College Essay Tips from the Admissions Office

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

We talk to admissions officers all the time at large, small, public, and private colleges. Just in the last few months, we’ve checked in with Michigan, Barnard, Indiana, Northwestern, Cornell, Michigan State, Columbia and UC-Berkeley.  Their advice is worth listening to.

Time and again, these and other admissions officers (who can decide a student’s fate) tell us exactly what they want in the essays.  No matter the type of college essay or whether it’s 50 or 650 words, they want to read meaningful narratives that:

  • Answer the prompt
  • Are written by the student
  • Demonstrate insight into who the student is beyond grades, scores and accomplishments

At its core, a college essay is all about reflection. At Wow, we offer many services (including free ones!) to help parents and other adults teach reflection. Meanwhile, here are some of our favorite tips direct from our friends inside the admissions office:

Shawn Felton, Cornell University, Director of Undergraduate Admissions
“What are we looking for? We are creating a class. We look at numbers, grades and test scores. But there’s more to it. We are trying to put a face with all of this information.”

Christina Lopez, Barnard College, Director of Admissions
“The whole application process is one big “” process. The students are creating their ‘profile’ within their application and reflecting in the essays on who they are as scholars and people.”

Tamara Siler, Rice University, Senior Associate Director for Admission
“Students think it has to be a discussion of their most traumatic experiences. If you have a relatively peaceful existence, that is fine.”

Jan Deike, Vanderbilt University, Assistant Director of Admissions
“Sometimes students feel that because they haven’t found the cure for cancer, they have nothing to share.  Life is truly lived in the smaller moments, and that can be a powerful essay.”

Jim Cotter, Michigan State University, Director of Admissions
“The essay is value added. At a moderately selective school, it can pull a student on the cusp up. At a highly selective school, a poor statement can make the difference between being admitted or not.”

Christoph Guttentag, Duke University, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions
“By the time (the application) comes to us, many of them have gone through so many hands that the essays are sanitized. I wish I saw more of a thoughtful voice of a 17 year-old.”

Lorenzo Gamboa, Santa Clara University, Senior Associate Director of Admissions
“Students do not need to compile an entire season into an essay. Just give us one place, one time, one moment, and that will do it for you. The key is to show genuine passion, commitment and that they have what it takes to survive at the school.”

Calvin Wise, Johns Hopkins University, Director of Recruitment
“I never run into a colleague’s office and say ‘look at this 4.0 GPA.’ I will run into an office with a good essay to share; that excites me.”

 Kim Bryant, University of Michigan, Assistant Director of Admissions
“This is your interview. Let me know who you really are.”


Want to learn more? Join us for a free parent chat, where we’ll answer questions and share our latest tips.

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communications and writing services company that is a leading expert on the college application essay. Kim, a former journalist, has made it her mission to know everything about college admissions, and the essay’s role within it. She speaks with senior admissions officers from the nation’s most selective colleges almost every day. 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.