Category: Blog

What is a College Essay Prompt Really Asking?

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Many students get excited over college essay 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 a topic in mind! If you want your college essay topic to shine, then take a few steps back, put the idea aside, and make sure you know what you want to share with colleges before you even begin brainstorming for ideas. That comes later in the process, and starting with an idea can (and often does) 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.

Joan Didion Essay About Being Rejected by Her Top College

The author Joan Didion

By Joan Didion

This piece, about the author’s college rejection from her first-choice college, appeared in The Saturday Evening Post April 16, 1968.

“Dear Joan,” the letter begins, although the writer did not know me at all. The letter is dated April 25, 1952, and for a long time now it has been in a drawer in my mother’s house, the kind of back-bedroom drawer given over to class prophecies and dried butterfly orchids and newspaper photographs that show eight bridesmaids and two flower girls inspecting a sixpence in a bride’s shoe. What slight emotional investment I ever had in dried butterfly orchids and pictures of myself as a bridesmaid has proved evanescent, but I still have an investment in the letter, which, except for the “Dear Joan,” is mimeographed. I got the letter out as an object lesson for a 17-year-old cousin who is unable to eat or sleep as she waits to hear from what she keeps calling the colleges of her choice.

Here is what the letter says: “The Committee on Admissions asks me to inform you that it is unable to take favorable action upon your application for admission to Stanford University. While you have met the minimum requirements, we regret that because of the severity of the competition, the committee cannot include you in the group to be admitted. The Committee joins me in extending you every good wish for the successful continuation of your education. Sincerely yours, Rixford K. Snyder, Director of Admissions.”

I remember quite clearly the afternoon I opened that letter. I stood reading and re-reading it, my sweater and my books fallen on the hall floor, trying to interpret the words in some less final way, the phrases “unable to take” and “favorable action” fading in and out of focus until the sentence made no sense at all. We lived then in a big dark Victorian house, and I had a sharp and dolorous image of myself growing old in it, never going to school anywhere, the spinster in Washington Square. I went upstairs to my room and locked the door and for a couple of hours I cried.

For a while I sat on the floor of my closet and buried my face in an old quilted robe and later, after the situation’s real humiliations (all my friends who applied to Stanford had been admitted) had faded into safe theatrics, I sat on the edge of the bathtub and thought about swallowing the contents of an old bottle of codeine-and-Empirin.  I saw myself in an oxygen tent, with Rixford K. Snyder hovering outside, although how the news was to reach Rixford K. Snyder was a plot point that troubled me even as I counted out the tablets.

Of course I did not take the tablets. I spent the rest of the spring in sullen but mild rebellion, sitting around drive-ins, listening to Tulsa evangelists on the car radio, and in the summer I fell in love with someone who wanted to be a golf pro, and I spent a lot of time watching him practice putting, and in the fall I went to a junior college a couple of hours a day and made up the credits I needed to go to the University of California at Berkeley. The next year a friend at Stanford asked me to write him a paper on Conrad’s Nostromo, and I did, and he got an A on it.  I got a B- on the same paper at Berkeley, and the specter of Rixford K. Snyder was exorcised.

So it worked out all right, my single experience in that most conventional middle-class confrontation, the child vs. the Admissions Committee. But that was in the benign world of country California in 1952, and I think it must be more difficult for children I know now, children whose lives from the age of two or three are a series of perilously programmed steps, each of which must be successfully negotiated in order to avoid just such a letter as mine from one or another of the Rixford K. Snyders of the world.

An acquaintance told me recently that there were ninety applicants for the seven openings in the kindergarten of an expensive school in which she hoped to enroll her four-year-old, and that she was frantic because none of the four-year-old’s letters of recommendation had mentioned the child’s “interest in art.” Had I been raised under that pressure, I suspect, I would have taken the codeine-and-Empirin on that April afternoon in 1952. My rejection was different, my humiliation private: No parental hopes rode on whether I was admitted to Stanford, or anywhere. Of course my mother and father wanted me to be happy, and of course they expected that happiness would necessarily entail accomplishment, but the terms of that accomplishment were my affair.

Their idea of their own and of my worth remained independent of where, or even if, I went to college. Our social situation was static, and the question of “right” schools, so traditionally urgent to the upwardly mobile, did not arise. When my father was told that I had been rejected by Stanford, he shrugged and offered me a drink.

