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. 


Wow Tells Fox2: Parents Can Help Kids Write College Essays

A Parent’s Role: Teaching Reflection

Kim Lifton and Susan Knoppow discuss their new parent guide: How to Write an Effective College Application Essay – The Inside Scoop for Parents

Wow President Kim Lifton and CEO Susan Knoppow told Fox2 News anchor Maurielle Lue at Fox’s Detroit affiliate station that parents can help kids write college application essays.  They stressed  parents MUST not write the essays for them!

The Wow co-founders, who are promoting their new book, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay – The Inside Scoop for Parents, spoke about the college application essay during a Sunday morning interview (Aug. 14) with Lue at the Fox2 studio in Southfield, MI. In this feature segment, Back to School, they discussed the importance of the college application essay, how to stand out and what parents can do to help their children — without overstepping their role.

 Embracing Parents

They chatted about Wow’s parent guide, which  is the only book on the market that brings parents into the process, rather than pushing them away. The book gives tips and insight into the admissions world to help parents get their teens started on their essays the right way.

 The Go To College Essay Resource 

Lifton and Knoppow are recognized national experts on the application essay; they speak all over the country and train counselors and consultants. Next stop: Lifton will moderate a college application presentation for high school counselors next month at the National Association for College Admissions Counseling’s annual meeting in Columbus, Ohio. Joining Wow on the panel — called Think Like A Writer to Better Help Your Students — will be senior admissions directors from Cornell, Amherst, the University of California – Berkeley and the University of Chicago.

Watch Wow interview on Fox2 News.

Download the book, Inside Scoop for Parents, on Amazon; it’s just $9.99.

Wow's guide embraces parents, rather than pushing them away.
Wow’s guide embraces parents, rather than pushing them away.

SAT vs. ACT: Similarities and Differences in the Essays

Guest post from Chris Lele, Magoosh

For all the ways that the SAT has become more similar to the ACT, the essays seems to have diverged from one another. In fact, the ACT essay prompt itself underwent a significant change not too long ago, when the prompts became more sophisticated and introduced multiple points of view.

The SAT, too, had a major facelift—or face drop, depending on your reaction to the new format. Students now have to analyze the rhetorical choices in an essay. Any personal opinions, even on the topic at hand, are verboten.

With so much divergence, the similarities are few and tend to be very broad (you have to analyze text). So in this piece, I’m mainly going to focus on the differences.

High-Level Differences

Time Limit 40 minutes 50 minutes
Text Length 100-150 words 600-800 words
Format Short description of an issue (about 50-70 words). Three differing perspectives on the issue Well-written essay (sometimes by a famous person—MLK famous, not Taylor Swift famous) about an issue

Specific differences

As you can see, the SAT essay topics require lots more reading. The level of writing is also far more sophisticated. To give you an idea, here is a snippet from an ACT sample essay followed by one from an SAT sample essay.

ACT Sample: “Free music is now available through many legal sources, from streaming services to online radio stations, making it largely unnecessary to purchase an album or even a single song.” – ACT Prep book

SAT Sample: “There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America.” Martin Luther King Jr., from “Beyond Vietnam—A Time to Break Silence”

But what really separates the ACT essay and the SAT essay is how you approach the text. The ACT essay has you evaluate three existing perspectives. You have to analyze these issues, but ultimately you are providing your opinion. Again, this opinion must be informed by your weighing of the three perspectives (or you’ll get a low score).

The SAT essay, on the other hand, is about describing and evaluating how a writer or speaker tries to convince his/her audience. How does this writer appeal to our emotions? To our minds? To our sense of right and wrong? And what specific words or phrases do they use to achieve these aims? Nowhere will you be stating an opinion or even possible opinions on the issue. That is, you will not write about to what extent you agree or degree with Martin Luther King, Jr.


Before you start knocking out practice essays, make sure you understand what each SAT is looking for. Your best bet is to write a sample essay for the both the ACT and the SAT. Make sure you carefully read the instructions for both. We hope this post will make those instructions a lot clearer.

For the last ten years, Chris Lele has been helping students excel on the SAT, ACT and GRE. In this time, he’s coached 5 students to a perfect SAT score. Some of his GRE students have raised their scores by nearly 400 points. He has taken many GMAT students from the doldrums of the 600s to the coveted land of the 700+. Rumor has it he does a secret happy dance when his students get a perfect score. You can read Chris’s blog posts on the Magoosh High School Blog, and study with his lessons using Magoosh SAT Prep.

