Year after year, students send us college application essays to review that were written for English class. Most of the essays earned A’s.
Unfortunately, we’ve rarely read an essay written for English class that was ready to submit to college.
Danny sent us a beautifully written piece recounting many fabulous trips overseas; his essay offered vivid descriptions of buildings and places and emphasized how much he loved traveling. The sentences flowed; the spelling was perfect; the essay had a beginning, middle and end. This boy knew how to write.
While his essay was excellent by high school standards, it lacked reflection and needed more focus to catch the attention of an admissions officer.
It’s important to keep in mind that the application essay is not an English paper; it is an opportunity to show admissions officers who you are, that you will fit in, and that you can write well enough to succeed at their school. The admissions team that is responsible for making recommendations for next year’s class reads a lot of applications. So be careful: You don’t want to bore them or submit a piece that is simply uninspiring.
Forget about rubrics and grades. Ditch the five-paragraph essay format. Just write something genuine that is reflective, and that will make the person reading your essay smile and want to know more about you.
Danny used our 10-step Wow Method and turned his broad story into a more insightful piece about a single night out in Spain when he realized how much culture and community mean to him. Getting there took time and reflection, which we encourage. It was all worth it when he landed a coveted spot at his first-choice college, one of the most competitive public institutions in the nation.
Think of that college essay you write in English class as a draft, just as Danny did. He wrote it for his teacher – a person who already knew quite a bit about him. He later revised it for the admissions counselor. Don’t assume the college essay you give to your teacher is finished and will cut it for college.
Juniors, we know you’re super busy right now, staying involved in school and extracurricular activities, keeping up your grades, thinking about your college lists and prepping for standardized tests. Have you thought about your college essay yet?
While you plan for life beyond high school, it’s important to start thinking about the final phase of the journey to college, which is just around the corner. In a few months, you will begin applying to college in earnest. Will you be ready?
Good grades and test scores aren’t enough to land a spot at a top college, but a standout college essay can send your application to the top of the pile. We’d like to teach you how to write a college essay for the Common App.
For a brief time, we’re giving away our College Essay Crash Course, the Common App, a 1-hour video workshop taught by our senior writing coach, Joe Kane. You’ll get instructions to simplify the college essay writing process, plus the confidence you’ll need to write genuine, meaningful college essays that will get attention where it matters most — inside the admissions office.
Joe will walk you through Wow’s unique, step-by-step method to help find your personal writing voice, understand the Common App college essay prompts, brainstorm ideas, and gather all the details you’ll need to write a meaningful personal statement in your own words and your own voice. As he moves through the writing process, he’ll pause for a few brief writing activities; by the time you’re finished, you’ll be well on your way to an effective college essay.
Kim Lifton, named one of 10 LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Education, 2018, is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication company staffed by experts who understand the writing process inside and out. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the industry with our unique approach to communicating any message effectively. Click the Wow Method to find out how we help students write college application essays, grad school personal statements and resumes that get results. We also help business and nonprofit leaders create better blogs, manage social media, develop websites and create other communication materials. If it involves words, Wow can help.High school juniors, don’t forget to sign up for your free College Essay Crash Course. You can sign up now, and and watch it at your convenience.
If time’s running out before your official ACT, don’t worry! Even if you haven’t had the chance to prepare for this college entrance exam as well as you’d have liked, there are still a few things you can do in the last two weeks (or even better, in the last month) before your exam to improve. Take a look at a few of the key short-term test prep strategies to boost your ACT score.
1. Learn the ACT test format. One of the best things you can do before ACT (or SAT) test day (even if test day’s tomorrow!) is to go over the format, especially if you haven’t taken a practice test before. Why? One of the hardest things about the ACT can be the time pressure—you may have less than a minute to answer a question. Because of this, knowing the instructions in advance alone can give you the chance to maximize your scores.
2. Get the most out of yourACT practice tests. A lot of students don’t realize that it’s not enough just to take the exams and take a look at your scores. Go back over your ACT tests and spend several hours (yep, hours) reviewing the answers—both what you got right and what you got wrong. How has your progress been? Where are you still scoring lower than you’d like? When time’s short, you need to focus on the most pressing areas before test day.
3. Know how to approach multiple-choice questions. Another quick way to boost your score fast is to use the multiple-choice test format to your advantage. If you don’t know the answer, eliminate any answer choices you can and then guess. There’s no penalty for wrong answers on the ACT, so it won’t hurt and it might help!
