Category: Blog

Top Tips to Trim College Application Essay

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Get College Essay Review Tips from Wow

Early applications to college are in, and now many students are scrambling to finish personal statements and essay supplements for regular admissions, beginning Jan. 1.

Whether you are writing a personal statement for the Common App, Coalition App, or a supplement for an Ivy, private liberal arts college or public university, make sure you follow the directions and stick to the word count!

Recently, I reviewed a student’s personal statement for the Common App that he assumed was ready for a final edit; it was 1,560 words –that is 910 words above the 650-word limit. He did not think he could cut his story, and he did not think it mattered. Yes, it matters.

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 make a difference. In any case, it’s not worth the risk. Just answer the question within the specified word count, and you will not need to doubt yourself.

6 Tips for trimming your college essays
  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. Circle “transition” words and phrases used to begin a sentence, such as “similarly,” “as such” or “moreover.” Take out the ones that do not enhance your story.
  6. Turn some nouns into verbs: “I concluded” is better than “I came to the conclusion.”

After trimming 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 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.

About the author
Kim Lifton can get a story out of anyone writing an effective college application essay
Wow President Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton, named one of 10 LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Education, 2018 , is President of Wow Writing Workshop,  a strategic communication company staffed by experts who understand the writing process inside and out. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the industry with our unique approach to communicating any message effectively. Click the Wow Method to find out how we help students write college application essays, grad school personal statements and resumes that get results. We also help business and nonprofit leaders create better blogs, manage social media, develop websites and create other communication materials.  If it involves words, Wow can help.



Don’t Ruin Thanksgiving? Untangle that Messy Essay Before Admissions Deadlines

By Kim Lifton
Wow President

Get those college essays done; survive!
Untangle that Messy Essay

The clock is ticking for students applying to school for next fall as the regular college admissions deadlines loom.

Are your essays stressing you out? Are they done? Do the essays you’ve already written look messy? Or is something missing from the story?

We don’t want your college application journey to ruin Thanksgiving. Want to feel calm and have a peaceful home for the holidays? Pay close attention!

Key is knowing that at its core, the college essay is all about reflection. And we’re giving you some tips so you can master the college essay with meaningful content. We know it is arguably the most daunting task of the application process, and we’d prefer to give you some peace of mind.

How do you do that? First, make sure you understand why students asked to write essays, and know what you can do, and what your parents should not do, to help.

We talk to admissions officers from every type of college all the time, and they tell us the same thing over and over. 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 a student’s application – to help you show who you are. It is a chance to speak directly to the admissions office.

Make sure those essays are written by you, not your mom or dad, sister, or another well-meaning adult. 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 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 parents love you and you have a vested stake in your success. So their role is critical. The best gift they can give you is helping you reflect so you are prepared to write a thoughtful answer to any type of essay prompt.

You might have a vision and ideas, but you will need to be willing to be surprised and open to ending up somewhere you didn’t expect. Tell your parents to allow themselves to be surprised, too. Their job is to be supportive; that’s it!

Make sure your Mom’s voice does not show up in the essay. Tell Dad to leave it alone. Any adult who is guiding you should drop the word “editing” from their vocabulary. They are reviewers, not editors. This is a challenging distinction. It means they should sit on their hands and hide their red pens.

Wherever you are in the process, we would love to add you to our list of success stories. Our students get into their top choice colleges, year after year. You should too. We’ll give your essay a professional review to make sure it is ready to submit. We know how to help untangle that messy essay.

Have a peaceful Thanksgiving.

Is Your Child’s College Essay Good to Go?

By Kim LiftoN
Wow Writing Workshop
Get a college essay review now
The November college admission deadline is just around the corner.

It’s Nov. 1, or deadline day for early decision and early action college applications! Have you done a thorough  review of your child’s college essay? Do you think their college essay is good?

This time of year, parents, counselors and professionals sometimes overstep their roles in the college essay review process. Everyone means well, but it can be tempting to suggest too much or to over-edit. No worries. We’re going to share our simple approach to handle a college essay review the right way, and on a tight deadline.

