Last fall, I had an email exchange with a mom who questioned her daughter’s Common App personal statement.
How are you feeling about its quality? the mom asked.
Her daughter is a very smart girl. Driven by causes. Great mind. Incredibly mature. She wrote an excellent essay showcasing her interest in social justice; she focused her story on one conversation about food insecurity at a progressive summer camp.
Any admissions reader would know she was kind, compassionate and driven, fueled by progressive causes.
Still, the mom wasn’t so sure.
Has this ever happened to you? (No need to answer… I know the answer is yes!!!)
We’ve been in this business for a long time, and yes, this still happens to us. Even though we set expectations upfront. Even though we keep parents in the loop throughout the entire process. It’s just part of the job.
At Wow, we are respectful, but we have learned how to stand our ground.
We help our students write the best essays they are able and willing to write. We supervise our coaches; we also trust them completely. We all follow the same process, and that helps us determine when students are done. And when essays are good enough.
We judge a finished essay by its theme – and improvement. Which does not mean sentences are better. Or that the writing is tighter.
Improvement can mean more clarity. Additional insight. Or more focus.
Our goal is to help every student answer the prompt and show insight. Using their own story. Their own words. And their own voice.
When I read a second draft or a final essay, I pay attention to how a story has changed and improved, not if it is perfect.
This girl’s essay was done! I told the mom. And I told her why. Confidently.
This is a quality essay. The story answers the prompt, shows insight into who she is and is reflective. It improved phenomenally from the first draft till the last draft. It sounds like your daughter. That’s what colleges want. Best of all, she is really happy with it.
And guess what? The mom backed off.
When parents say they don’t like a student’s final essay, or it is not good enough, stand your ground. Respectfully. With confidence. Explain why the essay works, how it has improved and what it shows colleges about the student.
This review guide from Step 8 of the Wow Method will give you some insight into how we do it. It’s page 18 of a 39-page guide counselors receive at the end of the College Essay Experience training.
Free Pro Chats
Join Wow CEO Susan Knoppow for a FREE 30-minute webinar, just for counselors and consultants. She will answer your questions and share tips to help you support your students and their families through the college essay-writing process. We get together one Wednesday a month, 1-1:30 p.m. Eastern. Choose the session you prefer, then join us live or listen to the recording.
February 10: What do we mean by the Wow Factor? Ending the writing process on a positive note.
Kim Lifton is President and Co-founder of Wow Writing Workshop, the premier college essay professional training company, offering solid, replicable college essay coaching to counselors and consultants. We’ll help you take some of the pressure out of your essay coaching practice, and show you how to teach students to write strong, effective essays, with less stress and greater confidence for you, your students and their parents. For information, visit Wow professional services.
By KIM LIFTON
Wow Writing Workshop
A few months ago, I had lunch with my friend, Ella, a great high school counselor here in metro Detroit, where I live. It feels like a million years ago, back when high school counselors were actually working inside high schools…
We started talking about her previous job as a sales manager in the textile industry. I peppered her with questions about her job, what she did, what she liked. How do people pick colors for clothes or fabric for furniture? I asked.
How does someone know which color paint will be most popular next year on a car or truck?
She told me they have a system, analytics; it’s quite interesting, and it works, year after year.
I wanted to know who decides if red will be the in color for the season, or how long capris might be cool. She didn’t know, but she said there were people inside the industry who use data to predict that, too.
I like people. I like hearing their stories. Who are they? What’s important to them? Why? While Ella has been out of the textiles field for a long time, she appreciated that I was interested in her. I asked questions; I listened to her answers. We had a conversation. It was normal, natural.
Free Pro Chats: Every month we record a new College Essay Pro Chat.Sign up for next month’s webinar. Wow CEO Susan Knoppow answers questions live for 30 minutes.
Free Student Classes: If you’re a school counselor who wants to help students with the basics, encourage them to sign up for my next free student class, or listen to the recording. You are welcome to sign up, too.
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.
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.
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:// web3.ncaa.org/directory or the NAIA Member Schools Search on www.NAIA.org.
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:
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 scholarshipstats.com. GuidedPath users can easily export these details about each school by creating a tagged list. Alternatively, CollegeBoard.org 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 www.collegecoachesonline.com.
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 (https://network.iecaonline.com/communities) 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.
As a rule of thumb, we do not like New Year’s resolutions. Most are too big and fuzzy –not to mention hard to achieve: going to the gym every day; getting organized; cutting out sugar… How many times have you heard these?
