Blog » Blog

Category: Blog

How to Write a Stand-Out College Essay

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Cornell’s Shawn Felton and Wow Featured on

A good personal statement, or college application essay, can help you get accepted to the school of your dreams, but a bad one can sometimes prevent it. That’s why it’s more important than ever to take the college essay seriously, and learn how to do it well.

We can help you do that! To clarify what colleges want in an application essay, and help you deliver it, we compiled some of our best advice for you and your parents. We’re also attaching a recent video clip featuring’s interview with me following the National Association of College Admission Counseling’s annual meeting in San Diego last fall, where I moderated a panel discussion on the college essay.

Check out the video, How to Write a Better College Essay; you’ll get additional information from Cornell University’s Director of Undergraduate Admissions Shawn Felton and Bucknell University’s Dean of Admissions Robert Springwell.

Six Tips for a Better College Essay

1. Understand how the essay is used in the admissions process. The college essay, or personal statement, is a tool that helps admissions teams round out the application and put a face on a packet of paper. Most colleges do not do face-to-face interviews, so this is your interview.
2. Be clear about what colleges want to know. The essay is your opportunity to decide what colleges need to know about you. Tell them using a story about you that is focused, reflective and answers the prompt.
3. How should you start? Ask yourself, what do they know about me from the rest of my application? Then add, what else do I want them to know? Why is it important? Think traits and characteristics, not accomplishments.
4. Keep it simple. A message that is delivered clearly in straightforward, everyday language will do. Big words do not impress admissions officers.
5. Keep it personal, authentic. This is your story. Write it yourself in your words. Use your voice. Write about you, a smart 17-year-old high school student who is ready for college. Colleges aren’t thinking about admitting your mom, dad, or your great Aunt Rose who saved a bunch of orphans from a house fire. They’re considering you, so you are the person they want to learn about.
6. Don’t bore the admissions office! During a recent panel discussion for high school counselors, admissions officers confessed that between 50 and 75 percent of essays submitted to their universities failed to show any reflection. The essays were boring. You can distinguish yourself from the piles of applications at the school of your dreams by writing about what you learned, and not what you did. This is an opportunity. Take it. A little bit of insight will go a long way.

FREE ebook: Write Your Way Into College. Sign up for Wow free, and stay in the loop! You’ll get our popular ebook, Write Your Way into College, plus video tips from top admissions experts, and other great resources. We’ll help you stand out where it matters most – inside the admissions office. Sign up here.


How to Prep for New SAT and ACT Writing Tests

By Jed Applerouth
Applerouth Tutoring Services

jedBeginning this spring, students will need to flex their critical thinking and composition skills when they tackle the new writing sections on both the SAT and ACT. The SAT has been completely redesigned, and the ACT has made multiple updates. As a result, the essay sections for both tests are now completely different from what they looked like a year ago. They 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
Writing skills

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
Language use

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 and made them optional. But some colleges might 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.

Jed Applerouth is the founder and CEO of Applerouth Tutoring Services, an education services company with offices in major metropolitan areas across the country. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Georgia State University, Jed is a Nationally Certified Counselor with a PhD in Educational Psychology. Since 2001, Jed and his team of educators have helped thousands of students across the country optimize their scores on the SAT, ACT, and other admissions tests.

Curious About College?


By Kim Lifton

Wow Writing Workshop

It’s that time of year again. The seniors at your child’s school are either making college choices or waiting anxiously to hear from the schools of their dreams. Meanwhile, the pressure turns to the junior class, and it can be taxing. At Wow, we know how to take some of that stress out of your child’s journey to college.

We have developed some simple, effective tools to help prepare you. We’ll teach you how to give the right type of guidance on the college essay in our free parent programs.

We’ve also reached out to a few national college counseling experts to break down the college prep process for you, and to give some perspective to the challenging essay. Understanding how the essay fits into the whole admissions process is important; it’s equally important to start a conversation about it with your child as you begin the college search.

“As stressful as this is, and as overwhelming as it seems, this process is manageable,” explains Ralph Figueroa, Dean of College Guidance at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico. “Break it down, step-by-step and year-by-year. You do not need to face the whole huge path at once.”