4. Read through the freeMagoosh ACT study guide. If you want a thorough yet readable way to learn about what you’ll see on the ACT, and master some of those question types that have been bugging you, this is the guide! If you can take a few weeks to work through it, all the better—but it’s not so long that you couldn’t read it in a day if pressed.
5. Check out apps to help with your test prep. It’s one way to bring ACT prep with you everywhere, and the best apps are mostly free or very cheap. What should you check out? Flashcards and this test prep app. You want to brush up on a particular subject before the ACT? Yup, there’s an app for that.
6. Be realistic. Your score won’t shoot up 15 points overnight. On the other hand, a lot of students will notice an appreciable increase in their score by taking the test again. Why? There’s time to prepare for it, for one thing. For another, now you know exactly what to expect. So go into your exam knowing that you’ll do your absolute best, but that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t hit your ACT score range for your dream school on the first test.
There are ways to prep for the ACT in a matter of days and ways to prep for it in a matter of months. However, these short-term strategies can help push your score and might just make the difference between a disappointing score and a score you’re proud of. And remember: no matter how little time you have, there’s always something you can do to boost your ACT score—even if it’s just to relax and get a good night’s sleep!
Don’t Fret Over Writing Test!
Try one of Wow’s test packages; we’ll use simple, engaging exercises to help you master the elements of writing and rhetorical analysis that ACT and SAT rubrics demand. Well beyond simple grammar tips, these lessons will change the way you think about reading and writing. Learn what test readers want to see and make the most of your time on test day.
By Joe Kane Senior Writing Coach Wow Writing Workshop
Is your child ready to take the SAT or ACT this fall? Are they worried about the writing tests?
Many students think big words will lead to a big score, but that isn’t true. Using words that make a student uncomfortable can lead to miscommunication. If your students want to impress SAT readers, they will need to express their ideas clearly.
We can show them some strategies for writing in a way that’s clear and easy to understand. A few simple exercises will build confidence on test day. Learn more.
Meanwhile, here are some tips you can share with your kids.
SAT and ACT Dos and Don’ts
Use a thesis. On the SAT, the last sentence or two of your first paragraph should make a claim about how effective the sample argument is. Did you find it convincing? Do you think it will convince other people? On the ACT, your thesis should clearly state your perspective on the topic and indicate how your perspective relates to the samples you read.
Use specific examples. One example at a time.
Reference specific ideas in the sample argument. Use paraphrase and direct quotes to point out especially significant ideas in the sample argument and respond directly to those ideas.
Restate your thesis. Summarize your main points. You can wrap up with something clever or insightful, but don’t add new evidence.
Leave time to edit. Readers know that this is a first draft, but saving five minutes to reread and revise your work is an essential part of putting your best foot forward.
You do not need to restate the prompt. Your audience has the prompt in front of them.
Don’t repeat yourself. Your points should be distinct. There should be a reason for every word on the page.
No need to say, “I think,” “I believe,” “In my opinion,” etc. Just make your point. Your reader knows that your essay is written from your point of view. This is not to say you can’t include personal anecdotes. First person is acceptable, just don’t waste time/space with unnecessary statements.
This is not the place for grammatical experimentation. If you know how to use a semicolon, then go for it. If you’re not sure, don’t try it here.
You don’t need to pack your essay with big words to sounds smart. Words that seem like synonyms often have subtle differences in meaning, so only use words that you are completely comfortable with. Clearly communicating your ideas is much more impressive than using elevated language.
Joe Kane is a Senior Writing Coach for Wow Writing Workshop. When he’s not coaching students on college essays, or SAT and ACT writing prep, he can be found running creative writing workshops for youth in the Nashville area (and reading his own poems on the local NPR affiliate station).
Students will need to flex their critical thinking and composition skills when they tackle the writing sections on both the SAT and ACT. Last year, the SAT was completely redesigned, and the ACT made multiple updates. As a result, the essay sections for both tests are more rigorous than prior versions, however, these tests better reflect the kind of writing assignments students will typically face in college.
To succeed on either writing test, students need to get the basics right first. They need to understand the formats for the new essay prompts, and know what the graders will be looking for in a student’s response.
