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 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.

MSU’s Director of Admissions Offers Advice

By Kim Lifton

Michigan State University’s Director of Admissions James Cotter has a message for high school students worried about where they will get into college:

“Don’t worry so much about getting in; worry about getting out.”

As a 30-year veteran of the admissions office, Cotter has accumulated quite a bit of first-hand knowledge about what it takes to get into college, as well as what it takes to succeed once you get there.

Cotter, known for his dynamic presentations, will share his insight and provide tips for 45 minutes next Thursday, March 6 at 9 p.m. ET (8 p.m. CT, 7 p.m. MT, 6 p.m. PT), as part of Wow’s monthly webinar series:
Get Ready! Get Set! Get In! Inside the Admissions Office. (Our next webinar, slated for April 3 at 9 p.m. ET, will focus on test prep and will feature the co-founder of Testive, an innovative company that combines online and one-on-one prep.)

“Everyone can be admitted somewhere,” Cotter said. “Where can you be admitted that you can succeed?”

Cotter will also discuss how admissions officers choose prospective students, the importance of the college application essay, the factors that drive admissions and whether or not there is one perfect school for each applicant.

He’ll take questions from participants at the end of the session. To join the live webinar, register here. If you cannot attend, but would like a recording, register for the live webinar, and Wow Writing Workshop will email you a link after the session.

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

Curious About College? Tips for Grades 9-12

By Kim Lifton

Are you thinking about college? Seniors may be waiting to hear from the schools of their dreams, but high school students in grades 9-11 have college on their minds too.

“As stressful as this is, and as overwhelming as it seems, this process is manageable,” explains Ralph Figueroa, Dean of College Guidance at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico. “Break it down, step-by-step and year-by-year. You do not need to face the whole huge path at once.”

Figueroa, a former member of the Common Application Board of Advisors, was one of Wow’s February Webinar guests in our newest series: Get Ready! Get Set! Get In! Starting Your Journey.

An industry insider, he understands the process from every possible angle; as Associate Dean of Admission at Wesleyan University, Figueroa was the central figure in the New York Times bestseller, The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College.

His friend, Marie Bigham, Director of College Guidance at Greenhill School in Addison, Texas, joined Figueroa on the webinar. A board member for the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the Association of Counselors in Independent Schools, Bigham also worked inside the admissions office as an Associate Director of Admissions at Washington University in St. Louis.

In the webinar, Bigham provided a roadmap to help students prepare for college during each high school year:

9th Grade

  • Don’t worry about college. Worry about being the best high school student you can be. The reward of that follows.
  • You want to be able to look at your transcript and say, “This represents the best of me.”

10th grade

  • Assess what’s working and what could use improvement
  • Ask yourself these questions: “How can I enhance the skills I have? How can I develop the skills I need?”
  • Assess yourself. Continue trying to be the best student you can be. Think about what is interesting to you.

11th grade

  • Continue your self-assessment, and ask yourself these questions: “How can I be more flexible? How can I improve?”
  • Make an appropriate test calendar; prepare for the SAT and/or ACT and subject and AP exams.
  • Visit colleges that are not just name brands; try a few schools on for size and fit. Be focused. Put the pieces together, with an eye toward being the most successful college student you can be.

12th grade

  • Narrow down your college list in the early fall; complete it by early October.
  • The list should be realistic based on where you will be admitted and how much you can afford. If your list includes places that you would be happy to attend, where you know you are admissible, you’ll be fine.
  • This is the time to hone organizational skills, time management tools, and good decision-making abilities. These are critical skills in college, and life, so start using them now.
  • Stay on top of deadlines. You have every option in the world until you start missing deadlines.
  • Think of this process as a semester-long class. Work the process into your schedule, and stick to it.
  • Plan to be finished by Thanksgiving, if at all possible, so you can enjoy the holidays without college applications looming over your head and family conversations.

“It is not that hard to get into college,” Bigham said. “When people set limits on what is right or acceptable for them, like when they only apply to the most selective schools, things narrow down fast. Instead, we need to talk about what is important to students.”

