Author: Kim Lifton

MSU Admissions Director Shares Tips for Getting In

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop
John Ambrose of MSU

I met Michigan State University’s Interim Executive Director of Admissions and Recruitment John Ambrose at an industry meeting in Toronto six ago. Over the years, we have talked quite a bit about the college essay and its role within the application process at MSU.

John sat in on a college essay training we conducted for the Detroit College Access Network; he was such a good sport he let us ask him a question during the training.  A few years ago, he convinced me to run  an essay writing workshop during our busy season for his favorite nonprofit serving underrepresented youth: Midnight Golf. It was a morning presentation; I stayed all day reading essays for his students.

He inspires me. I hope he inspires you, too. Here is some of John Ambrose’s best advice for families who have students who want to apply to MSU:

What is the secret to getting into MSU?

Be your most authentic self! Students put a lot of effort into trying to convince admissions officers who they think we want to see. Authenticity is always appreciated.

What’s your elevator pitch to prospective Spartans?

MSU is looking for people who care about making a difference in the world. The SPARTANS WILL speaks to the heart of who we are as SPARTANS and the attitude we have about developing world changers.
What advice do you give to parents who say college is so competitive today they would not be admitted to the colleges they attended?

Each year the application pool changes from the size to the strength of the academic profile. MSU is no different we have watched our application counts grow along with the academic profile. A number of students in our entering class begin at MSU with college credits they earned while they were in high school and that’s one of the biggest changes from then to now.

What do you look for in a college essay?

The college essay is the one thing that can separate you from everyone else in the application pool. I look doe genuineness of character, unique flair of personality, identifiable traits of a leader or follower, team player and someone who has the capacity to add to the rich diversity of our campus and our traditions as a SPARTAN Nation.

What’s the typical GPA of an admitted MSU student?

Our freshman profile at the 50th percentile ranges from a 3.5 – 3.9 GPA, and 1130-1300 SAT Composite and a 23-29 ACT.

How important is AP and IB?

We encourage students to challenge themselves and take the highest level of preparatory coursework available. AP and IB students gain a wealth of academic texture and contextual rigor that provides them with a wonderful sense of preparedness prior to enrolling in college or university. I think it is very important to the academic experience that a high school student can choose from.

What are the top factors you consider for admission to MSU?

1. GPA
2. Test Score
3. Rigor
4. Grade trend

We also consider the personal statement, senior year schedule, and extra-curricular activity as a part of our holistic review.

How can an application essay help an applicant?

In the essay, take the opportunity to show us your authentic self and try really hard not repeat things that are already apart of your application. I wish students spent more time on their essay.

What advice would you give to a prospective student whose grades and test scores are not a sure thing for MSU?

If they want to be at MSU, we want them to be here, too. Transferring into MSU is competitive but not at the same volume as entering with the freshman class. Students have a strong opportunity to transfer who have 28 earned college credits, completed college algebra and college writing, while maintaining a 3.0 or better cumulative grade point average.

How do you respond to a student who thinks the MSU campus is too big?

You can always make big things smaller, and we have done that by offering living and learning programs that give the student a small college feel in a large university setting. Additionally, we have compartmentalized the campus into geographic pockets we call neighborhoods by decentralizing some key support services, so you don’t have to travel across campus to go to tutoring or the health clinic. Those services are available in each neighborhood. Come see us, and we will be happy to show you around the campus!

Does Your Child Need Help Applying to MSU?

We are super busy now that the Class of 2020 is back in school for senior year. But we’re still accepting students for this college application season. Click here to reserve your spot before our spots fill up.

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The only college prep book you’ll need

Success on the essay begins at home. Learn how to support your child with their college essay without taking over in our book for parents, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay: The Inside Scoop for Parents. 

How to Write an Effective College Application Essay is a simple, straightforward guide offering insight from our decades of experience as writers and writing teachers; it provides tips so you can prepare your child to respond to any college application essay question. In the book, we clarify the mixed messages that confuse parents and students, to help families like yours make sense out of the noise surrounding the essay.

