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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Admissions officers do not  want you to sound like Hemingway!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fact: Anyone can stand out with a great story!

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

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

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

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

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

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