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Life Just Got Easier for Students Who Need Accommodations on ACT and SAT

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Are you taking the ACT on April 8 or the SAT on May 6? If you have a disability and need extra time, a reader, or space in a separate room to take either test, you should not have any trouble getting accommodations.

Both the College Board (which administers the SAT) and ACT Inc. have increasingly faced criticism and questions from the U.S. Department of Justice for testing practices that allegedly put students with disabilities at a disadvantage compared with students without disabilities.

But at the end of 2016, high school counselors and families with 504 and IEP plans got some welcome news:  Both the ACT and the College Board loosened restrictions that critics believed made it too difficult to receive special accommodations. As a result, students with documented learning disabilities who have special education plans at school will automatically receive testing accommodations.

This move follows years of complaints by counselors and families who said the testing companies unfairly rejected requests for accommodations from students with learning challenges – even for those with school accommodations already in place.

At Wow, we guide with students of all abilities through the college essay writing process, and we are delighted by this positive news. Here are some articles and links to accurate sources that explain the news in greater depth:

Learn How to Ace the ACT & SAT Writing Tests
At Wow, we know what it takes to succeed on any writing test. Sign up for a private workshop with a Wow coach to learn how to ace the SAT or ACT writing test. We  teach students how to read and evaluate the prompts; how to organize their thoughts; and provide valuable tips for writing quickly, clearly, and effectively on either test.

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communications and writing services company that is a leading expert on the college application essay. Kim, a former journalist, has made it her mission to know EVERYTHING about college admissions, and the essay’s role within it. She speaks with senior admissions officers from the nation’s most selective colleges almost every day. Wow works directly with students, and trains school counselors, English teachers and independent educational consultants who want to improve their essay-coaching skills. Wow also offers professional communication and writing services to businesses and nonprofits.


Common App Wants You to Know: Essay Prompt Changes Don’t Matter

Scott Anderson of the Common App
Scott Anderson, The Common App

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Every few years, the Common Application, a tool used by more than 700 colleges to help students apply seamlessly to multiple schools, makes noticeable changes to its essay prompts. The changes are based on feedback from students, parents, high school counselors, educational consultants and member schools following each admissions cycle.

This year, the Common App has added two new prompts for the next group of college applicants; they also clarified some of the current questions.

What does it all mean for high school juniors who are about to start the journey to college? Nothing, really. The task is the same. The purpose is the same, too. Some of the existing prompts are more specific, and the new questions simply provide a few more options for students.

I asked Scott Anderson, the Senior Director of Education and Partnerships for the Common Application, what he would advise students so they do not overthink the changes.

“The prompts have changed slightly, but the instructions remain the same: what do you want application readers to know about you?,” Anderson told me. “The prompts simply serve to help students approach that question from as many angles as possible, whether it be maturity, identity, curiosity, pastimes, aspirations, community, relationships, or anything else.”

Anderson added, “Students should pick the prompt that supports and gets them excited about the story they want to tell about themselves.”

That’s sound advice straight from the source. You can read Anderson’s piece in the Huffington Post for more information about the changes. (He says the changes don’t matter!)

The best prompt is always the one the college applicant prefers.

No prompt is better than any other. And, despite what you may have heard or read in the past, or what you might hear in the coming months, colleges that use the Common App do not prefer any particular prompt.

At Wow, we talk to admissions officers all the time; they confirm what Anderson told us: they are more interested in what a student has to say than which prompt the student chooses.

At its core, the college essay is all about reflection. No matter what the prompt, we approach every one the same way. We tell our students an effective essay will answer these two questions:

  • What happened?
  • Why does it matter?

Why it matters to a student (the reflection) is more important than what happened (the experience, the activity, or the person who influenced that student).

Here are the 2017-2018 Common Application Essay Prompts

1. 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. [No change]

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? [Revised]

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. [No change]

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? [New]

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. [New]

Parents, find out how you can help your child respond to any prompt in our next monthly Parent Chat. It’s Feb, 21, and free. If you cannot make it, sign up anyway, and we’ll send you a recording.

Counselors and other professionals, our parent chats have been so popular we are offering free 30-minute sessions for you, too. Sign up here. Join us live or listen to the recording.

How Are You Going To Pay for College?