How to Do a college essay Review

Begin the college essay review process by letting go of any preconceived notions about what makes a good essay. We suggest replacing the word “good” with the word “effective.” It’s important to let your child write their story in their own voice using their own words.

There is no rubric for an effective college essay, but the ones that stand out all share a few common features. Regardless of the prompt, they:

  • Answer the question.
  • Showcase a positive trait or characteristic.
  • Sound like a high school student.
  • Illustrate something meaningful about the student.
  • Demonstrate reflection.

You will know if an essay is effective if it has a theme, which answers these two questions:

  1. What happened?
  2. Why does it matter?

We recommend reading without a red pen in hand, and without your hands on the computer keyboard. Just read. Make sure you know what the essay is about and why the student chose this topic. Then ask two key questions:

  • Is anything missing?
  • Is the college essay’s purpose clear?

When you review, double-check the prompt. If the prompt asks the writer to reflect on an experience and its influence on them, be sure your child has talked about both the experience and its effect.

Use the essay review checklist below to evaluate a traditional personal statement, such as the Common Application essay, the Coalition application, the University of California personal insight questions, ApplyTexas or any primary prompt from schools that use their own applications.

College Essay Review Checklist
Content Review
  • Does the essay answer the prompt?
  • Can you tell why the writer chose this topic?
  • Is the essay about the student, or is it really about the place, person or experience featured in the essay?
  • Does it illustrate a trait the student wants to share with colleges?
  • Does it tell colleges something meaningful about the writer that is not clear from the rest of the application package?
  • Does the essay sound like the person who wrote it?
 Structure Review
  • Does the first paragraph make you want to keep reading?
  • Does the essay move smoothly from beginning to end?
Polish Review
  • Does the essay use the same verb tense throughout?
  • Has the writer avoided sentence fragments and run-on sentences?
  • Is the punctuation correct and consistent?
  • Is every word spelled correctly?
  • Does the student feel confident and proud of the work?

That’s it. No magic. No special tricks.

If you would like a professional to review your child’s essay before submitting any application, we’ll read it carefully and offer specific instructions to help them make the deadline. Just submit the essay(s) before noon on Nov. 1, click “rush”, and you’ll get it back by 8 p.m.

Kim Lifton can get a story out of anyone writing an effective college application essay
Wow President Kim Lifton
Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication company staffed by experts who understand the writing process inside and out. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the industry with our unique approach to communicating any message effectively. The Wow Method helps business and nonprofit leaders create better blogs, manage social media, develop websites and create other communication materials. It also helps students write college application essays, grad school personal statements and resumes that get results. If it involves words, Wow can help.





Nail the U-C Personal Insight Questions

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Nail the U-C personal insight questions. Just $39!

These days, applying to college is more competitive than ever!

Good grades and test scores aren’t enough to land a spot at a top college. But standout essays that answer 4 of the 8 University of California personal insight questions can send your application to the top of the pile.  We talk to admissions officers all the time, and we know what they’re looking for in an answer to any of the personal insight questions. It doesn’t have to be so daunting.

Joe Kane

Our College Essay Crash Course, University of California, is taught by Senior Writing Coach Joe Kane; it’s   designed to simplify the writing process, while giving you the confidence you’ll need to write genuine, meaningful answers to the personal insight questions that will get attention where it matters most — inside the University of California admissions office.

You’ll Get:
  • Step-by-step writing instructions
  • No-nonsense advice
  • Insight from our years of experience
  • Simple writing assignments
You’ll Learn:How to find a great topic
  • What colleges want
  • What mistakes to avoid
  • What your writing voice sounds like in U-C personal insight question
  • How to write your story
What are you waiting for?
Nail the U-C Personal Insight Questions

We’ve helped thousands of Wow students nail their college essays and land coveted spots at their dream schools, among them #UCLA, #UC-Berkeley and other #UC schools.

Our students write great essays, become stronger writers, and are better prepared for college and beyond. Year after year, they get into their top choice colleges, including the Ivies, prestigious liberal arts schools, and the best state universities – like UC!