I think about that shrug with a great deal of appreciation whenever I hear parents talking about their children’s “chances.” What makes me uneasy is the sense that they are merging their children’s chances with their own, demanding of a child that he make good not only for himself but for the greater glory of his father and mother. Of course there are more children than “desirable” openings. But we are deluding ourselves if we pretend that desirable schools benefit the child alone. (“I wouldn’t care at all about his getting into Yale if it weren’t for Vietnam,” a father told me not long ago, quite unconscious of his own speciousness; it would have been malicious of me to suggest that one could also get a deferment at Long Beach State.)

Getting into college has become an ugly business, malignant in its consumption and diversion of time and energy and true interests, and not its least deleterious aspect is how the children themselves accept it. They talk casually and unattractively of their “first, second and third choices,” of how their “first-choice” application (to Stephens, say) does not actually reflect their first choice (their first choice was Smith, but their adviser said their chances were low, so why “waste” the application?); they are calculating about the expectation of rejections, about their “backup” possibilities, about getting the right sport and the right extracurricular activities to “balance” the application, about juggling confirmations when their third choice accepts before their first choices answers. They are wise in the white lie here, the small self-aggrandizement there, in the importance of letters from “names” their parents scarcely know. I have heard conversations among 16-year-olds who were exceeded in their skill at manipulative self-promotion only by applicants for large literary grants.

And of course none of it matters very much at all, none of these early successes, early failures. I wonder if we had better not find some way to let our children know this, some way to extricate our expectations from theirs, some way to let them work through their own rejections and sullen rebellions and interludes with golf pros, unassisted by anxious prompting from the wings. Finding one’s role at 17 is problem enough, without being handed somebody else’s script.

Joan Didion is an iconic American writer who launched her career in the 1960s after winning an essay contest sponsored by Vogue magazine. Her writing during the 1960s through the late 1970s engaged audiences in the realities of the counterculture of the ’60s and the Hollywood lifestyle. For more info about Joan Didion, you can visit her website. 


Wow Writing Workshop teaches students and educational professionals a simple, step-by-step process for writing effective college essays so students can stand out and tell their stories. Our signature Wow Method teaches students how to write strong, effective essays with less stress and greater confidence. We hire the best coaches. And we provide a calm, nurturing environment designed for success.

We are accepting a limited number of students from the Class of 2022 now for our private college essay writing workshops, which begin in June. Find out if we’re a good fit. If you’d like a little preview, join Wow President Kim Lifton once a Month on Wednesday night for our free 1-hour webinar, Get Started on the College Essay. Sign up here.

Mundane Moments Make Great College Essays!

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Frequently, we learn our enduring life lessons during ordinary moments – the moments when our best and most authentic selves emerge. That’s why some of the best college essays we read focus on the most mundane moments.

  • Two brothers on a bike ride through their neighborhood
  • A talented dancer choosing to drop all but a few of her dance classes
  • A boy and his sister stuck in traffic
  • A high school junior trying out for the pom-pom team at her new school
  • An aspiring baseball player watching his cousin take endless batting practice
Everyone has a story to tell

If more students (and parents!) would take some time to reflect and let those stories develop, the college essay wouldn’t seem like such a stumbling block. It does not need to be so daunting! Instead, look at it as the opportunity it is meant to be – a chance to tell people who may never meet you something compelling about you.


Want to learn more? You’ll find information on why we like mundane moments, why you need to think of every essay as an opportunity, topic versus subject, how to listen to your writing voice, and what it means to sound like a student, and not an adult, in our FREE ebook, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay, the Inside Scoop for Students. 

Learn More about Wow

If you’re looking for more helpful resources while writing your college essay, Wow regularly holds free 60-minute student classes , where Kim Lifton  answers more questions and shares her top tips. Learn more at

What Do You Want Colleges To Know About You?

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

It’s been a while since my own daughter went through the college application process. But I still remember when she took her first crack at a college application essay she was writing in English class. She was sent home to write a college essay with nothing more than a set of prompts, sample essays to read, a few tip sheets and a deadline to get it done. No instructions, really.

Sarah needed help. She had no idea what story to tell. How to think about it. Or where to start.

I suggested my daughter take a step back and rethink how she was looking at this assignment. Instead of focusing on what story to tell, she should consider what she wanted colleges to know about her beyond grades, transcript and extracurricular activities.

Our process and advice was new to Sarah.

Her assignment said it was not supposed to be a five-paragraph essay. True enough. And it had to be personal. Also true. But the real problem was, everything about the assignment focused on what do to and what not to do. There was no mention of how to get there.