The Only College Application Guide You’ll Ever Need!

Wow’s guide embraces parents, rather than pushing them away.

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Every August, 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 your child is back in school or about to enter senior year, it’s time to make sure they’re moving on those essays. The essay is the most daunting part of the college application process for many students, and you don’t want your child to wait till the last minute to start.

The Go To Guide to Help Kids Write College Application Essays 

Yes, it’s time to write, but there’s no need to agonize over it. We just released our first guide specifically for helping parents get a handle on the essay. The eBook, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay: The Inside Scoop for Parents, 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 it over.

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 a college 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 650-word Common App essay or to write a 350-word response to one of the University of California’s new personal insight questions. But you will  benefit from Wow’s short parent guide that gives you simple instructions so you can help your child  write an effective college application essay, and put it into perspective.  It’s easy to follow and has everything required to teach your child how to reflect on life experiences so he or she can write great essays.

At its core, the college application 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.

Find Out How Parents Can Help

At Wow, we’ve been teaching students how to write essays that stand out inside the admissions office for years. With Wow’s parent book as your guide, your son or daughter can approach college application essay writing calmly and confidently, and get a better shot at admission to their dream school.

Everything in this guide comes from what we’ve learned from working with students and talking to admissions officers. We’re glad to share this valuable insight to help you understand the admissions industry and the college application essay’s role within it. And, because we care so much about writing, we’re practically giving away the Inside Scoop for $9.99. You can read the guide on ANY electronic device (smart phone, computer or tablet. Just download the free Kindle App to the device of your choice.

Please join me tomorrow night for our 30-minute monthly parent chat; you can ask me anything about the college application essay and its role inside the admissions world. It’s FREE! 8 p.m. ET, Aug. 2. Can’t make it? No problem. Sign up, and we’ll send you a recording. 


How to Parse a College Essay Prompt

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Many students get excited over ideas they think will get them some attention inside the admissions office, without giving much consideration to what the college essay prompt is really asking.

At Wow, we tell our students they are starting in the wrong place when they come to us with an idea! That comes later in the process, and starting with an idea can lead to mistakes.

You’ll avoid basic mistakes if you set your idea aside and start the college essay at the beginning of the writing process: Understanding the prompt. We talk to admissions officers all the time, and they all say the same thing. They want you to answer the question, and many students fail to do this, year after year.

To get it right, keep in mind that all college essays begin with a prompt, not a topic. To answer any prompt correctly, ask yourself this question: What do I want the readers of my application to know about me apart from courses, grades, and test scores?

Your answer is key to your success on the essay. It’s your opportunity to shine, to offer readers some insight into who you are beyond your grades, test scores and activities.

Before you write that first draft, you need to figure out exactly what you want readers to know about you. Colleges want to know what YOU want to tell them about yourself, not what you believe they want to know. They want you to dig a little deeper than usual to show some insight and reflection.

How do you learn how to reflect? Think about your best traits and qualities.

Are you industrious? Funny? Shy? Resourceful? Curious? Hard working? Once you know which traits and qualities you want to share, read the college essay prompt. Then find a story that answers the prompt and illustrates those traits.

Take a look at this Common App prompt that we parsed for our students. Our coaches use the same approach with students completing other Common App, ApplyTexas, California and supplemental essay prompts.

Common App Prompt 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.

The key word in this prompt is “meaningful,” but even that word can seem big and overwhelming. What makes an experience meaningful?

Ultimately, your essay is not about your background, identity, interest, talent or experience; it’s about you. Why is this aspect of your identity, background or experience so meaningful? Have you learned something about yourself? Does this m

Admissions officers read these essays to find out something they don’t already know about you.

They know your grades. They can see which sports and clubs you’ve joined from your application. They know what types of courses are offered at your school, and whether your neighborhood is wealthy, poor or somewhere in the middle. They can even figure out which types of books you’ve read if you took American Literature. Your transcript provides them with a wealth of information.

They don’t know how anything you did during high school affected you, who you met along the way or why you cannot get a particular piece of music out of your head. They have no idea how you have changed or why you might be a good fit for their school.

Your challenge is to write an essay that illustrates something meaningful about you. We can help you do that with any prompt for any school.

Want to learn more? Join Wow’s next free parent chat on Tuesday, July 12, at 8 p.m. ET. I’ll answer your questions about the college essay and share some insight from recent panel presentations I’ve moderated with admissions directors from Cornell, Northwestern, Indiana, UC-Berkeley, Columbia, Barnard, Michigan State and the University of Michigan.