Here’s just a sample…

Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Northwestern, Georgetown, University of Chicago, Washington University, Rice, Johns Hopkins, Case Western, Tulane, Duke, Middlebury, Tufts, Wesleyan, MIT, Caltech, University of Michigan, UC Berkeley, University of Florida, University of North Carolina, University of Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech

You can get into your dream school too!

Wow Writing Workshop is a strategic communication company led by writing coaches who understand the writing process inside and out. If your challenge involves words, Wow can help.

Since 2009, Wow has been leading the industry with our unique approach to communicating any message effectively. The Wow Method helps business and nonprofit leaders create better blogs, manage social media, develop websites and create other communication materials. It also helps students write college Common App  essays and other personal statements, supplements,  grad school personal statements and resumes that get results. In addition to guiding clients from around the world, Wow’s founders, Kim Lifton and Susan Knoppow, have authored several books and collaborated on an award-winning PBS documentary, “No Ordinary Joe: Erasing the Stigma of Mental Illness.” Kim and Susan speak to high school, parent and professional groups about the role of the college essay within the competitive admissions world.

Nail the U-C Personal Insight Questions

NEW College Essay Book! The Inside Scoop for Counselors

By Kim Lifton and Susan Knoppow
Co-founders, Wow Writing Workshop
Wow’s NEW book for professionals

In the high-stakes world of college admissions, you will meet countless people who can tell you what schools want in a college essay. Most will not (or cannot) show your students how to write those essays. You’ll find outlines and templates for what the finished CommonApp essay or U-C personal statement should look like. Or books with sample essays, and videos with limited instructions promising to get your students into the Ivies. Some will even tell you to follow a template based on what type of experience or story the student wants to share.

Here’s the real scoop on the college essay: Gimmicks, templates and shortcuts won’t help because they don’t work.  At Wow, we teach an approach, not a cookie-cutter template.

This month, we are pleased to announce the publication of our third book; this one is written for you. How to Write an Effective College Application Essay, the Inside Scoop for Counselors is full of resources that speak directly to the needs of counselors who work with students from all sorts of schools – large and small, public and independent, well-funded and those struggling to make ends meet – from all across the US.  It also speaks to similar needs of other professionals who work with students applying to college. You can order your paperback on for $9.99; we’ll give a free electronic copy with each paperback purchase!

why we wrote this book for you

Over the years, many counselors and consultants have come to us, asking for tips to guide students through the college essay writing process. They want to help their students, but they’re not sure how to use their limited time most effectively. We have been talking to admissions officers and school counselors about essays for years, and we’ve developed a simple approach that really works. In the book, we share our approach, strategies for helping your students, and answer the questions we’ve been asked, including:

  • What are the best topics for college essays?
  • What do colleges look for in the essays?
  • How to help average students write an essay that reveals something special about them?
  • How should students structure their college essays?
  • How to help students brainstorm ideas?
  • How much help is too much?

Whatever challenges you may face, you might be surprised at how straightforward (and manageable) our solutions are. We know you have a lot to juggle – busy students, worried parents, English teachers who assign college essays but don’t always give students good guidance.  We also know there are limits to what you can accomplish, whether you are at a private school with loads of resources or a public school with hundreds of students or an independent counselor with a heavy load of students.

after reading wow’s college essay guide, you will be prepared to:
  • Help students understand how to approach college essay writing.
  • Teach students to read and break apart any essay prompt so they can understand and respond effectively.
  • Help your students reflect on who they are and what they want readers to know about them.
  • Quickly review student essays and provide meaningful feedback they can use on their own.

We’ll show you how to get your students to write for college admissions officers without a pre-designed structure, without reading sample essays and without so much added stress. We’ve been working with students for a long time, and we’ve learned everything in this guide from our experience — and from our students’ successes.

about wow

Year after year, Wow students get into their top choice schools. Yours should too. We hope How to Write An Effective College Application Essay – The Inside Scoop For Counselors puts you and your students on the path to getting the results you want. With this book, you also get access to worksheets, tips and blogs to help you and your students navigate the college essay process. 

Wow is a strategic communication company staffed by experts who understand the writing process inside and out. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the industry with our unique approach to communicating any message effectively. The Wow Method helps business and nonprofit leaders create better blogs, manage social media, develop websites and create other communication materials. It also helps students write college application essays, grad school personal statements and resumes that get results. If it involves words, Wow can help.