The SAT essay
The SAT essay writing exercise has been transformed from an opinion piece into an exercise in textual analysis and critical thinking; this is similar to exercises on certain AP exams. Students will be asked to read a short (600-700-word) persuasive passage and write an essay response that explains how the author develops and supports an argument.
It is irrelevant whether or not the student agrees with the author (the task of the old SAT essay); the student’s task on the new test is to articulate how the author uses evidence, rhetorical devices and structure to support a claim. Students will be evaluated on three measures:
Reading of the provided text
Analysis of the text
To optimize their scores, students will need to:
Actively read the passage
Scour for evidence that supports the author’s main argument
Use quotes that demonstrate they understand the author’s argument
Write a structured, organized essay that stays on topic
Use smooth transitions between paragraphs
Have an introduction, body and conclusion
Use a variety of sentence structures
Skillfully use vocabulary
Write significantly longer essays
While longer essays typically generate higher scores, students will be evaluated on both the quality and the length of their essay. The College Board, which administers the SAT, has doubled the time (50 minutes!) allotted for the new essay, and will provide four pages (up from two) of paper to write.
The ACT essay
On the ACT’s revamped essay, students will get 40 minutes to analyze and respond to three distinct perspectives on a topic that concerns a broad, national issue. Students will be asked to:
Analyze and evaluate the three given perspectives
State and develop their own perspective
Explain why they agree or disagree with the perspectives given
Support their ideas with logical reasoning
Support their idea with detailed, persuasive examples
Essays will be evaluated using four metrics:
Development and support
To generate higher scores, students must take their critical thinking up a level to identify the overarching themes across the three perspectives. For instance, do the perspectives address tension between change and tradition, or between the needs of an individual versus that of the collective?
Graders want students to critically evaluate the logic of the perspectives, and also to identify errors, assumptions, and potential pitfalls. Students need to organize their essay, use words properly, pay attention to grammar, transition smoothly between paragraphs and vary the sentence structure.
Is the essay optional?
Both the SAT and ACT have now moved their essays to the end of their tests; technically they are both optional. But many colleges require a writing test. It’s best for you to find out how a school uses the writing test in admissions before making the decision to not take it. We always encourage students to write the essay, even if they think their schools won’t require it. We’ve seen too many students discover after taking the test without the writing section that their new stretch schools require the essay. The additional time spent to stay for the essay can save a student unnecessary stress and headaches down the road.
The new SAT and ACT essays raise the bar for critical thinking and analysis, allowing students a chance to show off their thinking and writing skills. Students aiming for a highly competitive essay score would benefit from timed practice with the new forms and corrective feedback. This will help identify strengths and weaknesses early, allowing students to make adjustments and go into the official test ready to hit their optimal score.
Wow offers private coaching for the ACT and SAT writing tests. Each package is $350 and includes four 45-minute sessions with a Wow writing coach, spread over approximately four weeks. We can condense it into a shorter time frame if necessary to accommodate your child’s schedule. Between sessions, the student completes writing assignments that build on what they worked on during their last meeting. As a final assignment, the student writes a sample essay, which the coach will score using the official ACT or SAT rubric.
As your child starts to wrap up their college applications to meet the Nov. 1 deadline, they may ask you, “Is my essay good?”
How will you know?
In its simplest form, a good personal statement will have a theme that answers these two questions:
1) What happened? 2) Why does it matter?
Many other types of application essays, such as the Why College X? prompt, activity, creative or community essays, can be judged by these criteria as well. While the story will naturally take center stage, readers should also know why the writer chose to share it.
Admissions officers will not get excited over a piece of writing that beautifully details an experience, then adds a generic sentence at the end, stating that the writer learned something significant. Nor will they enjoy a five-paragraph essay with an introduction, thesis statement, supporting paragraphs and a conclusion. For college admission, the story needs no introduction or conclusion.
You can search the Internet for the “best” ideas, or read samples, but it won’t help. There is no best idea, shortcut or structure to imitate for the college essay. The best essays emerge from the writing and thinking process; they answer the question, show some insight and illustrate a positive trait about the applicant.
A few years ago, one of our students illustrated his determination with a simple story about memorizing the parts of the gastrointestinal intestinal tract to ace his anatomy final. Another girl wrote about finding her passion for nature in a community garden while pulling weeds. A boy with an autism spectrum disorder blew us away with a powerful story about his problem-solving skills. He forgot his cello for an orchestra concert and improvised his performance with a bass guitar. His story impressed admissions officers at his top-choice school, and the admission letter even praised the essay.
