5 College Essay Myths and Facts You Need to Know

Wow Writing Workshop teaches high school students how to write college application essays.

What does the college admissions counselor really want to know about you when reading your college essay?

Here are five college essay myths and facts for a high school student to consider before writing your essay:

Myth 1

An essay has to be written about an impressive topic.

Fact: A college entrance essay is your opportunity to share something meaningful about yourself. You are impressive, not your topic. Write a genuine story about yourself that shows some reflection; use your own words and your own voice.

The story, not the experience, is most important. Colleges want to know what you learned from the experience. The topic does not need to be big.

Volunteer trips to third-world countries are great experiences, but a story about the trip might not make a good college essay. Write about it if you learned something significant about yourself.  One of our students wanted to write about her volunteer trip to Central America. But after brainstorming ideas, she realized her aha moment occurred during that volunteer experience when she jumped off a cliff into the water and faced her fear of heights.

Another girl showed determination through a meaningful story about learning to mow the lawn. She had assumed it would be easy, no big deal, when her dad suggested teaching her how to do it. It was really hard, but she stuck with it for several weeks until she mastered the task.

Myth 2

Your college entrance essay should sound sophisticated, like Hemingway, Toni Morrison or a college professor.

Fact: The college essay has to be written like you. You are a 17-year-old high school student, and you should sound like one. Not your mom. Not your dad. Not your teacher. Not your big brother who is in grad school. Not the writer down the street.

A few years ago, during the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Columbus, Ohio, I asked Duke University Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag what he looked for in a college application essay.

“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.”

Myth 3

Admissions officers will never know if a parent, tutor, teacher or college coach has “helped” a student with an essay.

FACT: There is a fine line between helping and writing it for a student. Parents and others cannot always tell, but admissions officers know when a story does not sound like a high school student, and they don’t like it.

I used to ghostwrite columns for executives; I spent a lot of time telling my students I was one of the few people who could write in their voices, even though I would never do it.

I was wrong.

When my daughter was in 8th grade, I tried to write a current events summary in my 14-year-old’s voice just to prove my point. She did the assignment; I did it, too. We read them out loud. When I read mine, she laughed at me, saying the piece didn’t sound like her – or any other teen. My summary read like an adult trying too hard to sound like a kid.

Our message to adults: Resist the urge to write for a student – even one sentence! It is not your journey.

Myth 4

There is a right way and a wrong way to write an essay.

Fact: Your best story will grow out of the process of writing your college essay.

Trust the process! Your college essay will emerge from a process of discovery that includes brainstorming, free writing, revision, review and editing. Wow developed a 10-step process that can take you through the journey.

Keep in mind, there is no magic formula to help you ace this assignment. It needs a beginning, middle and end – that’s it.

To stand out, tell a genuine story about yourself using your words and your voice, and show some reflection!

Myth 5

Only superstar students will impress admissions officers with their essays.

FactAnyone can stand out with a great story!

You don’t have a rescue a child from a house fire, get a million downloads for an app you developed, or teach an autistic boy how to swim to impress admissions officers. One boy wrote a fabulous college entrance essay about memorizing the general intestinal track to ace his anatomy final.

Another student wrote a gorgeous story about finding her passion for nature while pulling weeds from a community garden. Another boy honed in on 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 essay.

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop. Perceptive, resourceful and curious, Kim can get a story out of anyone. Kim is a former newspaper reporter and corporate communications manager. With Susan Knoppow, Wow’s CEO, Kim developed the Wow Method by combining her journalistic training with Susan’s organization and instructional design skills. She holds a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University. Kim’s articles on the college essay appear regularly in print and on the web, and her work has been featured in a variety of newspapers, magazines and online publications. Kim and Susan have co-authored three books – How to Write an Effective College Application Essay (The Inside Scoop for Parents, Students, Counselors). They are members/affiliates of the Michigan Association of College Admission Counseling (MACAC), the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA).
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