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Kim Lifton can get a story out of anyone writing an effective college application essay
Wow President Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton, President and Founder of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication company, leads a professional team of writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. Kim teaches students how to write application essays for college and graduate school and adults how to write anything that involves the written word (such as books). Recently, she was named a Top Voice in Education by LinkedIn.

Before co-founding Wow, Kim worked as a reporter and communication consultant. Highlights include: Co-producing a PBS documentary about teens and depression, No Ordinary Joe: Erasing the Stigma of Mental Illness; writing “First Class,” a weekly lifestyle column about the area’s most successful businessmen and women for the Detroit Free Press; and creating “A Small Business Adventure,” a 12-part monthly series about the perils and pitfalls of running a small business for the Detroiter Magazine.


Top 5 Common App Essay Myths & Facts

Common App
Common App goes live Aug. 1

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

The Common App opens August 1 for the Class of 2019. With that in mind, let’s debunk some of the rumors about the Common App essay (personal statement for college) that often spread like wildfire among the college-bound crowd and their families.

With that in mind, here are our Top 5 college essay myths and facts:

Myth 1: A Common App essay has to be written about an impressive topic.

Fact: The student is impressive, not the college essay topic. The story, not the experience, is most important. Colleges want to know what an applicant has learned, rather than what they did.

One Wow student came to us confident that it was her trip to help the poor in Central America that would stand out in her application essay. Not at all. While brainstorming ideas with a writing coach, she discovered her most important moment during that trip occurred when she overcame her fear of heights by jumping off a cliff into the water.

“What does the experience mean to you?” asked Calvin Wise, the Director of Recruitment for Johns Hopkins University. “That is what we want to know.”

Myth 2: A Common App college essay should sound sophisticated, like Hemingway or a college professor.
Don’t fall victim to the myths! Get the facts!

Fact:  A high school student should sound like a high school student. Not a professor. Or a famous writer.

(Students should) “be themselves,” said Andrea Nadler, Associate Dean of Admission at Hofstra University.  “The college essay should allow us to use our senses to see, feel, taste and experience the kinds of things that are important to these students. If writing about a book they have read, we want to feel like we are in it with them. If writing about a meal they have had, we want to taste it.”

Myth 3: Admissions officers will never know if anyone helped too much with a Common app college essay. They won’t know if the student plagiarized, either.

Fact: There is a fine line between helping your child and writing or over-editing the Common App essay for them. Admissions officers know when someone other than the student writes all or part of a story; they don’t like it.

“If a student has an adult write it, the admissions committee can tell,” said Jim Cotter, Director of Admissions for Michigan State University.

Many schools will automatically reject a student’s application, without an explanation, even if they merely suspect plagiarism.

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

Fact:  An applicant’s best story will grow out of the process of writing the Common App essay. To stand out, they must tell a genuine story and show insight.

Despite what you might hear, there are no tricks and no shortcuts. No magic formula. The essay doesn’t need a killer opening line or a tight conclusion. Trust the process; the college essay will emerge through the process of reflection, writing and revision.

“The key is to show genuine passion, commitment and that they have what it takes to survive at the school,” said Lorenzo Gamboa, Senior Associate Director of Admissions for Santa Clara University.

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

Fact: Anyone can stand out with a great story in a Common App essay.

An applicant does not need to rescue a child from a house fire or teach an autistic boy how to swim to impress admissions officers. One Wow student wrote about 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 college essay.

“Sometimes students feel that because they haven’t found the cure for cancer, they have nothing to share,” said Jan Deike, Vanderbilt University, Assistant Director of Admissions. “Life is truly lived in the smaller moments, and that can be a powerful essay.”

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Kim Lifton can get a story out of anyone writing an effective college application essay

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication and writing services company that is a leading expert on the college application essay. Kim, a former journalist, speaks with senior admissions officers from the nation’s most selective colleges all the time. 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.