For more great tips on the college application process, join Wow for the next webinar in our series, Get Ready! Get Set! Get In! Inside the Admissions Office, Thursday, March 6 at 9 pm EST (8 CST, 7 MST, 6 PST). Our special guest, James Cotter, Michigan State University’s dynamic Director of Admissions, will bring us inside the admissions office for a behind the scenes look into how admissions decisions are made. Register Here.

The College Journey: Advice from the Pros

by Kim Lifton

Despite what you may have heard, there is a college for everyone.

In fact, a recent National Association for College Admission Counseling survey supports that statement:  On average, four-year institutions accept nearly two-thirds of their applicants.

“It’s not that hard to get into college,” says Marie Bigham, one of the nation’s leading authorities on college admission.

A former admissions officer at Washington University, Bigham, now Director of College Guidance at the Greenhill School in Addison, Tex., and a national board member of NACAC and ACCIS, will bring years of know-how about the admissions process to parents, counselors and students in our newest (and FREE!) webinar series, Get Ready! Get Set! Get In! Starting The College Journey, this Thursday, Feb. 6, at 9 p.m. ET.

“Be open-minded,” she adds. “There is no one perfect school.”

Joining Bigham will be another leading college expert, Ralph Figueroa, Dean of College Guidance at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico. Figueroa rose to national prominence as the Wesleyan University admissions officer featured in the bestseller, The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College.

He is Past President of the Rocky Mountain Association for College Admission Counseling, former member of The Common Application Board of Directors, and The Common Application Outreach Advisory Committee.

“As stressful as this college process is, and as overwhelming as it seems, it is manageable,” Figueroa says.

Our esteemed guests will discuss what you really need to know about starting your journey to college, how you can tell good information from bad, the importance of the college essay, and much more!

Register now. This is a rare opportunity to learn, and ask questions, from the best and most experienced admissions pair in the U.S.

Avoid SAT/ACT Writing Mistakes, Get Starbucks On Us!

By Kim Lifton

When the ball drops in Times Square, another test season gets under way! Juniors, that means YOU!

Whether you are planning to take the SAT, ACT, or both, your ability to write matters more than you may know. Are you really ready for the writing tests? Most students are not – even the brightest, most skilled writers. And most tutoring – even the cream of the crop – focuses on other aspects of the tests, not the timed writing.

So brush up on your essay skills. Time management and focused practice can make or break the writing score.

Sign Up, Get Starbucks On Us!

To help you succeed, Wow is bringing our popular in-person writing workshops to you ONLINE. In our one-hour Ace the ACT and Score on the SAT webinars, you will learn how to:

  • Read and evaluate the prompt in a flash
  • Organize your thoughts before diving into the essay
  • Write quickly, clearly and effectively
  • Avoid common mistakes that can cost precious points

Each webinar costs just $24.99, and is available either as a live session or on-demand. As a bonus for registering before the live webinar, we’ll also send you a $5 Starbucks card.

Register here:

Score on the SAT Writing Test (Thursday, Jan. 16, 9-10 pm ET or on-demand)

Ace the ACT Writing Test (Thursday, Jan. 30, 9-10 pm ET or on-demand).

Can’t make it those nights? Just sign up and we’ll send login information to watch the webinar at a more convenient time. You will receive course materials and a scoring rubric, plus access to practice prompts and a Wow writing coach for follow-up questions.

Want to share this info with your parents? Click here to forward this email and we’ll make sure they get the message.

Kim Lifton is president of Wow Writing Workshop, which teaches high school students how to succeed on the ACT and SAT writing tests, and how to write college application 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.

Write Your Way into College with ACT, SAT and Application Essays

By Kim Lifton

As high school seniors put finishing touches on college applications, the rest of you –  freshmen, sophomores and juniors – might be thinking about your own journey beyond high school. Keep calm.

Colleges need students just as much as students need them; there is a college for everyone.

Focus on What You Can Control 

Some things on your journey to college are out of your control, while others are not. You can study to get good grades, and with practice, your writing can improve. The more you practice for the ACT and SAT writing tests, the better prepared you’ll be to answer the test prompt within the time given, and the better your chances will be of getting a good score.

Juniors, you can start practicing your writing skills next month by registering for one of Wow’s two NEW online writing workshops, Ace the ACT writing test and Score on the SAT writing test Continue reading