And her teacher’s slim instructions were not enough to help a student master this task and write an essay that would truly answer a prompt to stand out.

Reading a strong sample essay will not do much more than encourage you to imitate the one you read. Reviewing a list of do’s and don’ts is nice, but it’s not enough. Reading a 300-page book or searching for answers on the Internet might confuse you, make the process seem too complicated or give you wrong information. None of this will teach you HOW to write a great essay.

The Secret to Standing Out!

To master the college essay, you need are simple instructions, a process, plan and schedule to get it done. You also need to understand just what YOU want colleges to know about YOU!

I gave Sarah simple instructions and helped her develop a plan to get it done by the teacher’s deadline. Sarah picked this  Common App prompt (that is no longer on the application).

Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma, anything that is of personal importance no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

In her pre-work and during brainstorming, she told me she wanted colleges to know she was responsible and resourceful. Sarah anchored her story around a project she took on to solve a problem: she built a paper towel rack out of old window blinds and a broken mop handle in the basement laundry room after we moved. She needed a place to store paper towels near her microwave and mini-fridge. So she designed it, and built it using supplies she found inside of the house.

It was a perfect choice for a story because it was her idea, and it answered the prompt. It was a small story that illustrated something meaningful to Sarah. She knew exactly what she wanted to share with colleges.


Wow teaches students and educational professionals a simple, step-by-step process for writing effective college essays. We believe writing is a process; and our process is our magic. The Wow Method is built on proven tools and decision-making guidelines, with clear instructions to help our students and professional clients succeed. We’re accepting student clients now for the Class of 2022. Find out if we’re a fit. 



Get Started on the College Essay for Free

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

We hope you and your family are healthy and staying safe. As we move into application season for the Class of 2021, there are a lot of uncertainties; life right now can seem quite unsettling. Because it is.

We parsed all of the Common App prompts for 2021…and more. Get yours on

College essays can seem overwhelming, too, but they don’t have to be. And neither do family discussions about essays.

Has a simple conversation in your house ever been ruined by a seemingly innocent suggestion?

That harmless conversation could start something like this…

Parent, relaxed, smiling and with a super sweet tone:

I was thinking, it would be so great if you wrote a college essay about how your great-grandpa invented the frozen custard machine. He was a real trendsetter in his day. You could talk about what an example he’s been to you and how that influenced you on student council.

Child, looking down, sighing:

Really??! Just please leave me alone!! 

Child leaves without another word. Bedroom door slams.

Parent, clueless, wonders, What was that? 

No matter what’s going on in the world around us, this sort of thing happens. Parents think we know what’s in our kids’ heads, but we don’t. We think we’re helping; our children find us annoying.

We don’t want you to go through this type of scenario when college essays come up. It’s too stressful. And there’s enough stuff going on right now to distract, bore and annoy even the most dedicated, brilliant student.

The college essay can be daunting on its own. Why? Because it matters. A lot.

JOin me for a free webinar for students; parents are welcome, too.
 Register here

My business partner Susan and I have been in the college admissions business for more than a decade. We have written three books – go-to guides for parents, students and counselors. We stay current on the college essay and industry trends by speaking at conferences and staying in touch with admissions officers.

We’ve always been a virtual company, working remotely with students all over the world. The Wow Method is the most effective process out there because we’ve spent 10 years perfecting it. We challenge ourselves every day. We hire the best coaches. We ask questions and dig deep.

Our process is our magic. 

We know the word “process” isn’t particularly sexy. But sexy or not, it works – year after year, with every type of student in every type of situation.

We have a small team, and during college admission season, we work with a select number of students from all over the world using an online system we developed nearly a decade ago. Our writing coaches use our online communication tools to streamline the process and make it easy for students to succeed.

The rest of the year we train independent educational consultants, counselors and other professionals who are on the ground, working with students every day.

We provide an environment that is designed for success. One that is calm. Nurturing. Quiet.

What’s our secret? We are teachers and writers who understand this industry inside and out. We talk to admissions officers all the time. We know what they want, and we know how to deliver it. We are process-driven. Our mantra: Process. Plan. Schedule.

Stick with us, and we’ll help take some of the pressure off, no matter what’s going on in the world. That’s because we teach students how to write strong, effective essays, with less stress and greater confidence.

To help you get there, join me for a free webinar for students. Parents are welcome, too. Just sign up for the live event, or watch the recording later.