College Essay Writing Tips from the Admissions Office

By Kim Lifton
President, Wow Writing Workshop

A college application essay is an opportunity to share something meaningful about yourself. Just how you do that could influence admissions committees more than you might know!

At Wow Writing Workshop, we speak all the time to admissions professionals at top universities across the entire country, and we know what they are looking for. One thing’s for sure: They don’t want you to write a story about something you think they want to hear. They do want to read a story you want to share with them. It’s your story. Your voice. Your words.

college essay writing tipsAs Michigan State University Director of Admissions Jim Cotter puts it, the essay is value added. If an adult writes it, the admissions committee can tell.

“At a moderately selective school, it can pull a student on the cusp up,” added Cotter, a 30+-year industry veteran. “At a highly selective school, a poor statement can make the difference between being admitted or not.”


Here are a few additional tips direct from admissions offices to help you write an essay that says “wow!” and also improves your chances of getting noticed, and getting in:

college essay writing tipsKeep it simple. “I think sometimes students feel that because they haven’t found the cure for cancer they have nothing to share,” said Vanderbilt University Assistant Director for Undergraduate Admissions Jan Deike. “Life is truly lived in the smaller moments and that can be a powerful essay.”



Calvin WiseKnow your audience. “There’s a misconception about what we do inside the admissions office. We are trying to predict future potential,” said Johns Hopkins University Senior Associate Director for Undergraduate Admissions Calvin Wise. “The essay is a student’s opportunity to speak directly to the admissions office. We need to dig deeper, and that’s where the essay comes into play. That’s where we find out more about the student.”


Understand the prompt. “Answer the question,” said Shawn Felton, Cornell University Director of Undergraduate Admissions. “Since so many students don’t do that, you could actually stand out by doing that very basic thing.”



lorenzo2Focus on one moment. “Students do not need to compile an entire season into an essay,” according to Lorenzo Gamboa, Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Santa Clara University. “Just give us one place, one time, one moment, and that will do it for you. The key is to show genuine passion, commitment and that they have what it takes to survive at the school.”


BrentKeep it positive. “What message are you sending to colleges if you write about how much you dislike your father? said Brent Benner, Director of Enrollment Management, University of Tampa. “If this story demonstrates something positive about you, then use it. But be careful. Every kid has had a hardship, but life is about problem solving and conflict resolution. I want to read anything that paints a picture of moxie, drive, determination and courage; those are compelling, and tells me how someone problem-solves.”

Want help NOW with writing college application essays? Find out about our FREE parent program, a do-it-yourself with a little bit of help package, private essay coaching, and professional review services.


These College Essays Will Stand Out Inside Admissions Office!

By Kim Lifton

College EssayWhen I swim, I look at the black line at the bottom of the pool and think about my college essay student who also swims. He envisions little people racing along that line. That makes me smile.

At Wow, we’ve been thinking a lot about our students’ stories.  There’s the girl from a busy family in Washington, DC, who relaxed under the stars at summer camp with her best friends.  Read more

Let the 17-year-old Voice Take Center Stage in College Essay

This post by Dr. Rebecca Joseph, who developed the app All College Application Essays, originally appeared in the Huffington Post. Wow collaborates with Dr. Joseph and uses the app – a one-stop tool to help students collect and organize their college application essays – all the time. 

By Dr. Rebecca Joseph

Recently, I saw a private coach inside a Starbucks using a thesaurus to help a high school senior make a college application essay sound “more mature.” Another counselor encouraged one of my students to write about a troubling failure without focusing on the lessons learned. This season, yet another of my students couldn’t explain to me what different sections of her story meant because her tutor, a screenwriter, had added examples into her essay that were unfamiliar to her.

I am tired of watching college applicants disappear as their adult advocates take over.