Get your book here.



There’s No Such Thing as Writer’s Block!

By Joe Kane
Senior Writing Coach
Wow Writing Workshop
Writer's block
Joe Kane

Does this scene sound familiar? Your child is sitting down, staring at a blank screen, hands poised over the keyboard, but not writing anything. It can happen for an AP Language paper or a college essay. Your child feels stuck and calls it writer’s block.

Many of my college essay and creative writing students have shared a version of this story with me before starting the writing process.

It’s Really Not Writer’s Block

No matter what the writing task may be, when students feel stuck, they often doubt their basic writing skills. That makes getting started even harder. The student feels trapped; the parent feels helpless. Anxiety creeps into the home. As a result, students tend to avoid writing the first draft by continually searching for “better” topics. This won’t work. It’s not writer’s block.

When this happens with your child, give yourself permission to take a step back. First and foremost, it’s important for you to understand that writing skills and topics are not the culprits. Nor is writer’s block. Students are not really stuck; they’ve just jumped the gun. They are unprepared to write a first draft because they’ve skipped important beginning steps in the college essay writing process.

Find the Real Starting Line, Forget Writer’s Block

The famous author Flannery O’Connor said: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” This quote reminds me that writing is a great tool for exploring ideas and clarifying thoughts. This is true with any kind of writing project, and it’s especially true for the college essay.

Admissions readers want to see stories that are personal and reveal meaningful traits and characteristics about the writer. They want to know something real about each applicant.

To do that, students need to take the time to clarify their own feelings about the story they want to write. At Wow, we usually assign two or three brief writing exercises before tackling the first draft, to give students low-stakes opportunities to gather details, organize their thoughts, and warm up their minds. After all, this is a thinking task, even more than it is a writing task.

writing exercise

• Set a timer for 10 minutes.
• Think of the story you want to tell your best friend.
• Write down any detail about that story that comes to mind.
• While writing, keep your mind open to physical details (what you saw, heard, touched) as well as emotional details (what you were thinking and feeling).
• You don’t need to write in chronological order or even use complete sentences. It’s okay to be messy. Just write down every detail that comes to mind as fast as you can until the timer runs out.

This exercise works because it removes the pressure that’s often associated with writing a draft. The time limit is important. The feeling of racing against the clock help to turn off the second-guessing and self-editing parts of our brain is real; when that happens, it’s amazing to see what kinds of details students come up with. I’ve never heard a student say they couldn’t do this exercise due to writer’s block.

When the timer goes off, your teen will have spent 10 minutes refreshing their memory about the story they want to tell, and they’ll have a stockpile of details they can draw from when they write their first draft.

Is Your Teen Feeling Stuck on the College Essay?

If your child thinks they have writer’s block, it might be time to call in a professional. A Wow coach can guide your child, and help keep things calm in your home during this stressful time. We’re still taking private coaching students for the 2018-19 season, but our coach slots are filling up quickly. Reserve your spot now. 

Has your teen already written a draft? You might want to get some professional feedback before clicking send.  We’ll be happy to give your child a professional  essay review.  We will provide comprehensive written feedback, notes on what works, plus suggestions for improvement. We pay attention to items that matter to admissions officers, like reflection, theme and flow, and comment on technical issues, including grammar, spelling and sentence structure.

About the Author

Joe Kane is Wow’s Senior Writing Coach. A poet and editor, Joe coaches Wow’s college essay, ACT/SAT writing and creative writing students, and he teaches Wow’s intensive, online workshop, Be a Better Writer. He is also a program director of SLANT, which provides creative writing opportunities for Nashville area teens. In all he does, Joe has never complained about writer’s block.

Writer's block
If it involves words, Wow can help!

Wow Writing Workshop is a strategic communication company staffed by experts who understand the writing process inside and out. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the industry with our unique approach to communicating any message effectively. The Wow Method helps business and nonprofit leaders create better blogs, manage social media, develop websites and create other communication materials. It also helps students write college application essays, grad school personal statements and resumes that get results. If it involves words, Wow can help.