Figueroa, a former member of the Common Application Board of Advisers, was one of Wow’s guests in a webinar you can access here: Get Ready! Get Set! Get In! Starting Your Journey.

An industry insider, he understands the process from every possible angle; as Associate Dean of Admission at Wesleyan University, Figueroa was the central figure in the New York Times bestseller, The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College.

Marie Bigham, Director of College Counseling at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, LA., joined Figueroa on the webinar. A board member for the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the Association of Counselors in Independent Schools, Bigham also worked inside the admissions office as an Associate Director of Admissions at Washington University in St. Louis.

Bigham provided us with a great roadmap for each year of high school for you and your child to discuss to better prepare for college.

9th Grade

  • Don’t worry about college. Worry about being the best high school student you can be. The reward of that follows.
  • You want to be able to look at your transcript and say, “This represents the best of me.”

10th grade

  • Assess what’s working and what could use improvement
  • Ask yourself these questions: “How can I enhance the skills I have? How can I develop the skills I need?”
  • Assess yourself. Continue trying to be the best student you can be. Think about what is interesting to you.

11th grade

  • Continue your self-assessment, and ask yourself these questions: “How can I be more flexible? How can I improve?”
  • Make an appropriate test calendar; prepare for the SAT and/or ACT and subject and AP exams.
  • Visit colleges that are not just name brands; try a few schools on for size and fit. Be focused. Put the pieces together, with an eye toward being the most successful college student you can be.

12th grade

  • Narrow down your college list in the early fall; complete it by early October.
  • The list should be realistic based on where you will be admitted and how much you can afford. If your list includes places that you would be happy to attend, where you know you are admissible, you’ll be fine.
  • This is the time to hone organizational skills, time management tools, and good decision-making abilities. These are critical skills in college, and life, so start using them now.
  • Stay on top of deadlines. You have every option in the world until you start missing deadlines.
  • Think of this process as a semester-long class. Work the process into your schedule, and stick to it.
  • Plan to be finished by Thanksgiving, if at all possible, so you can enjoy the holidays without college applications looming over your head and family conversations.
  • “It is not that hard to get into college,” Bigham said. “When people set limits on what is right or acceptable for them, like when they only apply to the most selective schools, things narrow down fast. Instead, we need to talk about what is important to students.”

Still curious? Ask me anything about the college essay during my next parent chat on Tuesday, April 19. I’ll give the scoop, and suggest ways to help your child without taking over the college essay. Here is a link to sign up for the next parent program, and to learn more about Wow’s coaching services. Wow students get into their top choice schools, year after year. Yours should too.

Parents of Juniors: Help Your Child Get a Jump Start on the College Essay

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Whether you will be sending your first or last child to college next fall, now is a great time to start thinking about the application essay, which is often the most stressful part of the entire college admissions process.

It’s never too early to prepare.

At Wow, we teach students how to think about and write their college essays so they have the best shot at getting into their dreams schools. We also teach parents just like you how to assist their children in a way that works best for each family.

We know it can be hard for kids to write about themselves, especially when the stakes seem so high. We also know there’s a fine line between helping, telling your child what to write, and writing the essay yourself. Done right, college essays can make or break applications. They can also leave students feeling empowered, confident in their own abilities and certain of their words.

As a parent, you know your child better than anyone else. We want to show you how to guide your child through this journey without overstepping your role.

Help Your Child Reflect

Think of yourself as a cheerleader, but not the coach. Be encouraging, but not critical.

Ask your child one question: “What do you want colleges to know about you beyond test scores, grades and extracurricular activities?”

Most students have trouble answering this question. Prod, but do it gently. Ask open-ended questions to avoid ‘yes,’ ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know’ answers. The answer to this question is the key to reflection.