Admissions officers tell me they desperately want essays written authentically by the applicants, featuring stories, themes, and language that reflect the applicant’s actual writing. Yet college coaches, tutors, counselors and parents at times take the opposite approach. They are over-editing by telling students what words to use and what to write.

My appeals to privilege the teenagers’ voices grow stronger every day of college application season. What message are we sending our young people if we over-edit their essays so much that their originality and authenticity fade away?

It is time to let the 17-year-old voice take center stage.

As a national expert on college application essays, I travel around the country speaking to parents, schools, and communities about college application essays. I work with under-represented students to help encourage them to write application essays that communicate their stories, and I coach more privileged students individually.

No matter what their background, all teens need to learn that they have powerful stories to tell. While they usually don’t have experience writing admissions essays, they can all write powerful essays if provided with brainstorming, drafting, and revising strategies.

Applying to college is an audition process; only the student can set foot on the stage and perform. College application readers look at student’s grades, test scores, and recommendations, as well as essays. They are experts, and they can see disconnects. They can also see the other essays each student writes and can observe wild shifts in style and tone.

Teachers, coaches, parents, do what good mentors and editors do: guide and question, but do not rewrite. If you are reviewing a student’s work, it is important that you understand that colleges do not want to hear your stories or read your mature writing styles. They want to hear fresh stories that reveal the unique experiences of students growing up in their era, not yours.

Also, anyone who helps students should be a mentor and a guide — not a ghostwriter. Drafting essays takes time and is often painful, requiring students to find the allegorical stories that share powerful evidence of how they will enrich a campus. External advice, not rewriting, can be very helpful for your students. Remember, they have never done this sort of writing before. Help them see drafting as an authentic means of sharpening their voices.

And students, please understand that colleges want to hear from you and only you. When they want to hear from an adult, they will ask, usually in the form of a letter of recommendation.

Colleges want to read a story in your voice that tells them about an event or experience, quality or place that reveals what you, and you alone, can offer. What does the experience mean to you? They don’t want manufactured grand stories that would belong in The New Yorker, unless you are a brilliant author who has already been published and who can demonstrate a portfolio of similarly written pieces. The process of thinking about the messages you want to send colleges in your essays can take weeks. There are no shortcuts.

As the holidays and college application deadlines approach, let’s all give admissions offices a gift — essays that enable the applicants’ voices to pop off the page with originality and authenticity.

 Rebecca Joseph is an Associate Professor of Curriculum and Development at California State University, Los Angeles. Dr. Rebecca Joseph believes that college should be an option for all and devotes her teaching, research, presentations, evaluations, and service to helping all students receive a high quality, college ready education. 

Wow Featured on MoneyWatch: 6 Tips to Winning College Scholarships

Tip: Write a scholarship essay that stands out. Susan Knoppow, a cofounder of WOW Writing Workshop has been a judge on many scholarship panels and she notes that most essays that she's read were mediocre. Just like college admission essays, too many of these writing samples are boring and written like a standard high school English paper, which is not what scholarship sponsors want. Sponsors want teenagers to write an entertaining essay with a great opening line that shares the writer's genuine voice.

Read more

Answer Prompt to Stand Out in College Essay!

By Kim Lifton

Shawn Felton, Interim Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Cornell University at NACAC 2013

Last week, I reviewed a student’s “Why College X?” essay for a Big 10 university. The prompt asks applicants to share why the program appeals to them and how the school’s curriculum will support the student’s interests.

This boy’s story focused on the many Saturdays he drove 250 miles from his hometown to the college football stadium with his father, an alumnus. His memories were great; he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps; he felt at home inside the stadium.

Will the admissions team like this story? (Unlikely) Will it stand out? (Probably not) More importantly, does this story answer the question? (No)

Your job on the essay – your only job – is to answer the question.

The “Why College X?” question for any school is not intended to prompt a story about your father, your mother, your obsession with the school mascot or the football team. In general, institutions that ask this type of question want to know how their curriculum, clubs and campus life will support your academic and extracurricular interests.

