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Does Your College Essay Show Insight?

By Kim Lifton question mark
Wow Writing Workshop

With the first round of application deadlines looming, we’ve been reviewing a lot of college entrance essays that have not been ready to submit to colleges. Most of them lack the insight colleges are looking for. And, at its core, a college entrance essay is all about reflection. If you don’t reflect, you haven’t responded to the prompt.

This is not a new phenomenon. We notice the same trend every October, when scores of students ask us to review essays they think are perfect.

Whether they got help from a parent or favorite teacher, followed advice from an older brother who landed a spot at his top choice college, or worked independently with guidance from books or websites, most of these students at this point are just looking for our stamp of approval.

The bad news: The majority of these essays are not done. Not yet.
The good news: They sent us their essays, and we can help before they make a big mistake.

We read each piece of writing for three things that colleges tell us are most significant:

  • Does the student answer the prompt?
  • Does the answer to the prompt show insight into the student’s character?
  • Does it sound like a 17 year-old wrote it?

Admissions professionals read a lot of descriptive narratives about student experiences; they prefer you dig a little deeper in your answer to any prompt. They want you to use this space on the application to showcase the traits and characteristics you like about yourself—and the ones you want to share with them.

Colleges are interested in you. Focus your answer on what you want to share with them, not what you think they want to hear. Tell them something meaningful that they would not know about you from reading the rest of the application package.

No matter what the prompt, your essay should answer these two questions:

  • What happened?
  • Why does it matter?

Why it matters to you (the reflection) is just as important as what happened (the experience, the activity, or the person who influenced you).

Write an Essay That Will Help You Get In

We’ve read many well-written essays that would make great English papers. They are descriptive and full of beautifully sketched scenes. We’ve also reviewed our fair share of essays that sound sanitized, as if one or several well-meaning adults got ahold of them with their red pens. These types of essays lack real introspection, they don’t answer the prompt, and they won’t help you.

Your essay should help you. Write it yourself, in your voice, using your words.

You deserve to get noticed. So don’t just click send. Not yet. Get a professional review from a coach who can give you peace of mind, let you know if you’ve hit the mark and provide easy-to-follow instructions so you can give colleges something they’ll want to read.

Wow’s highly skilled team of professional coaches can teach you how to respond to any college entrance essay prompt, no matter where you are in the process. We’re here to help. Find out how you can write an essay to get attention from the college of your dreams. 

Why Do You Want to Go to College X?

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Many schools ask for supplemental essays in addition to the personal statement; the most common supplement, which we call “Why College X?,” is a variation on the question, “Why us?” This prompt can be one of the most challenging for students. The questions often look like these, which are taken from current and past years’ applications:

New York University: NYU’s global network provides students with hundreds of academic areas of interest for students to cultivate their intellectual curiosity and to help achieve their career goals. Whether you are entirely undecided about your academic plans or you have a definitive program of study in mind, what are your own academic interests? Feel free to share any thoughts on any particular programs or how you might explore those interests at NYU on any of our campuses.

Cornell University College of Engineering: Tell us about an engineering idea you have, or about your interest in engineering. Describe how your ideas and interests may be realized by — and linked to — specific resources within the College of Engineering. Finally, explain what a Cornell Engineering education will enable you to accomplish.

Barnard College: What factors influenced your decision to apply to Barnard College, and why do you think the College would be a good match for you?

In every case, a student’s answer needs to address three important areas:
• The School: What attracts me to this college or program?
• The Student: What do I want readers to know about me?
• The Stories: How does what I know about the program mesh with what I want readers to know about me? How can I illustrate this intersection?

Many students have very little idea what a school offers academically, socially or culturally. Sometimes students choose a college because of its location or its status. Each year, we meet many high school students who insist that a school is perfect because the student bleeds the university’s colors, feels at home inside the football stadium and loves listening to stories around the Thanksgiving dinner table from Dad, Aunt Lisa and cousin Diana, all enthusiastic and accomplished alumni.

Students, this is not what colleges want to know. While it is okay for you to tell them you will be comfortable in the big city, they are more interested in their school and what the college or program has to offer. Do you have the chops to succeed academically? Are there any clubs and activities to support your outside interests? Why do these factors matter to you?

Barnard’s Director of Admissions Christina Lopez suggests students ask themselves a series of questions before answering the “Why College X?” essay prompt: Do you prefer small classes with a lot of interaction with professors or large lecture classes? What type of community appeals to you? Are you looking for a diverse environment? Do you prefer to be close to home? Do you want to study abroad, conduct research, do an internship or study in a rigorous academic environment?

“The supplements separate a good applicant from a great applicant,” Lopez said. “The more you can espouse why you are a match in the short answer question genuinely (without regurgitating our website to us because we wrote it!), the more you will stand out to us. It is a great place to let a college know if we are the first choice, and why you love us.”

At Wow, we talk all the time to high school counselors, parents and admissions representatives like Lopez. We write and speak at college industry conferences with senior managers from admissions offices at the nation’s most selective colleges. That’s how we know that at its core, any college essay is about reflection. And that’s how we also know that colleges – no matter how selective – all want the same thing in a personal statement or essay supplement: They want students to respond to the prompts in a meaningful way that shows insight into the student’s character.

You can learn more about the essay’s purpose in Wow’s new eBook, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay – The Inside Scoop for Parents. It’s short, focused and easy to follow. We give parents a job to do to help prepare their children for the journey to college, and tips so they know when to step aside. If you’re a student, get a copy for your parents. If you’re a parent, read this before your child starts writing. And if you’re a counselor or consultant, share it with your families. Get your copy for $9.99 on


Download the eBook on Tuesday, Sept. 13, and it’s FREE! One-day only. 


Wow Tells Fox2: Parents Can Help Kids Write College Essays

A Parent’s Role: Teaching Reflection

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

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

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

 Embracing Parents

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

 The Go To College Essay Resource 

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

Watch Wow interview on Fox2 News.

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

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

The Only College Application Guide You’ll Ever Need!

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

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Every August, moms and dads just like you call us in a panic, asking for help understanding college application essays. They’re worried about the competition to get into college – and the amount of work required to stand out and get noticed. Most of all, they’re concerned that their children are not done writing yet.

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

The Go To Guide to Help Kids Write College Application Essays 

Yes, it’s time to write, but there’s no need to agonize over it. We just released our first guide specifically for helping parents get a handle on the essay. The eBook, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay: The Inside Scoop for Parents, will help you walk your child through the writing process – and feel good about it. You’ll also learn how to guide them through the essay without taking it over.

Parents tell us they are tired of being told to step away and back off. They want to help. They just don’t know how. We will never suggest you write a college application essay yourself or edit an essay so heavily it loses your child’s personality and voice. However, we believe you can play a critical role in the writing process.

You don’t need a 300-page book to help your child write a 650-word Common App essay or to write a 350-word response to one of the University of California’s new personal insight questions. But you will  benefit from Wow’s short parent guide that gives you simple instructions so you can help your child  write an effective college application essay, and put it into perspective.  It’s easy to follow and has everything required to teach your child how to reflect on life experiences so he or she can write great essays.

At its core, the college application essay is about reflection. That’s challenging because most 17-year-olds have very little practice with this type of thinking and writing. You are more prepared to help your child learn this important skill than you may even know. We’ve seen other parents do it, and they are always surprised by how straightforward it is. Many are also surprised by how wrong they were initially about their role in the process.

Find Out How Parents Can Help

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

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

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


How to 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.



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