Kim Lifton is President and Co-founder of Wow Writing Workshop a premier college application essay coaching and professional training company, offering private, virtual writing coaching services to professionals and students throughout the world.  Since 2009, Wow has been leading the college admissions industry with our unique approach to communicating messages effectively through application essays, including personal statements, activity and short answer essays and supplements.  Kim leads a team of writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. Kim blogs regularly about the college essay’s role in the admission process for multiple industry publications and websites. In 2019, she was named a LinkedIn Top Voice in Education.

Building a College List for Student-Athletes

By Katie Andersen and David Stoeckel
The Student-Athlete Advisors

The process of building a college list for any student requires listening to your client’s wants and needs and gathering relevant information. Independent educational consultants (IECs) learn about grades and test scores as well as a client’s goals and wish list for college, including size of school, location, setting, public/private, major, social environment, financial needs, and any other factors that might be important to the decision-making process.

An IEC advising a student-athlete will also need to collect information about the student’s sport, position, teams (high school and club), personal statistics specific to the sport/position, awards, expectations for the level of college competition, reasons for wanting to pursue college athletics or an athletic scholarship, and athletic goals

for college and beyond. High school guidance counselors may review a student-athlete’s transcript for academic eligibility, but it’s a good idea to double-check the requirements for NCAA Division I and II and NAIA to verify that your student-athlete is academically eligible.

The student should be prepared to send an email to college coaches with an attached student- athlete profile and a recruiting video (depending on the sport) to highlight his or her athletic and academic achievements.

The final element of initiating the college athletic recruiting process is building a recruiting list with coach contact information. Unlike a purely academic college list, a recruiting list should address primarily athletics and academics.

Athletic Fit

We recommend starting this process in the middle of an athlete’s sophomore year with an initial recruiting list of up to 70 schools to provide a range of athletic competition. This list is only a starting point. As you will see, the process will help narrow the list of schools and you will revise the list as you get more feedback along the way.

Which schools offer each sport? A simple place to start your search for which schools offer each sport is the NCAA Directory at https:// or the NAIA Member Schools Search on

Which athletic level of competition is right for my student-athlete?

Start by asking for feedback from the student-athlete, parents, coaches (club and/or high school), and trainers to get a feel for the level of competition that might be right for the student-athlete. This is a starting point, and the student-athlete will get better feedback as college coaches respond (or don’t respond) to their efforts.

Athletic rankings are a crucial aspect of a recruit’s college list because they help define the competitive level of recruiting at each school. A ranking system used in many sports is known as rating percentage index (RPI), a calculation based on wins, losses, and strength of schedule. The following sites will give you athletic ranking and conference standings for most sports:


If you can’t find enough ranking information on those sites, each sport usually has at least one website dedicated to complete college athletic rankings. Search for “college [sport] rankings” for more detailed lists.

Here are a few sites we use frequently for various sports:

Cross Country/Track & Field: polls-central


Academic Fit

As with all college seeking students, student athletes must also incorporate academic fit in their search and consider GPA and test score requirements, location, selectivity, undergraduate size, and major. Most of those factors are listed on GuidedPath users can easily export these details about each school by creating a tagged list. Alternatively, allows you to search for academic, financial, and social factors as well as athletic programs at the Division I, II and III, NAIA, intercollegiate, and club levels.

In some cases, especially for high-academic athletes, simply focusing on a few key athletic conferences like the Ivy League and Patriot League (NCAA Division I) or NESCAC and UAA (NCAA Division III) will help you identify the academic reach schools quickly. Keep in mind that too much information can be overwhelming for families when presented as a list of 70 schools, so we recommend presenting these details only if they provide meaningful context.

We caution against allowing academic factors to limit your list too aggressively in the early stages of the recruiting process. Although academic fit is an important part of the recruiting process, this is one area where IECs can consider a more flexible range of schools because some student-athletes may be admissible with grades
and test scores on the lower end of a school’s admissions criteria. Typically, a college coach will ask a prospective recruit for his or
her transcript and test scores to verify the student’s admissions probability with the liaison in the admissions department before the formal application process.

Group and Sort Your Data to Add Context

Once you have a list of schools that represent a reasonable
range athletically and academically, it’s time to add coach contact information. Your client should send an email to the head coach or assistant/position coaches when appropriate. The easiest way to find a single page on a school’s athletic website that contains all college coach contact information is by searching for “athletic staff directory [school name]”. If you don’t mind paying for a list, go to College Coaches Online at

We caution against allowing academic factors to limit your list too aggressively in the early stages of the recruiting process…. Some student-athletes may be admissible with grades and test scores on the lower end of a school’s admissions criteria.