  1. What are your child’s best traits? Is he funny? Is she serious? Compassionate? A voracious reader? Resourceful? Studious? Point out the traits you recognize, and then ask how your child views himself. Keep the conversation moving.
  2. Think characteristics, not accomplishments. Telling your child you have noticed how hard she works in everything she does is a good start. Pointing out the time she scored the winning goal is not.
  3. Praise, but don’t nag.
  4. Be positive.
  5. Stay calm. Remember to breathe.

This is an opportunity to engage in a meaningful conversation about your child’s self-perception. You might be pleasantly surprised at the valuable insight you will discover when you point out your child’s positive characteristics.

When you are done with this exercise, your child will be ready to brainstorm for college essay topics.

Paying for College Without Going Broke

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Headed to college this fall? It’s time to consider in earnest what the actual price is going to look like. But before you do that, you might want to take a look at this insightful webinar we moderated with leading experts who can help you understand the complexities of financial aid.

You might learn that price might not need to limit your choices once you have all of your options in front of you.

In this webinar, Jennifer Ramsey Wallace, the Outreach Manager for Financial Aid Programs for the Michigan Education Trust, the state’s prepaid education plan, and a leading expert on other financial aid programs, discusses the issues with Dean Tsouvalas, creator of the free scholarship information app Scholarship Advisor.

Together, they can help you untangle the complexities of financial aid, share scholarship opportunities and suggest ways for parents and students to discuss these issues honestly at home.

You can also download our Financial Aid Resource List, which includes a list of websites mentioned in the webinar, and read Wow’s Financial Aid Cheat Sheet and 6 Secrets to Filling out the FAFSA.

Link to webinar

Five Tips to Trim Your College Essay!

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

 Think you can’t shorten your college essay to fit the word limit? Nonsense!

At Wow Writing Workshop, we’ve never seen a college application essay or grad school personal statement weakened by the editing process.  Here are five simple tips for trimming your stories without compromising content.

1) Before you begin editing, open a new document. Instead of cutting and pasting your original essay, print it out or open it in another window, then retype it so you can really see your work. You will be more likely to notice redundancies, passive voice and unnecessary words.

2) Now search for adverbs. These include “very” and many “ly” words, such as really, extremely, completely and absolutely. Highlight them. Make sure you really need them. Take out the rest. You can always put them back later.

3) Cut helping verbs and replace them with shorter, active descriptions. Example: Replace “I am going to be attending” with “I will attend.”

4) Delete “to be” verbs. Rather than saying “I am a voracious reader,” try “I read voraciously.”

5) Use active voice when you can.  Start by turning some nouns into verbs: “I concluded” is better than “I came to the conclusion.”

When you are done editing, don’t forget to proofread. Read your essay out loud; read it backward. Whatever you do, don’t rely on spell check. You can tell a great story in a few hundred words.

Would you like a professional review just to be sure you’ve got it right? We know what colleges want; let a Wow writing coach give it a thorough  essay review before you click  send, We’re offering same-day reviews from now till the end of the season.

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.


Wow and Admissions Reps Share insight on College Essay

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

College essays really are a big deal!

That’s why I’m First, an online community providing first generation student
s support on the road to and through college, asked Wow to be their exclusive college essay writing partner.  I’m First invited us to discuss our secrets for mastering the college essay in a recent Google Hangout with admissions officers from top liberal arts colleges.

Here’s a link to the Google Hangout. Whether you’re first gen or not, you’ll find some great information during the session from the people who read your apps; you’ll also get insight and tips from Wow about how to find your own compelling story and turn it into an effective essay. Check out the Hangout session, and remember that while the first big deadline for college application season just passed, you still have plenty of time to finish your apps.

Wow Gets National Spotlight in Forbes!

Wow made the national news for our panel discussion (standing-room only!) at the National Association for College Admissions Counseling’s (NACAC15) annual meeting last week in San Diego: What Admission Wants in an Essay: How to Instruct Your Students?  We brought together top admissions officers from Cornell, UC-Berkeley, and two of the nation’s leading high school counselors, for this interactive presentation that confirmed our consistent message: Gimmicks are useless and do not help students write essays that stand out, buzz words (passion, leadership, initiative) confuse students, and reading sample essays by admitted students will not help applicants write insightful personal statements that catch the attention of the admissions office. Check out this Forbes article on our session! What’s more, our experts offered useful tips and resources to help high school counselors and independent educational consultants translate the message from inside the admissions office into meaningful instructions for students.

