Author: Kim Lifton

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.

Want Money for College? Write a Compelling Scholarship Essay

Last week, Wow’s Kim Lifton interviewed homeless women at the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS) using the same principles our college-bound students use to write their college and scholarship essays. COTS will use the stories to make this year’s annual report more appealing to supporters and prospective donors.

What does this have to do with you and other college-bound high school students?

Whether you are writing an essay for a $250 college scholarship from the local rotary club or to secure a full ride to the university of your dreams, you need to sell yourself to scholarship decision makers in the same way COTS needs to sell itself to donors. Beyond good grades and test scores, how do you do that?

Think about this: A compelling story about a homeless person who turned his or her life around with the help of COTS might hook a new donor. Similarly, a compelling story about you might hook a scholarship committee so you get some cash for college.

If you’re feeling stuck, contact Wow Writing Workshop. Wow’s  writing coaches are ready to help you compose a great story about you so you can wow your audience and secure some financial help for college.

Young Writers Inspire Wow Founders

As the sixth graders entered the computer lab for Wow’s blogging workshop last week, three boys  sunk into their chairs with long, sullen faces. They were upset; each wished he had been placed in radio personality Mike Stone’s sports writing session. They were not interested in blogging.

Wow’s Susan Knoppow and I, along with an impressive group of local professionals, were at Hillel Day School for the first annual Real Life Writers’ Conference. Susan taught two sessions on how to craft a memorable greeting card, Mike taught them how to create a 40-second sports radio spot, and I introduced them to the world of blogging.

I looked at the boys slouching in the front row. “You can blog about sports,” I told them. “I am sure Mike Stone’s class will be great, but you can write about sports in many different ways.”

I asked the students what they like about writing.  To my surprise, just one boy out of the dozen participants said “nothing.” (We had to peel him away from the computer at the end of the session because he wanted to write more.)  One boy said he liked to write because it was creative; a girl said she liked writing as a tool to express herself. These kid were excited. I was blown away.

Together, we looked at three blogs (sports, fashion and music) written by teens. Then, one by one, the kids talked about their own  blog ideas: music, theater, travel, reading, politics, soccer, hockey. By the end of the session, each student had written a first draft of a blog, complete with fantastic details.

One of the boys who pouted because he was not in the sports session included scary details about a moment during a hockey game when a player got kicked off the ice for chasing him with a hockey stick. A girl who likes musical theater described how it felt being on stage, and a boy who likes superheroes created a new one in his own name.

Thank you to Hillel’s sixth grade teachers Lauren Sterling and Marjorie Jablin for believing in your students and giving them the tools to write – and to like it! Your young writers inspired us.

Want a Scholarship? Apply by Nov. 1

Looking for college funds? Want to be considered for a merit scholarship?

Many schools (including the University of Michigan and Michigan State University) recommend you get your application in by Nov. 1 to be considered for competitive scholarship review. Your application for admission serves as your application for merit scholarships as well.

The MSU website says: Michigan State University uses rolling admission; however, the number of qualified applicants has exceeded available space in recent years. For maximum scholarship consideration, seniors should apply by November 1. (Students applying after November 1 may qualify for scholarships if funds are still available.)

Nov. 1 is also the early action deadline for U of M, and the date to be considered for merit scholarships.

Need last minute help finishing up those essays? Contact Wow Writing Workshop for a professional review before you click send.

Tell Us YOUR Story

Recently,  a student sent us an admissions essay for the Ross School of Business undergraduate program at the University of Michigan. He talked about the building, and said he got this feeling that he just belonged there.

We asked him why he thought he belonged there, and we kept peppering him with questions until something specific came up in the conversation.  He couldn’t recall a single business idea he had as a child, and he wasn’t sure what type of business he dreamed of running. But he was sure he had the smarts and the know-how to learn – plus he was already doing the job of CFO for his youth group.

Aha. That was his story. He first realized he had skills and interests that would serve him well in the business world while overseeing the finances of this organization. He helped build up the group’s savings account, managed the checkbook, tracked expenses and assets, made sure every cent was accounted for.

Turns out, he did have a story to tell, and it was  specific. There is no magic window to peer through and get inside the admissions officer’s head to find the perfect essay topic. There is no perfect story to tell. But you do need to tell a story about you, and it has to be in your voice.

We don’t have any secret access either; no one does. But we listen to what admissions officers say, and we talk to them.  They want stories. They want to know who you are. They want you to show them who you are with compelling stories written in your own words, in your own voice. You don’t have to survive cancer or climb a mountain to have something real to share.

At Wow, we help our students focus on meaningful moments that illustrate what they want readers to know about them. Our business school prospect wanted to show he was smart and ready to succeed in business school.  He told the story of doing a finance job to illustrate his point. It was focused and poignant – far better than the story about the building and feeling like he belonged there. The specific story caught our eye.

So remember: People love to hear stories, real stories – not generic statements.  Tell us about YOU. Admissions teams want to know you too.