Jodi Okun

Last August, Wow’s Kim Lifton was the featured expert on #CollegeChat, a live Twitter chat hosted every Thursday night by Jodi Okun; we shared our expertise on the college and scholarship essay (the process is the same!) that evening. We asked  Jodi to share her best tips about paying for college in this guest blog. Contact Wow to learn how to write a standout scholarship essay. 

By Jodi Okun

Worried about paying for college? Confused about securing the best financial aid package? You are not alone.

Regardless of your family’s income or financial circumstances, most parents like you have one of these concerns:

  • You make too much to qualify for aid.
  • You make too little to afford college at all.

No matter what your financial situation, there are plenty of opportunities to help you and your family pay for college. Before starting the search for financial opportunities, you’ll need to understand how financial aid works, whether you’ll qualify for any – and know where to turn for help when it gets confusing.

Managing college financial aid strategies – from scholarships to work study jobs to student loans – is challenging. But it does not need to be overwhelming.

Begin the process by asking yourself these three questions:

  • How can I afford college for my child?
  • How can I navigate this complicated financial aid system?
  • And how will I make the best decisions for my family?

While no single answer is right for everyone, you’ll be able to find an answer that is right for you. I help parents navigate the process, but I cannot give you a step-by-step manual of what to do; I would need to update that manual daily. Useful information will help you move you in the right direction to secure the funding you’ll need for your child’s post-secondary education.

Meanwhile, try to stay calm, and don’t let fear get the best of you. College is a lot of work, and it costs a lot of money. But most parents and students I know feel that a college degree is well worth the effort.

Jodi’s Top 6 Tips to Navigate Financial Aid Process:

Start early – Don’t wait till senior year before making financial plans. If you do, you’ll be limiting your options. The more information you acquire early, the better off you will be.

Involve your child in the process – I’ve seen parents exclude their children from the financial aid decision-making process, and then turn around and complain that their child doesn’t understand anything about money. Everyone involved should know the facts behind the decisions made; it helps them understand how to be financially responsible.

Maximize free money – Use scholarships, grants, and other awards that don’t need to be paid back.

Pay as much as you can out of pocket – This includes savings, contributions from parents and relatives, 529 savings plans, part-time jobs, and work-study programs.

Borrow with caution – Maximize federal loans first, and then use private student loans – only if necessary.

Talk about money with your child – One of the reasons why student debt is at an all-time high is that parents fail to talk about money and student loans with their children before college. Student loans can have lifelong financial consequences if they are not repaid. Make sure your child understands the amount of money borrowed and who is responsible for repayment.

Jodi Okun, founder of College Financial Aid Advisers and a former financial aid consultant at Occidental and Pitzer colleges, has helped thousands of families successfully navigate the financial aid process, no matter what their financial situation. She is the bestselling author of Secrets of a Financial Aid Pro, and is recognized by the Huffington Post and other media outlets as a top social media influencer. She blogs, speaks to industry and parent groups, and hosts weekly #CollegeCash Twitter chats that connect families with higher education professionals – and receive more than 10,000 impressions each week. To learn more about navigating financial aid for college, sign up for a free financial aid strategy session with Jodi.


I’m 17 and Not Hemingway! A Realistic Approach to College Essays

Susan will share Wow's approach to the college essay with PACAC secondary school counselors
CEO Susan Knoppow

High school counselors, what approach do you use to help your students craft application essays? Would you like some new time-saving techniques that can help you reach students who have difficulty with the college essay process (and make your job a little bit easier)?


Wow CEO Susan Knoppow will join the Pennsylvania Association for College Admission Counseling (PACAC)  next Wednesday, February 8th, to present:  “I’m 17 – and I’m Not Hemingway! A Realistic Approach to College Essays,” an online professional development workshop for Secondary School Counselors.

The workshop is for high school counselors and independent educational consultants throughout the U.S. who want  resources for students and colleagues. Pennsylvania counselors can get a ertificate of Attendance to submit for ACT 48 credit through your district/IU. (Note: counselors must be registered and logged in to the Online Workshop individually for the entire hour and a half to receive the certificate.)

Susan has 20 years experience working with students of all ages. She has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College, a BA in Psychology from the University of Michigan, and has taught college and high school creative writing and composition.

In 2009, she co-founded Wow Writing Workshop and developed the Wow Method, an approach used by students to write application essays and resumes; by business owners to create blogs, websites and other communication materials; and by English teachers to improve student writing skills.

