College Essay FAQs for Professionals

College essay FAQs
Wow partner discusses college essay FAQs with students

When it comes to the college essay, there’s always something to talk about. Every month,

Wow CEO Susan Knoppow hosts a FREE 30-minute webinar, just for counselors and consultants.

She answers questions and share tips to help pros like you support your students and their families through the college essay-writing  process. We compiled these College Essay FAQs from frequent questions we get from professionals.

College Essay FAQs #1: Choosing a Topic

Q: What are admissions officers looking for in an essay?

A: They’re looking for the same thing they’ve always looked for: reflection and insight. Now you might say, “My students are not that reflective, and they’re not that insightful. What am I supposed to do?” Admissions officers are only looking for the degree of reflection that any given student is capable of and willing to share. They’re looking more for who the student is than what they’ve done.

Q: Do you have any tips for choosing to the best topic for a student?

A: First of all, there’s no such thing as a “best” essay topic. We want to help students write effective essays, which looks different for each student. To pick a topic, though, we start by talking with students to determine what characteristic they want to highlight with their essay.

Then, we brainstorm story ideas that show that characteristic.

Q: How do you help a student come up with a unique story to tell?

A: We try to avoid language like “unique” when talking about student essays. “Unique” sounds too much like “best,” and we’d rather have a student write their own story in their own voice than try to write something they perceive as unique. With our process, any student can write an effective essay by highlighting a positive characteristic about themselves, and that’s unique enough for us.

Q: What ideas do you have for those students who are focused entirely on academics, sports, etc.?

A: Every student, no matter what, has positive traits. Students don’t need to be multi-dimensional, fascinating people to brainstorm a story that highlights one of those traits. There’s no need to put pressure on yourself or on them to dig deep into their essence. Let them be who they are, and the story will come.

Q: How do you help students reflect on and address the “Why College X” question?

A: We like to think of this as a dating essay: The school has all sorts of wonderful qualities; your student has all sorts of wonderful qualities. They don’t all overlap, but we create a Venn diagram to find the intersection. It’s also worth noting that not all “Why College X” questions are the same. Often there are subtle differences between what different colleges ask, so keep that in mind when addressing the prompt.

Q: How do you help students stand out in the supplements with only a 150-word limit?

A: First of all, students don’t need to stand out in every essay. For your sake and for theirs, consider changing your expectations to match this fact. At the same time, it’s not necessarily any harder to stand out in a shorter essay compared to a longer one. A 150-word limit forces the student to be concise and have a specific answer to the prompt, which can be revealing.

College Essay FAQs #2: Drafting and The Wow Method

Q: What are your most effective brainstorming questions?

A: Before we ask students brainstorming questions, they need to have a specific story in mind. After that, the best questions are “Tell me about X” and “Tell me more about Y.” These prompt students to talk more about their stories and understand why they may or may not make good essay topics. These questions are universal and uncomplicated.

Q: What are five key things to include in a first draft to make it more effective?

A: There are not five key things! It’s important get out of the mindset that there are specific features that a draft should include. Every essay is different, and there’s no universal formula.

Q: How can I frame my feedback for students so I’m facilitating instead of taking over the process?

A: When you receive any draft beyond the initial first draft, you should ask yourself a few questions:

  • How is this draft stronger than the previous draft/idea that the student had?
  •  How is it more complete?
  • What can be done to improve the essay’s clarity?

Always start with the positive, then move on to clarity (not improvement). Your role is to help the student write an effective essay, which includes a clear theme—readers should be able to understand a specific story and the trait(s) that story highlights.” Try to prompt the student to help them reflect and explore their story, but never rewrite anything yourself.

College Essay FAQs #3: Managing Student Expectations

Q: How do you help an unskilled or unmotivated writer?

A: You need to be able to recognize what your student is capable of doing, and what they are willing to do. When working with a student, we’re always balancing willingness and ability. Lack of motivation is a willingness issue, rather than a college essay problem. If this is the case, this may not be something you can control. Lack of skill is an ability issue, though this is also something that you shouldn’t necessarily try to tackle head-on. The college essay writing process is not the time to teach a student the finer points of writing. In both cases, the best you can do is meet the student where they are and adjust your expectations.

Q: How do you help students with schools on their list that they likely won’t get into?

A: Students (and occasionally parents and counselors) sometimes believe that there’s some magic thing they can do in their application to make them shine so much that they can get into any school. That type of thinking often sets you up for disappointment. The best thing you can do to avoid this is to set realistic expectations from the beginning about what is and isn’t possible to achieve with a college application.

Q: How should you address a student’s concern that they either don’t have a story to tell or that their story isn’t good enough?