When you have an overview of the resources available to help you create an athletic recruiting list, it’s time to group the data so it has context and helps the student-athlete more accurately target the types of schools where he or she might be recruited. Figure 1 is a sample NCAA Division I list that we created for a high academic (4.3 weighted GPA, 32 ACT) women’s soccer player. This is only a sample to demonstrate the range of options within the 337 NCAA Division I schools that offer women’s soccer. This list is sorted by women’s soccer rank. Since all the schools are top-tier academic institutions, their SAT math, ACT, and GPA ranges all look the same, but there is variety in women’s soccer rank, size and location.

After your student-athlete has contacted coaches by emailing a student-athlete profile and a properly prepared recruiting video, the next phase of the recruiting process begins. Student-athletes must follow up on all coach emails in a timely manner. Once communication is established, consider visiting schools to learn more, but research the schools and athletic programs carefully before taking unofficial visits (paid for by the parents) or official visits (paid for by the school). Understand the rules about the limitations and timing of those visits before you go so that you make the most of your trips.

Use Your Resources

The athletic recruiting process can be nuanced and confusing. We encourage all IECs who work with student-athletes to join the IECA Affinity Group for IECs Advising College-Bound Student-Athletes ( to learn more.

It’s a valuable resource for IECA members to ensure that they have the information about rules and so much more when advising student athletes. The group meets in person at the IECA fall and spring national conferences and holds virtual roundtable meetings using Zoom (online) between the conferences.

Marvelwood students want to achieve.

And because they are surrounded by peers with a matched level of grit and teachers with an unparalleled commitment to their success, they do. The transformations we see in our students over their years with us are nothing less than astounding. The source of this success? Resilience. Our students graduate with enduring courage, compassion, and confidence for their futures.

What does success look like?


  • Experiential and hands-on curriculum
  • Support for all types of learners, including Orton-Gillingham and Wilson Reading-trained teachers
  • Connections program for social skills training
  • Weekly community service
    • International exchange, service, and exploration programs
  •  Competitive athletics
  •  Vibrant arts programming, including Film Studies and performing arts
  • Year-round gardening program

This article was reprinted with permission from the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), which published this piece in its April/May  2020 Insights newsletter. 

Katie Anderson

Katie Andersen can be reached at katie.andersen@

David Stoeckel can be reached at david@thestudentathleteadvisors. com.

Dave Stoeckel






Wow Writing Workshop is a premier college essay coaching and professional training company, working with students and training professionals throughout the world.

We operate on three principles: Process, Plan and Schedule.

Process: At Wow, our process is our magic. Our approach is simple, with clear instructions to help you succeed. We use the same process to work with students as we use to train professionals through our College Essay Experience, Partners program, college essay consults, plus our monthly free Pro Chats.

Plan: We’ll help you plan ahead so students can calmly write essays that will enhance their application.

Schedule: We follow a proven schedule that can adjust to meet the needs of our professional colleagues and our students. We make it easy to get it all done.

For more information about Wow’s coaching services for professionals and students, contact Kim Lifton

Is an “A” English Paper a College Essay?

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

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.


Should Your Child Start Writing a College Essay NOW?

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

I was just wrapping up a college essay consult session with a professional client, who asked me what I thought about starting her students on the college essay now, while schools are closed.

While restaurants are closed.

When people are wearing plastic gloves out in public.

When you cannot find a roll of toilet paper at Publix or Kroger or Costco.

When the movie theater is closed. And when we cannot even sit inside of a Starbucks and chat with our friends.

These are unsettling, super stressful times.

The answer to her question, “Should we start students on college essays now?” doesn’t have a simple answer.

You need to ask yourself and your child a few more questions:

Why? Why now? Is it urgent?

Do you want to get your teen started on the essays because you want to give them something to do? Because they are bored? Because you are fresh out of ideas? Worried?

That all makes perfect sense to me, but none of these are good reasons to actually write an essay right now.

Unless the student will reliably start it and finish the essay soon, it won’t work. Unless the essay is something they can focus on – and I mean really focus on – it won’t work.

It’s hard to focus and also hard to stick to a routine.

  1. Do you have a plan for your child?
  2. Do you have a schedule to help them get those essays done, without losing momentum?
  3. Do you have a process to follow?
  4. Or were you thinking you could just wing it? 