Workshop Details:

When: Wednesday, February 8th, 11am-12:30pm EST (1.5 hours)

Cost:  FREE for PACAC Members. Non-Members: $10

**Join PACAC today ($25 individual annual membership) and attend online workshops for FREE!

Registration: Click here!

Space is limited in the seminar room.

Registration closes at 3 p.m., Tuesday, February 7th

Questions? Email

Contact us if you would like Wow to present a similar workshop for your professional group.


How to Prepare for the College Application Journey

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

This time of year, every year, many moms and dads with high school juniors (and even sophomores!) start to get nervous. Seniors are either done, or at the end of the college admissions process; some have been admitted to their dream schools, while others were deferred or rejected. College talk is all the rage.

It can be overwhelming. Confusing. Distressing. But there’s no need to panic. We want you to get through this process with minimal stress inside your home.

Here’s our No. 1 tip to share with students to start preparing them for the application journey: Writing a college essay is all about reflection. Students need to learn how to reflect!


How to Teach Reflection

Despite what you might believe, writing is not the most challenging part of the essay. The tough part comes at the beginning, when we ask our students what matters to them and why. You can help your son or daughter explore how they exhibit their most significant traits or characteristics. That’s the first step toward reflection.

We know that most high school students spend a lot of time thinking and talking about friends, moving out of the house, figuring out life, choosing a career and deciding which college to attend. If you teach your child how to reflect before the next admission cycle starts in late spring, you will all be better prepared for the last phase of this journey to college. Find out what’s important to them and why.

The good news: You are more than ready for this challenge.

At Wow, when we help our students reflect and focus up front, the rest of the process moves much more smoothly. Too many students start in the wrong place. They come to us full of ideas about topics, with little consideration of the essay’s purpose.

All too often, students look for activities that might lead to stories, and they waste a lot of time talking about their experiences and their accomplishments. When they do this, they do not answer the prompt, which, no matter how it’s worded, is really asking students to show some insight into those experiences or accomplishments. That’s reflection.

Encourage your child to start at the beginning of the process – a conversation with you. You know what’s amazing about your child; help your child figure this out, too.


Make a list

  • What makes your child so wonderful?
  • What do you love about this person you’ve raised?
  • Is your son kind? Resourceful? Compassionate?
  • Is your daughter industrious? Funny? Patient?

Think about qualities and characteristics, not accomplishments.


What are you waiting for?

Find a time to sit down with your son or daughter, then share and listen with an open mind and heart. This is a journey into self-discovery to teach your future college student how to be introspective and find meaning in life experiences.

This is a key conversation to help your child answer the one question that can really help hit that essay out of the ballpark: What do you want to share with colleges that they don’t already know about you, beyond grades, test scores and extracurricular activities?

Once your child can answer this question with a specific trait or characteristic, he or she will be able to find a meaningful story that illustrates that trait and also answers the prompt.

If you can get your child to this point, your son or daughter will be ready to continue the process of discovery – and will be prepared to write those essays this spring or summer.

5 Tips to Trim Your College Essay

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Recently, I reviewed a student’s personal statement for Michigan State University, which requires that each student submit a short essay of up to 400 words from a list of designated topics.

The draft, which he assumed was ready for a final edit, was 751 words – 351 words more than the school wanted. He didn’t think he could shorten it.

Nonsense, I told him. We read and suggest cuts to our students’ essays every day, and we’ve never seen a personal statement or supplemental essay weakened by the editing process.

While some admissions insiders say limits are strictly enforced, others suggest a few words too many will not matter. No matter what, it’s not worth the risk. Just answer the question within the specified word count, and you will not need to worry.

Here are five simple tips for trimming personal statements and supplemental essays without destroying their content:

  1. Circle or highlight all adverbs. Take them out. These include “very” and many “ly” words, such as really, extremely, completely and absolutely.
  2. Look for a single word or short phrase followed by a comma. These include because of this, in fact, first, last, hopefully, to be frank, quite frankly and in conclusion. Highlight the words or phrases, then read the sentences without them. Take out the ones that do not enhance your story.
  3. Delete helping verbs. Example: Replace “is going to be attending” with “will attend.”
  4. Delete to be verbs. Rather than saying “I am a voracious reader,” try “I read voraciously.”
  5. Turn some nouns into verbs: “I concluded” is better than “I came to the conclusion.”

After you trim that essay, there’s one more thing to do before clicking send: review it! Would you like a professional review to make sure it is really ready to submit to college?