Will you fit in? Do you have what it takes to graduate from this particular institution? Read this blog post to find out what the University of Michigan prefers, and this one to learn more about what New York University and Kalamazoo College like to read. These tips apply to other universities as well.

What Does Admissions Committee Want?

“Answer the question,” said Cornell University’s Interim Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Shawn Felton, during a recent interview with Wow. “Since so many students don’t do that, you could actually stand out by doing that very basic thing.”

At Wow, we regularly check in with admissions officers from small liberal arts colleges, elite universities and state institutions. Regardless of size, status or essay prompt, they all offer similar tips:

  • Don’t over-think it.
  • Tell us what you want us to know about you; not what you think we want to hear.
  • Answer the prompt honestly with a story about you.
  • Make sure your story is focused and written in your own words and your own voice.

You’ll find all sorts of advice online about writing admissions essays, much of it inaccurate or confusing. As you near the end of your college application process and put the finishing touches on your essays, be careful whose advice you follow, and make sure you know your sources. You can always count on Wow for accurate, timely information, direct from the admissions office.

Kim Lifton is president of Wow Writing Workshop. You can read Kim’s blogs and get useful writing tips by signing up for Wow’s newsletter. Wow is also on Facebook and Twitter. Check our schedule to sign up for webinars and workshops that will help you and your students write great college admissions essays. Remember this: YOU are your perfect college essay subject.

The Best College Essays Begin with a Cliché

Some of Wow’s best college essays have started with a cliché. Why? Most of us experience the same life lessons. Our stories are different, but we learn the same lessons from them.

By Kim Lifton 

An independent educational consultant from Atlanta recently asked me what advice to give a student who wants to show colleges through his application essay that he “gives 110% to everything he does.” Read more

Write a College Essay That Brings a Smile

This week, during an information session for prospective students and parents at New York University, I asked Assistant Dean of Admissions Julie Kling what makes her smile when she reads an essay.

“Be truthful and write in your own voice,” she said, adding, “We can tell when it is not written in a 17-year-old voice.”

At Wow Writing Workshop, we spend a lot of time discussing the application essay with college admissions counselors, and we keep hearing the same things: The high school transcript is one of the best indicators of how a student will perform in college; extracurricular activities matter; test scores count more at some schools than others; the essay is significant.

Why is the essay so important? College admissions decision makers want to know who you are, why you want to attend a particular university and whether or not you can write. (Of course you can!) The essay tells them something about you they may not know from your high school transcripts. Most schools do not conduct undergraduate interviews, so the essay gives them a glimpse into who you are.

I met privately with Kling after the session ended to talk more about the essay’s role. Like many universities, NYU accepts the Common App and requires applicants to write a few additional short answer essays. Kling said the student who might fall below the school’s academic profile could push himself up in the pile with an essay that stands out, but assured me that an outstanding essay alone will not get a student admitted to NYU.

And how does Kling, who reads about 3,000 applications each season, recommend a student stand out in the essay?

1) On the question, Why NYU?: She said many students write about the larger NYU or their desires to live in New York City, yet they fail to mention a specific program at the school, or why they might want to take certain classes or study abroad. “Write about a program that interests you,” she said. “Find a hook that is special. Name the program; use the name of your tour guide in the essay.”

2) Hook the reader early.  “I look through every essay, but if the first paragraph doesn’t hook me, I might not spend as much time on it as one that does.”

3) Make sure the story is about you. Kling said she reads too many essays about people students admire. “The essay is not about them at all.”

4) Make sure you answer the prompt.

5) Write about something you do that will show admissions officials who you are when you are not at school.

Think of it this way: Your goal should be to write an essay to make the person reading  it smile.

“I want to know what is meaningful to you,” said Hillary Teague, the assistant dean of admissions for Kalamazoo College. “That makes me happy. ”

Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t know where to start? Contact Wow Writing Workshop. Wow’s  college essay writing coaches are ready to help you to tackle this task so you can stand out from the crowd.