The problem is these are huge commitments that will surely set you up to fail. Want to know what won’t set you up to fail? Picking one thing you can get better at professionally, and then slowly working toward it. Nothing that requires 5 hours. Every. Single. Day. And certainly not, “I will never eat another slice of bread.” Like that’s going to happen.
Here’s a resolution we’d like to suggest: Improve your essay coaching practice, even just a little tiny bit. That’s doable. And I have even better news for you: We can help. We know from years of training professionals just like you that the first step is to experience the essay writing process from the inside out. It’s how we trained our coaches, Joe and David, and it’s how we’ve been training the counselors and consultants in our Partners program for the last five years.
We thought, What if we took that experience and created a stand-alone opportunity for everyone? And so we did! It’s called the College Essay Experience. It’s one of the best things we’ve ever created, and if you know anything about us, you know that’s saying a lot.
For years, we’ve given away lots of free stuff – monthly Pro Chats, tip sheets, writing exercises and webinars in our weekly emails – and we’re going to continue on that track. We have lots to share. But did you know we also offer first-rate paid training programs that are unlike anything else you’ve experienced?
We do, and the counselors and consultants who have taken advantage of them regularly tell us that their choice to invest in Wow training was among the best professional decisions they’ve made. We know we haven’t always done a great job of telling you what we offer – we’re so busy giving you crazy good free resources, we’re afraid we’ve sometimes failed to remind you that there’s so. much. more. goodness and transformation waiting for you in our paid programs.
We’ll give you lots of valuable info for free right there on the webinar, and we’ll also share how you can learn even more through our new program. Again, find out how to improve your college essay coaching process during our free webinar on Wednesday, January 15.
You’ll get a glimpse into what it’s like to write your own essay, we’ll share some more free stuff, and we’ll introduce you to our exciting new program for professionals, the College Essay Experience. Sign Up Here Can’t make it? No problem. Just register, and we’ll send you the recording.
It’s a good time to debunk some of the rumors about the college essay that spread like wildfire among the college-bound crowd and their families. Here are 5 college essay myths and facts to consider before getting started on your college essay.
Fact: You are impressive, not the topic. The story, not the experience, is most important. Colleges want to know what you’ve learned, rather than what you did.
One Wow student came to us confident that a trip to help the poor in Central America would stand out. We asked her what she discovered about herself on that trip. Through brainstorming, 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 it mean to you?” asked Calvin Wise, the Director of Recruitment for Johns Hopkins University. “That is what we want to know.”
Fact: You should sound like a high school student. Not a professor or a famous writer. And not like your Mom, Dad, teacher or older sibling!
“They should be themselves,” said Andrea Nadler, associate dean of admission at Hofstra University. “The 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.”
Fact: There is a fine line between getting help and getting someone else to write it for you. Admissions officers know when someone other than a student writes a story; they don’t like it, and it can hurt you!
College admissions professionals are smart, and they notice trends when they read essays. A few years ago, Erica Sanders, Director of Undergraduate Admissions for the University of Michigan, discovered two essays that sounded the same, word-for-word. Both candidates were rejected immediately without explanation.
You do not need to rescue a child from a house fire or teach a boy with autism how to swim to impress admissions officers. In fact, 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.”
Give Yourself the Wow Advantage
Year after year, Wow students get into their top choice colleges, including the Ivies, prestigious liberal arts schools, and the best state universities. With a Wow coach as a guide, you can learn how to write great application essays and become a stronger writer. Reserve your coach now by purchasing 1 Complete Essay Package; that coach can be available to work on as many essays as you need.
Kim Lifton, a LinkedIn 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. 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.
Are your families worried about paying for college? Are they confused about securing the best financial aid packages? They are not alone.
Regardless of income or financial circumstances, most parents have one of these concerns:
They make too much to qualify for aid.
They make too little to afford college at all.
No matter what their financial situation, there are plenty of opportunities to help them pay for college. Before starting the search, they need to understand how financial aid works, whether they’ll qualify for any – and know where to turn for help when it gets confusing.
Managing college financial aid strategies – from scholarships to work study jobs to student loans – is challenging. But it does not need to be overwhelming for your parents and students.
I begin the process by asking parents to answer these three questions:
How can you afford college for your child?
How can you navigate this complicated financial aid system?
While no single answer is right for everyone, you’ll be able to help them find an answer that is right for them. I help parents navigate the process, but I cannot give them a step-by-step manual of what to do; I would need to update that manual daily. Useful information will help them move in the right direction to secure the funding they’ll need for their child’s post-secondary education.