A: The first step of our 10-step process is to understand the prompt. This is essential to do before brainstorming even begins, as it frames all future work on the essay. For most, if not all, essays, you won’t find anything in the prompt that says to be unique. Students need to write stories that highlight a trait about them, not stories that are unique.

Q: How do you motivate procrastinating students?

A: At the end of the day, motivation is internal. It’s impossible for you, as a counselor or coach, to motivate a student on your own. The best you can do is develop strategies that help them help themselves, like keeping a clear deadline schedule throughout the essay writing process.

Q: How can I stay calm when students procrastinate?

A: This can be tricky! If you already provide clear deadlines and make sure to remind parents to help keep students accountable, try noticing something positive about the work the student has done up to this point. This can be grounding, and it can help you identify what is and isn’t possible in the time you have remaining. Also, remember that this is not your application and that a student procrastinating is not a reflection on you!

Q: What can you do with a student who wants to meet deadlines but isn’t moving forward?

A: We recommend asking the student when they will be ready to get back to work. Keep in mind that often, when a student is stuck, it’s the result of a non-college essay problem. You can try to work with them as they navigate their non-college essay problem, but you can’t (and likely aren’t qualified to) fix it. It’s not worth trying to force them to complete a task that they’re either unable or unwilling to complete, so try to meet them on their terms.

Q: How do I get my students to focus and reach the finish line with so many distractions?

A: You cannot get rid of the distractions in a student’s life. Instead, we recommend trying to lower the heat for the student and lowering your own expectations. At a certain point, a student is either going to finish their essay or they’re not, and if you push too hard, it may be more likely that they won’t finish.

It’s important in these moments to recognize the difference between a college essay problem and a non-college essay problem. Something that’s not an essay problem, like anxiety, is probably not something you’re qualified to help a student through. You can and should support your anxious students, but there’s only so much you can do to address a non-college essay problem.

Q: How can you help unfocused students organize their thoughts?

A: When working with an unfocused student, it’s important to accept that your student may be unfocused and disorganized and to try to work with them by letting them be who they are: unfocused. We ask a lot of questions and give all our students specific tasks to help them focus as much as possible. For example, we use writing exercises throughout our process to keep them centered; the exercises are designed to bring students back to their theme. If you know where you and your student are in the writing process and what you’re trying to accomplish, you can help your students. They don’t have to organize all of their thoughts up front. You can help them put those thoughts in order as you go along.

Q: How can I help a student who has been told that they need to impress the reader with big words or lofty theories?

A: Try to remind them that the point of an essay is to answer the prompt. Nobody is sitting inside the admissions office waiting to analyze their writing. Schools are reading for meaning. They want to know who the student is beyond the rest of the information they glean from the application package.  They’re reading for insight into the student. That’s what they’re looking for, and that’s why they ask the questions that they ask.

Q: How can I manage a student who wants to change their finished essay?

A: Often, this is the result of an outside source who has sown doubts in your student’s mind. Try reminding the student why their essay works already, pointing to specific parts of the work they’ve done. At this point in the process, this is an issue with the student’s nerves, not with the effectiveness of their essay.

College Essay FAQs #4: Working with parents

Q: How do you talk to parents about imperfect essays?

A: This is a delicate issue because there’s only so much you can do to address non-college essay issues, like a parent with unrealistic expectations. We like to talk to parents from the beginning and explain our process upfront: Here’s how we do things, here’s what you can expect, here’s what you shouldn’t expect, etc. This includes sending an email early on, saying something along the lines of:

“Dear [Parent],

It’s been a pleasure working with [Student]. The topic they picked really demonstrates [their resilience, their problem-solving skills, etc.].”

We don’t discuss the topic; we focus on the student’s traits and characteristics. This helps the parent see that the student is on track, calms them from the beginning, and hopefully sets realistic expectations.

Q: How can I manage parents who try to change their child’s essay?

A: At the beginning of the essay-writing process, we encourage parents to wait until the final draft to read their child’s essay, as first drafts will often look messy and unfocused to an outsider. We also send another message toward the end of the process, outlining why the essay is effective and why we appreciate it. This should minimize the number of anxious, essay-altering parents you come across. If need be, you can remind the parent that schools want to read a genuine story written in their child’s actual voice.

Please join us for an upcoming Pro Chat. Bring your college essay FAQs!! We get together one Wednesday a month, 1-1:30 p.m. Eastern. Register here.

Sammy Saperstein

Sammy Saperstein

Sammy Saperstein is a senior majoring in English at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He has been an editorial assistant for Wow since November 2020. When he’s not studying, going to class, or working for Wow, he can be found backpacking or solving a sudoku.
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