While these stories were beautiful, none was perfect. The college essay is not about perfection. Not even the most selective colleges expect brilliant prose from a teenage applicant. They know they are dealing with kids, so they often will cut applicants some slack. At the same time, they don’t appreciate students throwing together sloppy essays the night before the deadline. They want to see some effort and a healthy respect for the rules of written English.
The essay is the best place to show colleges who your child is. We encourage every student to reflect and honor their voice so they can confidently share their stories.
It’s hard for students to write about themselves, especially when the stakes seem so high. But handled properly, college essays can make or break any application package. As a bonus, writing them can leave students feeling empowered, confident in their abilities and certain of their words.
Would you like to make sure your child’s essay is effective? Is their theme clear? Does the essay illustrate what they want colleges to know? Before your child clicks send on that application, find out if they’ve hit the mark with a professional review from a Wow Writing Coach.
Many schools ask for supplemental essays in addition to the personal statement; the most common college essay prompt, 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 college essay prompts often look like these, which are taken from 2017-18 applications:
University of North Carolina What about your background, or what perspective, belief, or experience, will help you contribute to the education of your classmates at UNC?
University of Michigan
Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?
Georgia Tech is always looking for innovative undergraduates. Have you had any experience as an entrepreneur? What would you like Georgia Tech to provide to further your entrepreneurial interests?
Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business
The McDonough School of Business is a national and global leader in providing graduates with essential ethical, analytical, financial and global perspectives. Please discuss your motivations for studying business at Georgetown.
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 to this type of college essay prompt should 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?
I just read a beautifully-written piece from a student answering the “Why College X?” supplement for a Big 10 university. Unfortunately, the essay completely missed the mark. The prompt specifically asked why students wanted to attend a certain program at the school. Full of descriptive details about the school’s location and football stadium, the essay painted a vivid picture of the long drive to and from the university in the family car with his dad, an alumnus. This young man was clear that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps; he was comfortable inside the stadium; he was certain he would feel at home at this university.
Fortunately, we were able to help him revise the essay so he answered the prompt and showed the college why he was a good fit. He got in.
This story is not uncommon. Each year we meet many high schoolers 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.
This is not what admissions officers want to know in the answer to this college essay prompt. While it is okay to tell them you will be comfortable on campus, 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? Is it a match?
“The supplements separate a good applicant from a great applicant,” said Barnard College’s Director of Admissions Christina Lopez. “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.”
When it comes to the college essay, parents and other well-meaning adults often focus on the beauty of the prose, the “hook” and the topic. Be careful. That’s not what colleges want.
It’s August, the month our phones ring off-the-hook every year. Students are nervous or stuck, and their parents do not know how to calm them, or help them with application essays.
The first college application deadline is just months away, and many rising seniors are still unsure of what’s expected. They don’t know where to start, or even why colleges are asking them write one essay or five. Do you know what colleges want? We can help.
The College Essay is About Reflection
At its core, the college essay is all about reflection; it’s a thinking task. Readers are not looking for perfection. Colleges want insight into your child’s character. Will they fit in? The essay should put a face to that huge pile of paper and help round out the application package.
“It’s value-added,” says long-time admissions professional James Cotter, the Dean of Admissions at Michigan State University. “At a moderately selective school, the essay can pull a student on the cusp up. At a highly selective school, a poor statement can make the difference between being admitted or not.”
College admissions pros are delighted when they read narratives that highlight positive personal traits and characteristics, but they get frustrated by essays that detail experiences or brag about accomplishments.
“What does the experience mean to you? Why was it important? That is what we want to know,” explains Calvin Wise, Director for Recruitment, Johns Hopkins University.
We’ve been doing this a long time and have never worked with a student who was not up to the task. We can teach your child how to brainstorm for ideas, and how to answer any type of prompt using their own words and own voice so college admissions officers will want to read it. Our students get into their top choice colleges, year after year, including all the Ivies, and dozens of selective public and private schools. Your child should, too.
The application essay is not as easy as students would like it to be, but it does not need to be so difficult, either.
“Answer the question,” says Shawn Felton, Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Cornell University. “Since so many students don’t do that, you could actually stand out by doing that very basic thing.”
Is your child prepared for the journey? Do they know how to get the right kind of attention inside the admissions office?