New Harvard President Offers Advice to Prospective Families

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Lawrence Bacow photo by Stephanie Mitchell

Last spring, I interviewed Harvard’s new President, Dr. Lawrence “Larry” Bacow, about his new job, and the changing landscape of higher education. We also talked about his Detroit roots for a cover story for one of my hometown weekly newspapers because he grew up in Pontiac, MI.

The piece was published just before he took over the helm of the most prestigious university in the U.S. on July 1.Dr. Bacow is widely regarded as one of the nation’s most accomplished, respected, and insightful leaders in higher education, having held senior roles at MIT, Tufts, and Harvard. 
I met Dr. Bacow seven years ago at his cousin’s son’s bar mitzvah party. He was warm, kind and exceptionally humble for someone so accomplished. Dr. Bacow has a compelling personal story; the son of immigrant parents – his father a Jewish refugee from Eastern Europe, his mother a Holocaust survivor. He has long been devoted to education’s vital role in enabling pursuit of the American dream.  It has inspired him to work to create similar opportunities for others from all walks of life.
I am impressed with Dr. Bacow’s commitment toward expanding  college access opportunities for all students. At Tufts, he presided over a doubling of the university’s annual budget for financial aid, the replacement of loans with grants for undergraduates from low-income families, and the introduction of a loan repayment assistance program helping graduates pursue careers in public service and the nonprofits.  
He also served on President Obama’s advisory committee on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. I asked him a few key questions that parents ask us at Wow. His answers were interesting, and he was funny.  When I asked him what advice he’d give to parent who thinks their child is Harvard material, he quipped, “Admissions is way above my pay grade.”
Are Colleges Out of Touch and Out of Reach? “The gap in lifetime earnings between college grad is bigger than ever. While real cost has increased, the return has never been higher.  We need to do a better job of explaining this to students and their families, and explain the degree to which financial aid is available. At Harvard, if total income is $65000 or less, family, pays nothing to attend. About 20 percent of the students at Harvard come from families that meet that test.”
Advice to Students Who Want to Get into Harvard College: “Study hard. Have the courage to find your passion and then pursue it. There are many great universities. I never applied to Harvard (undergrad). All great universities are looking to attract students who are willing to push themselves and try and be true to themselves in what they do.”
 What Would You Say to a Parent Who Asks, “Can You Get My Child into Harvard?”“I would say relax a little bit. Kids feel too much pressure from their parents. It’s not a feather in their cap. It’s about their child, not about them.“Where a kid goes to college is not a grade on their parenting skills. They should help their son or daughter achieve what they want to achieve and find a place which is good for them You can get a good education almost anywhere as long as you make the big decisions right.
How Can a Student Select the Right College? Dr. Bacow poses four basic questions for college-bound students to consider.

  • Do they want big or small?
  • Do they prefer urban or rural?
  • Do they want to go far away, to get on an airplane to get there?
  • Do they want to wear flip flops in January?

“Beyond that, you can be happy almost any place. Kids can find their niche within any school because there are great teachers everywhere.

What are Your Thoughts on Rising tuition and Decreasing Government Funding?
“When I was at Tufts, I testified at the Massachusetts statehouse for increased funding to the University of Massachusetts. Costs have gone up in Michigan because the state has withdrawn support for universities, shifting the costs to students and families. That’s shortsighted. I hope to be an advocate for that. I am worried about state support and federal support.”
Click JN article to read the cover story about Bacow.
Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop. Wow’s team of professional writers and teachers 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 English teachers to improve student writing skills. If it involves words, we can help. Email     

Tips to Overcome College Essay Writing Anxiety

By Joe Kane
Senior Writing Coach
Wow Writing Workshop

Every writer feels nervous in the moments when they are revising, starting over or drafting a new piece of prose. So it’s not surprising when even students who are well-prepared, understand the college essay prompt, and have a great story to tell also get the first-draft jitters, or writing anxiety.

College application season is in full gear, and just like every season, we see a lot of students who have difficulty starting their first drafts. That’s okay. Don’t panic. We know how to calm them.

Some students think that their nervousness is a sign that they’re inadequate writers or that they’re doing something wrong. It isn’t. College essays have high stakes. Feeling a little anxiety is normal, even healthy.

