5 College Essay Myths and Facts YOU Need to Know!

What does a college admissions counselor really want to know about any applicant when reading a personal statement?

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

Myth 1

An essay has to be written about an impressive topic.

Fact: A college entrance essay is an opportunity for students to share something meaningful about themselves. We tell our students: 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 the applicant 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

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

Fact: The college essay has to be written like the student who submits it; it should sound like the 17-year-old high school student who is applying. Not mom. Not dad. Not a favorite teacher. Not an older brother who is in grad school. And certainly 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‘s 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.”

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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. Let me repeat. 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. I told her I could write something to sound like her. 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 at all – 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: A student’s best story will grow out of the process of writing a college essay.

It’s important to trust the process! The best college essay will emerge from a process of discovery that includes brainstorming, free writing, revision, review and editing. Wow uses a tried-and-true 10-step process we developed more than a decade ago to guide students and professionals through the journey.

Keep in mind, there is no magic formula to help anyone ace this assignment. There are no shortcuts that work. Gimmicks are just that: gimmicks. We know process is not sexy. But it works. Every time!

To stand out, students must tell genuine stories about themselves that answer the prompt using their own words and their own voice, and show some reflection! That’s what colleges want. Without getting too deep into the pros and cons of ChatGPT, just know a bot cannot think or reflect in the voice of a student!

Myth 5

Only superstar students will impress admissions officers with their essays.

FactAnyone can stand out with a great story!

No student needs to rescue a child from a house fire, get a million downloads for an app they 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 discovering her love 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.

Wow: Transforming the College Essay Experience

Wow provides students and educational professionals a simple, step-by-step process for writing effective college essays, so students can stand out and tell their stories. We’re transforming the college essay experience from daunting and frightening to calm and empowering.

We (Wow co-founders Susan Knoppow and me) are members or affiliates of the Michigan Association of College Admission Counseling (MACAC – I serve on the board), the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), and the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA). We write and speak regularly to high school, parent, and professional groups about the role of the college essay within the competitive admissions world. Before launching Wow, we collaborated on multiple projects, among them an award-winning PBS documentary, No Ordinary Joe: Erasing the Stigma of Mental Illness. We have authored several books; download the newest book, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay, The Inside Scoop for Students – Second Edition, here.

Ask Me Anything About the College Essay

There’s so much information about college essays out there, how can anyone, even a bright, talented student, tell the difference between what’s worth listening to and what’s not? That’s where I can help. I’m a journalist by training, and I only share information I have checked and double-checked, then checked again.

I go straight to the source – college admissions officers – to find out what they’re looking for in application essays, and I’m excited to share what I know with you. I can help you get the real scoop on the college essay!

Click here to sign up for a College Essay Roundtable. Bring lots of questions. I’ll answer them live.

Picture of 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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