Every summer, moms and dads just like you call us in a panic, asking for help understanding college application essays. They’re worried about the competition to get into college – and the amount of work required to stand out and get noticed. Most of all, they’re concerned that their children are not done writing yet.
Whether they are home or away for the summer, it’s time to make sure they’re moving on those college application essays. The essay is the most daunting part of the application process for many students, and you don’t want your child to wait until the last minute to start.
We wrote the only book you’ll need to prepare your children for this journey, and keep things a little calmer for your family at home. Yes, it’s time to start writing, but there’s no need to agonize over it. We just updated our popular guide, specifically for helping parents get a handle on the essay. The book, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay: The Inside Scoop for Parents, just $9.99 and now available in paperback, will help you walk your child through the writing process – and feel good about it. You’ll also learn how to guide them through the essay without taking over.
In this 2017 edition, we’ve explained what all the Common Application prompts mean, including the new and revised questions, plus we’ve added tips from top admissions officers. We also explain the various types of prompts you can expect.
Parents tell us they are tired of being told to step away and back off. They want to help. They just don’t know how. We will never suggest you write an application essay yourself or edit an essay so heavily it loses your child’s personality and voice. However, we believe you can play a critical role in the writing process.
You don’t need a 300-page book to help your child write a 600-word essay. But you can benefit greatly from a how-to guide, with some context to keep the process in perspective. How to Write an Effective College Application Essay is that guide. It’s short, easy to follow and has everything required to teach your child how to reflect on life experiences so they can write great essays.
At its core, the college essay is about reflection. That’s challenging because most 17-year-olds have very little practice with this type of thinking and writing. You are more prepared to help your child learn this important skill than you may even know. We’ve seen other parents do it, and they are always surprised by how straightforward it is. Many are also surprised by how wrong they were initially about their role in the process.
At Wow, we’ve been teaching students how to write essays that stand out inside the admissions office for years. With Inside Scoop as your guide, your son or daughter can approach essay writing calmly and confidently, and get a better shot at admission to their dream school.
At the end of every school year, moms and dads call us in a panic, asking for help understanding college application essays. They tell us they are worried about the competition to get into college – and the amount of work required for their children to stand out and get noticed inside the admissions office.
We will never suggest you write a college application essay for your child, or edit an essay so heavily it loses your child’s personality and voice. But we believe you can play a critical role in the preparation process. Who else would go to the moon and back for your child?
Parents have called the book engaging, informative and a must-read for any parent with a child applying to college. Here are a few reviews:
Debbie Logan, from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, read the book before her second daughter applied to college. (She now attends Columbia University.) Logan said the book helped her keep a healthy distance from her second daughter’s application, particularly the essay. “This book gave me insight into the parent’s role in the process. I had no idea what colleges were looking for or where my job ended. The insight is priceless.”
Rebecca Gold, from Providence, Rhode Island, was about to start working with her third child on the college application journey when she read the guide. She said it was easy to follow, well-written and more helpful than any other college-related book for parents. “Rather than telling me what to do, the authors helped me understand what my son needed to be successful in this essay writing process, and what I could do to support him.”
Mark Cornillie, from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, thought his background in public relations and journalism would be valuable when his sons applied to college. The book gave him a reality check. “I thought I had some wonderful ideas about the essays my son should write and how he should write them. This book convinced me to step back, and empowered my son to remind me whenever my conviction faltered. The essay he submitted was wholly his own, and not only did he achieve admission to his top-choice school, but his essay was among a handful referenced in a letter by the Dean of Admissions to incoming students. I doubt my envisioned ‘perfect’ essay would have achieved that.”
Our Go-to Guide Parses all 7 Common Application Prompts
How to Write an Effective College Application Essay includes a complete list of the new Common App prompts; we’ve even parsed all 7 prompts to make your job easier. You’ll find chapters with useful resources, information on our unique approach to writing the essay, and additional access to writing exercises we use with our own students.
The essay is the most daunting part of the college application process for many students; you won’t want your child to wait till the last minute to start. Start now. Parents who read our book and follow our advice are always surprised by how straightforward it is. Many are also surprised by how wrong they were about their role in the process.
When students learn how to reflect before they start writing, they write more meaningful college essays. With our book as your guide, you can help your child approach the college application essay calmly and confidently, and get a better shot at admission to their dream school.
Get your copy of How To Write An Effective College Application Essay now. It’s just $9.99.