I am a college essay coach, and also a creative writer and teacher. I regularly attend an annual writers’ conference that attracts big names in fiction and poetry, plus thousands of aspiring writers and publishers, for a weekend of readings and craft discussions. At my first conference, I was surprised to hear how openly authors talked about their own writing anxiety.

Even authors with four or five books already on the best seller list said that they feel a bit anxious every time they start a new writing project. Their previous works might have been hits, but what should they do about the half-written chapters on their kitchen tables? How do successful writers manage those nerves?

Here are three strategies for managing writing anxiety that work for the pros, and help our Wow college application essay students:

Keep the Faith; calm the anxiety

Accept that some anxiety is normal and trust yourself to write the first draft.  Moments of doubt require a little faith. When you’re feeling nervous, just keep writing and don’t stop until the draft is finished. Successful writers keep writing even when they are feeling unsure of themselves.

Trust the Process
It's important to trust yourself when coping with writing anxiety
We tell each Wow student: Trust Yourself

Take comfort in revision. No one gets it perfect on the first try. Refining your ideas over several drafts is an essential part of the writing process. That also means there is less pressure on you to perfect your first draft. You don’t need to worry about finding the right words in your first draft because you’ll reread and revise anything you write (hopefully more than once). It’s okay for first drafts to be messy. They’re supposed to be. Just get your ideas down on paper. You’ll be able to polish your words later.

Get Advice from Someone You Trust

Every successful author has a go-to person who reads their work before anyone else. It might be a relative, friend, another writer, or an editor. You can usually find that person’s name listed on the acknowledgments page at the beginning or end of a book. A trusted reader can offer valuable big-picture perspective, and also catch small mistakes that are hard to see when you’ve been looking at a piece of writing for a long time.

Finding the right reader can be a little tricky with college essays because the world of college admissions is always changing. At Wow, we have ongoing conversations with admissions officers across the country to make sure that we offer the best college essay advice that reflects what admissions readers are hoping to see.

Let Wow’s Experts Guide You
Anxious? Stressed? Sign up now for $39!

We’d love to be your guide. A Wow coach can show your child how to write for college admissions officers without a pre-designed structure, without reading sample essays and without so much added stress, wherever you are along the journey. To learn more,  click private coaching services or Crash Course to get the best of Wow in our 1-hour video course designed to help you nail that Common App.  

About the Author
Meet Wow's Senior Writing Coach Joe Kane
Joe Kane

Joe Kane is Senior Writing Coach for Wow Writing Workshop, which is still accepting essay coaching students who are applying to college and graduate school this fall. Wow’s team of professional writers and teachers 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 English teachers to improve student writing skills. If it involves words, we can help.



The Best Tips to Write an Effective College Application Essay

Helping diversity and inclusion
CapCan’s Michelle Strasz

Michelle Strasz, Executive Director for the The Capital Area College Access Network, CapCan, interviewed Wow CEO Susan Knoppow for their 2018 summer publication. Wow conducts training workshops for CapCan’s network of high school counselors and college advisors.

Michelle and Susan talked about the importance of the college essay, what colleges are looking for, how to write an effective essay and what parents can do to help their children. 

Here is the interview with Susan:

Michelle: How did How to Write and Effective College Application Essay come about?

Tami Manton

Susan: My business partner’s sister, Tami Lifton Manton,  was about to start the college process with her son. She asked, “What should I do?” We initially told her she was the parent so stay out of it. Don’t get involved. Her response to us was “Hahaha! You know I’m going to get involved so give me a job.” This made us rethink our messaging and our advice. Our book, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay equips parents with tips and prompts to help their student reflect on what makes them who they are and illustrate their best characteristics. The student version of the book encourages the student to go find an adult they trust to help them with the process. Parents should review, rather than edit. We recommend ways for parents to be useful, mostly helping their child reflect, reviewing with a healthy respect for the child’s written work and asking questions about the essay. If they get confused, or don’t know what to ask, “Why?” is always a good question. They can ask like this: “Tell me more… Why are you telling me this story?”

Michelle: Why are college application essays important?