    No matter what you advise your child to do, don’t forget the fundamentals: Plan. Process. Schedule.

Make sure you have a plan so your child can finish what they start.

Make sure you have a process to follow so your child knows exactly what they are doing and WHY.

And make sure your child can stick to a schedule. Everything is up in the air right now. Help your child stay focused.

So back to that original question: “Should my child write their college essays now?”

Ask yourself the right questions, and you’ll come up with the right answer.

Meanwhile, now is a very good time to ask questions and learn more. I hope you’ll encourage your child to join me on Tuesday, April 7, at 7 p.m. ET for a free, 1-hour class, to help you prepare for your college essay. Sign up and watch us live, or get a recording later.

Get Started on Your College Essay – Free

It can be hard for students to write about themselves, especially when the stakes are so high. I’ll help you prepare now, so you can write your essay whenever you are ready. I’ll answer your questions, too. Sign up here.

Stay healthy. We’re sending warm and calming thoughts to all of you.

About the Author

Kim Lifton is President and Co-founder of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication company specializing in college admission and grad school application essay writing and professional training. She leads a team of writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. Wow’s team teaches students how to write application essays, and provides expert training on their unique approach to professionals who want to improve their essay coaching practices. Kim blogs regularly about the college essay’s role in the admission process for multiple industry publications and websites. In 2019, she was named a LinkedIn Top Voice in Education.

Before co-founding Wow, Kim worked as a reporter and communication consultant. Highlights include: Co-producing a PBS documentary about teens and depression, No Ordinary Joe: Erasing the Stigma of Mental Illness; writing “First Class,” a weekly lifestyle column about the area’s most successful businessmen and women for the Detroit Free Press; creating “A Small Business Adventure,” a 12-part monthly series about the perils and pitfalls of running a small business for the Detroiter Magazine; supervising a public relations campaign and accompanying print materials that attracted local and national print, radio, and TV media coverage for the National Council of Jewish Women’s annual convention in celebrating its 100th anniversary.

We’re getting ready to accept applications to reserve a space for college essay coaching for the Class of 2021. If you are interested in reserving a spot, email me 


The Truth About College Admission Rates

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

The competition to get into the nation’s top colleges gets tougher every year, but that’s not because students are smarter or more qualified than they were five or ten years ago.

It’s a simple matter of impossible math.

Year after year, more kids apply for the same number of available spaces at the most selective schools. It is impossible for them all to get in.

Because it is so hard to get into the top name-brand schools (think Stanford, Harvard, UC Berkeley, MIT, Vanderbilt, Columbia, University of Chicago, to name a few), the students who are qualified for the most selective colleges look elsewhere to improve their chances. They use modern technology to apply to more schools than they might have otherwise considered.

Today, students can apply to multiple schools, whether they choose five or 15, using one of several streamlined applications that make the process almost seamless (though no less expensive). The most popular is the Common Application, which was used by nearly 700 member colleges and universities in 2017, and grows every year. The Common App makes applying to college so easy that students frequently check boxes for schools they might normally ignore if more effort were required.

This practice helps colleges increase their applicant pool. It works well for schools because it makes them look more selective. If a school can accept only 1,200 students and 6,000 apply, the admit rate — or the percentage of students the school accepts — will be 20%. If 12,000 apply, the college will enroll the same number of first-year students, but the admit rate will plummet to 10%. On paper, it will look like this college has become more selective (“We accept only 10% of applicants.”) This practice can be challenging for students like you who just want to get into a good college.

The Universal College Application, a spin-off from the Common App, is less known in the college world. But, like the Common App, it can be used to apply to multiple schools. Texas has its own application, called ApplyTexas, as do the University of California system, New York’s SUNY schools and several other state networks. There’s also the Coalition App.

Confused? Overwhelmed? Remember, all applications are used to help colleges decide which students to admit. That’s why essays are so important. With more and more students applying to the same schools, you need to help readers see beyond your grades, scores and a list of activities.

To learn more, order your copy of Wow Writing Workshop’s How to Write an Effective College Application Essay –  The Inside Scoop for Students! Parents, don’t worry, we wrote a companion guide for you, too.

About Wow Writing Workshop

Wow is a team of professional writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. The Wow Method has been used by students to write application essays and resumes; by business owners to create blogs, websites and other communication materials; and by independent educational consultants, high school counselors and English teachers to improve student writing skills. We can even help you write a great poem or short story. If it involves words, we can help!