make it to one of our presentations, you can find everything you need to know about writing a college essay that stands out by signing up for Wow’s FREE tips, webinars and video interviews.

Here are the dates and times Wow will be speaking:

Metro Detroit:

  • Monday, March 30, 7:30 p.m., Suburban Collection Showplace, Novi
  • Tuesday, March 31, 11 a.m., Suburban Collection Showplace, Novi

West Michigan:

  • Wednesday, April 1, 8:45 a.m., DeVos Place, Grand Rapids
  • Wednesday, April 1, 5:45 p.m., DeVos Place, Grand Rapids

Kim Bryant, College Admissions OfficerFREE Writing Resources: What Does U-M Want to Read in College Essay?

Sign up for Wow FREE, and stay in the loop! You’ll find out what University of Michigan Assistant Director of Admissions Kim Bryant wants to read in a college essay, plus get video tips from many other top admissions experts.

Score More Points on the SAT/ACT!

Our friends at provide valuable FREE resources for college-bound students. This guest blog is a few years old but still relevant; it will help you learn how to map out critical reading passages on the upcoming SAT (and ACT too!)

How to Tackle the SAT Critical Reading Section

By Rory Hatfield

When I went grocery shopping. I didn’t know quite what I needed; all I knew was that I ran out of food and needed to buy some. So, I drove to the supermarket, picked out a cart, and went shopping without a list, a budget or any specific guidance. Despite my best efforts at buying nutritious, wholesome food, my grocery cart looked like this:

SATNeedless to say, shopping without a list didn’t pan out. I bought a lot of stuff I didn’t need, neglected to get things I did need, and frittered away my money and time. Pretty silly, right? Well, when you map out passages on the SAT and ACT without a plan, you’re doing the same thing.

Approaching a Critical Reading passage with an attitude of “I’m going to read it and take notes” is exactly like going to the supermarket thinking, “I’m going to buy food” – the right idea, but can easily backfire if you don’t know what you’re specifically looking for. This is especially important given the strict time limits on both tests – ACT reading sections allot forty minutes to read four passages, and SAT reading sections are only twenty-five minutes long.

There is simply not enough time to retain all the information in a passage – thankfully, you won’t need to! Detail questions give students a lot of clues right in the stem – their paragraphs, their line numbers, sometimes even the actual details themselves! Since the SAT and ACT give you that information up front, you don’t have to write it into your passage map.

So what is necessary? Here’s what you should understand from every reading section on Test Day:

  • The thesis
  • The topic sentence and main idea of each paragraph
  • Author’s opinion
  • Keywords that project the author’s opinion (“therefore”, “however”, etc.)

Getting this information gives you an overview of the passage that you can’t get from just reading the details – you’ll be better able to answer “big picture” questions that require you to understand the main ideas. Even though those questions often give you the same clues that Detail questions do – line numbers, quotes – they’re not enough to answer those questions by themselves. Knowing where a detail is won’t tell you its purpose, or what the author is implying; you can only get that information by reading for the gist, taking brief notes, and using them to find the right answer!

Treat this information as your “Test Day grocery list” – no matter what the passage is about, you’ll be prepared to get the most useful information. You’re no longer wading lost through the text – you’ll be reading with purpose.  In short, write down the gist of every paragraph, the thesis, and the author’s opinion. Fill up your cart with the good stuff on Test Day – good luck!

SAT, Rory HatfieldRory Hatfield teaches pre-college classes (SAT/ACT/PSAT) for Kaplan’s Live Online division full-time; and is also a student at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, where he is earning a Masters in Instructional Design. He has taught numerous courses and events for Kaplan, including sample classes on college admissions, writing an effective personal statement, and whether to take the SAT, ACT, or both.


FREE ebook: Write Your Way Into College

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.