Susan: College application essays are important because colleges want to know who the student is, beyond the grades, test scores and activities. The essay is the place to share that, an opportunity to round out the application package. As admission to the nation’s most selective schools becomes increasingly competitive, the college essay rises in significance as well. The essay, or personal statement, provides an opportunity for students to show people who may never meet them just what kind of person they are. It’s value-added, and it can help. Colleges want students to dig deeper, to share their story. Academically, admission officers expect students to do well. But they want more. An essay fills in the qualitative gaps (grades, rigor of curriculum, test scores). For example, they might get applications from three students who are the first chair of violin. The essay will help distinguish between the three to get a better understanding of why a student is in the orchestra. Are they a diligent problem solver who found a way to afford a new violin for high school? Colleges are missing that qualitative information. Colleges want students to tell them something meaningful about them that they cannot find out about through the rest of your application.

Michelle: Why do essays make students freak out?

Susan: The college essay is arguably the biggest stressor of the college application. It does not need to

Susan Knoppow

be so daunting. The problem is students do not understand the prompts, they don’t understand the task, and they have so much bad advice, they don’t know how to write it. And they panic. Shut down. We help students and parents understand the task, and what’s expected, so they can relax. We tell our students that college admissions representatives are real people who want to admit you, not reject you. You are 17; they don’t expect perfection. They will cut you some slack. They don’t expect perfect grammar, and you don’t have to try so hard to be unique. Why? You are unique. Just be yourself. Answer the question. Don’t panic. The task is achievable. You don’t need to be a good writer to nail the college essay. You need simple instructions and a calm place to write.

Michelle:  How important is parent engagement?

Susan:  Parents sometimes doubt their child’s ability to do this task effectively. They often edit their child’s voice out of the essay. This does not help admissions get to know the child, nor does it help a child feel confident. A parent who helps too much can diminish a child’s self-worth. The child will think they are not good enough, and so Mom or Dad has to rescue them. They don’t think of that when they mark up those essays. Parents need to understand that they are not the audience for the application or essay, nor is the English teacher or the writer down the street. The admissions officer is the audience, and it is likely the parent has no idea what that person expects from the essay. The best job for any parent of a child applying to college is that of listener and supporter. We say, “Listen to your child and help them find insight into their life experiences. Provide encouragement and stay positive. You will help them best by just talking to them, letting them know what you like about them, and asking them what’s important to them.”

Michelle: What are college Admissions reps are looking for?

Susan: Reflection! They want an answer to a prompt that showcases a positive trait or characteristic. They want to put a face to the pile of paper. Colleges also want some confirmation that the student knows something about themselves. They want to read personal statements and supplements that sound like a high school student and Illustrate something meaningful about that student. They are not looking for perfect prose. Does the experience a student writes about need to be earth shattering? No. Does it have to illustrate an “aha” moment? Not at all. Just writing about winning a game is not enough. Colleges want to know what students learned about themselves because of the game. Why is that important?

Michelle: People who help students with essays can help them by

Susan: Encouraging them to reflect before they start writing. Let the student own the process; just be a guide. Listen more; do less. Every student needs to have a purpose for an essay before they start writing. To be effective, an essay must have a theme that answers these two questions: What happened? Why does it matter? Use theme as a review tool.

Michelle: Please finish this sentence. I am Susan Knoppow. I know…

Susan: Because of my background as an instructional designer and teacher, I know how people learn. I know how much to give a student to do. I know how to train counselors, teachers, and parents to help their students write their essays. I know that students want to please the adults in their life. They get conflicting advice, so they don’t know who they can trust, and they get paralyzed. I will help anyone I train to put this knowledge into practice.

Michelle: Your final thoughts?

Susan: 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 is 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’s impossible for them all to get in. The essay becomes more important, too. No essay will vault you over a wall, but it will help you. It’s a numbers’ game, and there is an industry that has built up around the numbers’ game. Don’t feed into the frenzy. It is important for adults and students to set reasonable expectations. A little perspective will help any adult become a better guide for a college applicant.