Wow’s trained writing coaches pay attention to factors that admissions officers tell us matter to them, like reflection, theme and flow. We know how to help untangle that messy essay. We also make sure all the “I”s are dotted and “t”s are crossed.

Don’t Let College Applications Ruin Thanksgiving

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

The clock is ticking for students applying to college for next fall as the regular admission deadlines loom.

Are your child’s essays stressing you out? Are they done? Do the essays you’ve already read look messy? Or is something missing from the story?

We don’t want your child’s college applications to ruin Thanksgiving. We’d prefer to give you some peace of mind. That’s why we’re going to share some tips so you can help your college-bound son or daughter master the college essay, which is arguably the most daunting task of the application process.

The first and most important tip: Make sure you understand why students are being asked to write essays, and know what you can do, as well as what you should not do, to help! At its core, the college essay is all about reflection.

We talk to admissions officers all the time, and they say they use the essays to:

• Find out something that is meaningful to the student and is not apparent in the rest of the application package.
• Gain insight into an applicant’s character.
• See if the student is a good fit for the university.

“There’s a misconception about what we do inside the admissions office,” cautioned Calvin Wise, Johns Hopkins University’s Director of Recruitment. “We are trying to predict future potential. We need to dig deeper where the essay comes into play. That’s where we find out more about the student.”

The admissions essay is an opportunity to support the student’s application – to help a student show who he or she is. It is a chance to speak directly to the admissions office.
Make sure those essays are written by the student. Wise (and every admissions officer we’ve ever asked) says he can tell when essays are over-edited or written by someone else.

Christoph Guttentag, the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions for Duke University has similar advice. He told us he would love to see more personal statements that are authentic.

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

Your role is critical. You can help your child reflect so that they are prepared to write a thoughtful answer to any type of essay prompt. When you read your child’s essay, or when you try and help your son or daughter come up with a topic, remember that they should not start with a preconceived notion of where they will end up.

Students can have a vision and ideas, but they need to be willing to be surprised and open to ending up somewhere they didn’t expect. Allow yourself to be surprised, too.

How do you do that? Set expectations. Help your child present the best possible version of himself, not a vision you imagine. Let your child take the lead. Be supportive and positive, but don’t suggest topics or tell your child which words to use.

Ask yourself:

• What is the real goal of this process?
• Am I too invested in helping my child create a beautiful essay?
• What message am I sending my child by making suggestions and changes?

Next, make sure your voice does not show up in the essay. Leave it alone. Drop the word “editing” from your vocabulary. You are a reviewer, not an editor. This is a challenging distinction. It involves sitting on your hands and hiding your red pens.

You can learn more about how to teach reflection in our new book, “How to Write an Effective College Application Essay – The Inside Scoop for Parents” (9.99, Amazon). All you need is the free Kindle app; buy the guide, then download it to your favorite electronic reading device.

Would you rather get a professional review? Wow can take the writing task off your plate. We’ll give your child’s essay a professional review to make sure it is ready to submit. We know how to help untangle that messy essay. We can work with your child no matter where they are in the process.

Have a peaceful Thanksgiving.

Does Your College Essay Show Insight?

By Kim Lifton question mark
Wow Writing Workshop

With the first round of application deadlines looming, we’ve been reviewing a lot of college entrance essays that have not been ready to submit to colleges. Most of them lack the insight colleges are looking for. And, at its core, a college entrance essay is all about reflection. If you don’t reflect, you haven’t responded to the prompt.

This is not a new phenomenon. We notice the same trend every October, when scores of students ask us to review essays they think are perfect.

Whether they got help from a parent or favorite teacher, followed advice from an older brother who landed a spot at his top choice college, or worked independently with guidance from books or websites, most of these students at this point are just looking for our stamp of approval.

The bad news: The majority of these essays are not done. Not yet.
The good news: They sent us their essays, and we can help before they make a big mistake.

We read each piece of writing for three things that colleges tell us are most significant:

  • Does the student answer the prompt?
  • Does the answer to the prompt show insight into the student’s character?
  • Does it sound like a 17 year-old wrote it?

Admissions professionals read a lot of descriptive narratives about student experiences; they prefer you dig a little deeper in your answer to any prompt. They want you to use this space on the application to showcase the traits and characteristics you like about yourself—and the ones you want to share with them.

Colleges are interested in you. Focus your answer on what you want to share with them, not what you think they want to hear. Tell them something meaningful that they would not know about you from reading the rest of the application package.

