What Do Colleges Really Want in an Essay?

When it comes to the college essay, parents and other well-meaning adults often focus on the beauty of the prose, the “hook” and the topic. Be careful. That’s not what colleges want.

It’s August, the month our phones ring off-the-hook every year. Students are nervous or stuck, and their parents do not know how to calm them, or help them with application essays.

The first college application deadline is just months away, and many rising seniors are still unsure of what’s expected. They don’t know where to start, or even why colleges are asking them write one essay or five. Do you know what colleges want? We can help.

The College Essay is About Reflection

At its core, the college essay is all about reflection; it’s a thinking task. Readers are not looking for perfection. Colleges want insight into your child’s character. Will they fit in? The essay should put a face to that huge pile of paper and help round out the application package.

“It’s value-added,” says long-time admissions professional James Cotter, the Dean of Admissions at Michigan State University. “At a moderately selective school, the essay 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.”

College admissions pros are delighted when they read narratives that highlight positive personal traits and characteristics, but they get frustrated by essays that detail experiences or brag about accomplishments.

“What does the experience mean to you? Why was it important? That is what we want to know,” explains Calvin Wise, Director for Recruitment, Johns Hopkins University.

To stand out, applicants need to follow the instructions and share some genuine insight. You can help your child get ready for the essay, but be careful because it is easy to overstep your role – even unintentionally.

We’ve been doing this a long time and have never worked with a student who was not up to the task. We can teach your child how to brainstorm for ideas, and how to answer any type of prompt using their own words and own voice so college admissions officers will want to read it. Our students get into their top choice colleges, year after year, including all the Ivies, and dozens of selective public and private schools. Your child should, too.

The application essay is not as easy as students would like it to be, but it does not need to be so difficult, either.

“Answer the question,” says Shawn Felton, Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Cornell University. “Since so many students don’t do that, you could actually stand out by doing that very basic thing.”

Is your child prepared for the journey? Do they know how to get the right kind of attention inside the admissions office?

Wow can help your child succeed on the college application essay, no matter where you are in the journey. Check out our free and paid services.

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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