Learn How to Write an Effective College Application Essay

Wow will help you and your family stay calm so your child can focus on getting noticed where it matters most -inside the admissions office.  Year after year, Wow students get into their top choice colleges, including the Ivies, prestigious liberal arts schools, and the best state universities. Yours should, too! With a Wow coach as a guide, your child can learn how to write great application essays, become a stronger writer, and improve their chances of admission to their dream school.

The season is in full swing, and summer will be over sooner than you think. But we’ve still got a few coach slots open for the 2018-19 season! Reserve your coach now before it’s too late with a purchase of one “Complete” essay coaching package. We’ll help with the Common Application essay, or any other personal statement or supplement. Just sign up, and we’ll take it from there.

Top 5 Common App Essay Myths & Facts

Common App
Common App goes live Aug. 1

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

The Common App opens August 1 for the Class of 2019. With that in mind, let’s debunk some of the rumors about the Common App essay (personal statement for college) that often spread like wildfire among the college-bound crowd and their families.

With that in mind, here are our Top 5 college essay myths and facts:

Myth 1: A Common App essay has to be written about an impressive topic.

Fact: The student is impressive, not the college essay topic. The story, not the experience, is most important. Colleges want to know what an applicant has learned, rather than what they did.

One Wow student came to us confident that it was her trip to help the poor in Central America that would stand out in her application essay. Not at all. While brainstorming ideas with a writing coach, she discovered her most important moment during that trip occurred when she overcame her fear of heights by jumping off a cliff into the water.

“What does the experience mean to you?” asked Calvin Wise, the Director of Recruitment for Johns Hopkins University. “That is what we want to know.”

Myth 2: A Common App college essay should sound sophisticated, like Hemingway or a college professor.
Don’t fall victim to the myths! Get the facts!

Fact:  A high school student should sound like a high school student. Not a professor. Or a famous writer.

(Students should) “be themselves,” said Andrea Nadler, Associate Dean of Admission at Hofstra University.  “The college essay should allow us to use our senses to see, feel, taste and experience the kinds of things that are important to these students. If writing about a book they have read, we want to feel like we are in it with them. If writing about a meal they have had, we want to taste it.”

Myth 3: Admissions officers will never know if anyone helped too much with a Common app college essay. They won’t know if the student plagiarized, either.

Fact: There is a fine line between helping your child and writing or over-editing the Common App essay for them. Admissions officers know when someone other than the student writes all or part of a story; they don’t like it.

“If a student has an adult write it, the admissions committee can tell,” said Jim Cotter, Director of Admissions for Michigan State University.

Many schools will automatically reject a student’s application, without an explanation, even if they merely suspect plagiarism.

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

Fact:  An applicant’s best story will grow out of the process of writing the Common App essay. To stand out, they must tell a genuine story and show insight.

Despite what you might hear, there are no tricks and no shortcuts. No magic formula. The essay doesn’t need a killer opening line or a tight conclusion. Trust the process; the college essay will emerge through the process of reflection, writing and revision.

“The key is to show genuine passion, commitment and that they have what it takes to survive at the school,” said Lorenzo Gamboa, Senior Associate Director of Admissions for Santa Clara University.

Myth 5: Only superstar students will impress admissions officers with their common app essays.

Fact: Anyone can stand out with a great story in a Common App essay.

An applicant does not need to rescue a child from a house fire or teach an autistic boy how to swim to impress admissions officers. One Wow student wrote about the moment he forgot his cello for an orchestra concert and improvised his performance with a bass guitar. His problem-solving skills impressed admissions officers, and one college sent him an offer of admission that praised his college essay.

“Sometimes students feel that because they haven’t found the cure for cancer, they have nothing to share,” said Jan Deike, Vanderbilt University, Assistant Director of Admissions. “Life is truly lived in the smaller moments, and that can be a powerful essay.”

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Kim Lifton can get a story out of anyone writing an effective college application essay

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication and writing services company that is a leading expert on the college application essay. Kim, a former journalist, speaks with senior admissions officers from the nation’s most selective colleges all the time. Wow works directly with students, and trains school counselors, English teachers and independent educational consultants who want to improve their essay-coaching skills. Wow also offers professional communication and writing services to businesses and nonprofits.