Meanwhile, encourage them to try to stay calm, and to not let fear get the best of them. You know that college is a lot of work, and it costs a lot of money. But most parents and students I know feel that a college degree is well worth the effort.
I’ve seen parent exclude their students from the financial aid decision-making process, and then turn around and complain that their child doesn’t understand anything about money. Everyone involved should know the facts behind the decisions made; it helps them understand how to be financially responsible.
Jodi Okun, founder of College Financial Aid Advisors and a former financial aid consultant at Occidental and Pitzer colleges, has helped thousands of families successfully navigate the financial aid process, no matter what their financial situation. She is the bestselling author of Secrets of a Financial Aid Pro, and is recognized by the Huffington Post and other media outlets as a top social media influencer. She blogs, speaks to industry and parent groups, and hosts #CollegeCash Twitter chats that connect families with higher education professionals – and receive more than 10,000 impressions each week! Wow’s Kim Lifton has been a frequent #CollegeCash guest.
Wow is a strategic communication company, working with students, businesses, nonprofits and individuals who want to communicate their messages effectively to any audience. 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. We can even help you write a great blog, presentation or book to market your company. If it involves words, Wow can help! For more information, email Kim Lifton at Kim@wowwritingworkshop.com or visit Wow business services.
This time of year, we get countless requests to review essays before students submit them as part of their applications. We know students have poured a lot of time into the essays; we know they want to be done; we also know there is limited time to make any major revisions.
How to Review a College Essay
Begin by letting go of any preconceived notions about what makes a good essay. In fact, we suggest replacing the word “good” with the word “effective.” It’s important to let each student 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.
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?
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 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.
Wow’s third book is out, and we wrote this one for you! Have you ordered your copy? How to Write an Effective College Application Essay, the Inside Scoop for Counselors ($9.99 on Amazon.com) is full of resources that speak directly to the needs of counselors and other professionals 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.
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.
By Kim Lifton and Susan Knoppow
Co-founders, Wow Writing Workshop
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 Common App 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 Amazon.com 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.
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.
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 articleto 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
A few years ago, a father, Alan, saw the effect the college essay can have on a high school student during his daughter’s junior year. Katie came home from school one day, flustered over a seemingly simple English class assignment: Write a personal statement for college.
He had never seen this side of his daughter. She could always manage her schoolwork on her own. Not this time. The teacher sent students home to write the essay with no instructions. Katie, not knowing where to start or what to do, was fixated on a topic — ice-skating. And why not? She was a competitive skater. It was integral to her life. Would that topic help her stand out, she asked her father?
Alan knew about the essay. He had been doing some research on college admissions so he would be prepared to guide her. Alan had already participated in one of the free online chats Wow hosts monthly (one for parents and another for professionals) to answer questions and provide tips to help college applicants.
Katie was too far ahead of herself in the process, and Alan knew it. She was thinking about a topic before she understood the prompt. The topic, he told Katie, was not as significant as the subject. In other words, the essay needed to be about Katie (the subject of the essay), not ice-skating (the topic).
Katie was about to make one of the most common mistakes high school counselors and colleges see in application essays. She was prepared to write about an experience, rather than what she learned from it or what that experience demonstrated about her. Katie was so focused on finding a good topic that she paid little attention to the prompt, one her teacher selected from the Common Application: 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 here is “meaningful.” Katie needed to reflect on her experience.
Fortunately, Alan was able to guide her. Similarly, you can help your students reflect so they can respond effectively to any college essay prompt. Alan asked his daughter the one question we use repeatedly with all of our students to help them slow down before choosing an essay topic: What do you want colleges to know about you beyond your grades, test scores and extracurricular activities? This is the question you can ask every student who comes into your office to talk about college application essay topics. If they cannot answer it, they are not ready to write. The answer should be a characteristic or trait, not an accomplishment or experience.
The single question about what’s important to Katie worked for Alan. It will work you’re your students, too. After a 30-minute conversation with Katie, she said she wanted colleges to know she was compassionate. She felt confident she could demonstrate that trait in her personal statement.
Alan did an excellent job encouraging his daughter to reflect upon who she is. Ultimately, she did find a topic through her experience on the ice. And, in her essay, Katie showed colleges she was compassionate in a focused story about a time she taught a young child how to skate. That experience could have happened at a library, teaching a child to read, or on a nearby sidewalk, teaching a child how to ride a bike. The setting did not matter because it showed introspection into Katie’s character in a way that could help colleges get to know her better.
How do you approach the college essay? We’d love to hear how you talk to your students when they panic, and what your biggest college essay challenges are.
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.