Top College Essay Myths Debunked

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

College essay mythsYou’ve done all you can up to this point to get good grades and test scores. There’s only one thing left you can do to stand out: nail that college essay!

We teach students just like you how to write stellar application essays year after year, so we’re going to share some insight to help you improve your chances of admission to your dream school.

Consider these college essay myths and facts:

Myth #1: No one really reads the application essays.

Fact: Of course admission officers read your college essays!

Colleges wouldn’t ask you to write something they did not plan to read.

We polled about two dozen admissions representatives last fall during the National Association for College Admissions Counseling’s annual conference in Indianapolis; we asked them if they really read college essays. The collective answer was yes!

“Last year we received 25,000 applications, and we read 25,000 essays,” said Amy Hoffman, Assistant Director of Admissions at Miami University of Ohio.

Myth #2: An application essay has to be written about an impressive topic.

Fact: You are impressive, not the topic.

The subject is you; the topic is secondary. A college application essay is your opportunity to share something meaningful about yourself. Colleges want to know what you learned, not what you did.

Many of our students come to us with topics in mind.  One young woman started the process confident that discussing a trip to help the poor in Central America would impress admissions officers. It was a big trip, and she was sure someone would want to read about it.  Using the Wow Method, the student realized that her most important personal moment occurred during that service trip when she overcame her fear of heights by jumping off a cliff into the water. She wrote a gorgeous, meaningful story that showed what she learned about herself during the terrifying jump, and she got into her stretch college.

“The essay does not have to be about something huge, some life-changing event,” said Calvin Wise, the Senior Associate Director for Undergraduate Admissions at Johns Hopkins University. “You can write about an ‘a-ha’ moment, what defines you as a person. But it doesn’t have to be really extensive. Students think they need a monumental experience, but the essay can be about something small. What does it mean to you? That is what we want to know.”

Myth #3: Your college entrance essay should sound sophisticated, like Hemingway or a college professor.

Fact: Nope, admission officers do not expect you to sound like a professional writer.

The college essay is your story, and only yours! You are a high school senior, and you should sound like one. Not your mom. Not your dad. Not your English teacher. And certainly not one of the most revered writers of all time!

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

While parents and others cannot always tell the difference, admission officers know when someone other than the student writes a story. And they don’t like it.

“If a student has an adult write it, the admission committee can tell,” said Michigan State University’s Director of Admissions Jim Cotter, a 30-plus year industry veteran.

Keep in mind, many schools will automatically reject a student’s application if they suspect plagiarism.

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

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

There are no gimmicks, magic formulas, tricks or shortcuts to writing the “perfect” college application essay.  Just trust the process.  We break our process down into small, manageable steps that will free you up to focus on what matters most: finding and writing stories in your own words and in your own voice.

“We need to dig deeper where the essay comes into play,” Hopkins’ Wise said. “That’s where we find out more about the student. The essay is a student’s opportunity to speak directly to the admissions office.

Myth #5: Only superstar students impress admission officers with their essays.

Fact: Anyone can stand out with a great story!

You are all superstars! You certainly don’t have to rescue a child from a house fire, get a million downloads for an app you developed, or train seeing-eye dogs to impress admissions officers.

Last season, I read a fabulous college essay about a girl who found her passion for nature while pulling weeds in a community garden. Equally compelling, another boy discovered his problem-solving skills when he forgot his cello for an orchestra concert and improvised his performance with a bass guitar.

“I think sometimes students feel that because they haven’t found the cure for cancer they have nothing to share,” said Vanderbilt University’s Assistant Director for Undergraduate Admissions Jan Deike. “Life is truly lived in the smaller moments.”

Want to learn how to catch the attention of the admissions office at your dream school? We teach our students how to write application essays using a proven step-by-step process that is easy to follow and gets positive results.

Wow students get into their dream schools year after year. You should too.