No matter what the prompt, your essay should answer these two questions:

  • What happened?
  • Why does it matter?

Why it matters to you (the reflection) is just as important as what happened (the experience, the activity, or the person who influenced you).

Write an Essay That Will Help You Get In

We’ve read many well-written essays that would make great English papers. They are descriptive and full of beautifully sketched scenes. We’ve also reviewed our fair share of essays that sound sanitized, as if one or several well-meaning adults got ahold of them with their red pens. These types of essays lack real introspection, they don’t answer the prompt, and they won’t help you.

Your essay should help you. Write it yourself, in your voice, using your words.

You deserve to get noticed. So don’t just click send. Not yet. Get a professional review from a coach who can give you peace of mind, let you know if you’ve hit the mark and provide easy-to-follow instructions so you can give colleges something they’ll want to read.

Wow’s highly skilled team of professional coaches can teach you how to respond to any college entrance essay prompt, no matter where you are in the process. We’re here to help. Find out how you can write an essay to get attention from the college of your dreams. 

Why Do You Want to Go to College X?

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Many schools ask for supplemental essays in addition to the personal statement; the most common supplement, which we call “Why College X?,” is a variation on the question, “Why us?” This prompt can be one of the most challenging for students. The questions often look like these, which are taken from current and past years’ applications:

New York University: NYU’s global network provides students with hundreds of academic areas of interest for students to cultivate their intellectual curiosity and to help achieve their career goals. Whether you are entirely undecided about your academic plans or you have a definitive program of study in mind, what are your own academic interests? Feel free to share any thoughts on any particular programs or how you might explore those interests at NYU on any of our campuses.

Cornell University College of Engineering: Tell us about an engineering idea you have, or about your interest in engineering. Describe how your ideas and interests may be realized by — and linked to — specific resources within the College of Engineering. Finally, explain what a Cornell Engineering education will enable you to accomplish.

Barnard College: What factors influenced your decision to apply to Barnard College, and why do you think the College would be a good match for you?

In every case, a student’s answer needs to address three important areas:
• The School: What attracts me to this college or program?
• The Student: What do I want readers to know about me?
• The Stories: How does what I know about the program mesh with what I want readers to know about me? How can I illustrate this intersection?

Many students have very little idea what a school offers academically, socially or culturally. Sometimes students choose a college because of its location or its status. Each year, we meet many high school students who insist that a school is perfect because the student bleeds the university’s colors, feels at home inside the football stadium and loves listening to stories around the Thanksgiving dinner table from Dad, Aunt Lisa and cousin Diana, all enthusiastic and accomplished alumni.

Students, this is not what colleges want to know. While it is okay for you to tell them you will be comfortable in the big city, they are more interested in their school and what the college or program has to offer. Do you have the chops to succeed academically? Are there any clubs and activities to support your outside interests? Why do these factors matter to you?

Barnard’s Director of Admissions Christina Lopez suggests students ask themselves a series of questions before answering the “Why College X?” essay prompt: Do you prefer small classes with a lot of interaction with professors or large lecture classes? What type of community appeals to you? Are you looking for a diverse environment? Do you prefer to be close to home? Do you want to study abroad, conduct research, do an internship or study in a rigorous academic environment?

“The supplements separate a good applicant from a great applicant,” Lopez said. “The more you can espouse why you are a match in the short answer question genuinely (without regurgitating our website to us because we wrote it!), the more you will stand out to us. It is a great place to let a college know if we are the first choice, and why you love us.”

At Wow, we talk all the time to high school counselors, parents and admissions representatives like Lopez. We write and speak at college industry conferences with senior managers from admissions offices at the nation’s most selective colleges. That’s how we know that at its core, any college essay is about reflection. And that’s how we also know that colleges – no matter how selective – all want the same thing in a personal statement or essay supplement: They want students to respond to the prompts in a meaningful way that shows insight into the student’s character.

You can learn more about the essay’s purpose in Wow’s new eBook, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay – The Inside Scoop for Parents. It’s short, focused and easy to follow. We give parents a job to do to help prepare their children for the journey to college, and tips so they know when to step aside. If you’re a student, get a copy for your parents. If you’re a parent, read this before your child starts writing. And if you’re a counselor or consultant, share it with your families. Get your copy for $9.99 on


Download the eBook on Tuesday, Sept. 13, and it’s FREE! One-day only.