NACAC ’21: Writing Effective College Essays

effective admissions essays

Table of Contents:

  • Don’t worry about hooks and punctuation when working with students on college application essays
  • Wow’s 2021 NACAC conference educational session focused on the question that helps us guide students effectively throughout the college essay process: “Why?”
  • Wow CEO Susan Knoppow kicked off the NACAC session focused on ways to improve college essay coaching practices
  • Asking the question “Why?” helps students make important decisions about choosing college application essay topics, answering prompts and showing insight in their college essays

‎Do you spend a lot of time worrying about hooks and perfect punctuation in your students’ college essays?

There’s no need for that. Instead, we’d like to help you pay more attention to the one question that helps us guide our students effectively throughout the college essay process: “Why?”

Effective College Essays

We introduced this concept to the college admissions world last fall during the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual meeting in Seattle. Wow Writing Workshop put together an all-star panel that explored in detail how asking “Why?” applies to everything counselors should do when working with students on essays, from brainstorming ideas through final essay reviews.

The session topic was such a draw that we attracted a standing-room only crowd. That’s why we decided to share the information with you, so you could apply what we have learned over the years to better guide your students through the often-daunting essay-writing process.

At Wow, we’ve discovered that asking “Why?” helps students make important decisions about choosing topics, answering prompts and showing insight in their college essays. Truth be told, asking why can help students decide whether to tackle sensitive topics and help them understand how to handle those topics as well as stories about sports and mission trips. And, equally important, that critical question “Why?” also helps counselors like you review essays quickly and effectively, and helps teachers prepare better essay-writing lessons.

At its core, the presentation focused on the reasons you—the school counselor, teacher or educational consultant—should include this important question at every step of the college essay writing process.

Meet Our NACAC Panelists

Wow CEO Susan Knoppow, in a pre-recorded video introduction, kicked off the discussion with an overview of the session topic, which centers on one word, one question: Why?

Our in-person panelists were Tamara Siler, the Deputy Director of Admission Access and Inclusion at Rice University in Houston, Texas; Holly Markiecki-Bennetts, a school counselor at Mercy High School in Farmington Hills, MI, who just completed a term on the board of directors of NACAC; and facilitator Stacey Cunitz, a school counselor at The Crefeld School and independent educational consultant and owner of Blue Moon Education, in Philadelphia, PA.

‎‎“What are some of the places we get stuck?” Knoppow asked. “First of all, when choosing topics.”

Susan Knoppow of the WOW Writing Workshop
Susan Knoppow

When beginning the college essay writing process, students will often just pick a story they want to tell and stick with it. They won’t ask themselves why they picked a story, and the adults in their life often neglect to ask.

This can be problematic because students’ first impulses are to tell a story based on what they think colleges want to hear or what a college essay “should” look like, before they understand the task at hand. In short, students fail to make the essay about themselves, when they should be sharing personal insight.

We believe the first place to ask “Why?” is before choosing a topic. It doesn’t matter what type of essay your student is writing, whether it is a personal statement, a University of California personal insight question, an Apply Texas supplement, or a creative prompt for the University of Chicago.

“For the most basic questions to the most complex question, we want students to know why they have chosen this topic, and what are the criteria for doing so,” Knoppow added. “How are they supposed to know on their own?”

Understanding the Prompt

At Wow, we have a 10-step method for teaching college essay writing. Step One is always helping students understand their specific prompt. Why should your student be expected to answer a question if they don’t understand it?

How do you help a student understand the prompt?‎

You can start by parsing the prompts yourself. “Take it apart, look at it carefully. Think about what the question really means,” said Knoppow. For example, look at the specific prompts on the Common Application, before showing them to your students. Some are basic and straightforward, and others more complex.

“Tell your students they can choose any prompt they like,” Knoppow said. “There is no right answer.”

If a question asks, “Why do you want to come to our college?” explain that the answer is straightforward. Your student needs to tell the school why they want to be there. Give them categories of possible features and opportunities to consider according to their interests. Help them understand the prompt in context by asking questions like:

  • Why would a college ask you this?
  • What do they already know about you?
  • What else do you want them to know?‎

With personal statements, and similar prompts, we encourage students to focus on sharing traits and characteristics, not accomplishments and experiences.

Colleges and universities are very good at collecting data through their applications. We ask our students consider personal characteristics that they want schools to know as well. Through telling a specific story, and answering the prompt, students can share something meaningful about themselves that readers wouldn’t otherwise know.

Brainstorming Ideas for effective college essays

Stacey Cunitz helps effective college essays
Stacey Cunitz

During the session, facilitator Stacey Cunitz explained that after you parse a prompt with your student, you must confirm their understanding by having them generate a few ideas before meeting with you.

For us, that’s Step Two: brainstorm ideas. Cunitz, and others who follow the Wow Method, give students pre-work to help them explore topics before meeting to discuss their ideas. Then, once the student chooses their essay topic, they write a theme. An effective college essay should have a theme that answers these two questions:

  1. What happened?
  2. Why does it matter?

Having a theme means more than just choosing a story to write about. A story only answers the first question, “What happened?” A theme answers both questions. “Why does it matter?” is another way of asking, “What characteristics does your story show about you?” All-in-all, a theme is the heart of a an effective college essay and should be an admissions officer’s main takeaway from reading.

Panelist Tamara Siler, of Rice University, said that she reads essays pretty quickly during the decision-making process. This means that it’s even more important for an essay to have a clear theme that readers are able to grasp on a first pass.

This is where the “Why?” comes in. Ask your students: “Why do you want to write about this topic? Why did you choose it for your essay?” No matter the prompt, asking “Why?” will allow the student to reflect on the topic they’ve chosen and evaluate whether it’s a good fit for that particular prompt.

As Cunitz put it, “We want to be able to read that essay and at the end of it just be like, ‘Oh, what happened was this and it mattered because of that.’ That’s the summary. If the essay doesn’t do that, then we have to ask: Why doesn’t it do that?”

Why It’s Okay to Write About Sensitive Topics

The panelists also discussed how the question “Why?” applies to essays about sports, mission trips and sensitive topics.

Tamara Siler Rice University
Tamara Siler

According to Siler, admissions readers understand well that students go through challenges, and today, in the midst of the Covid pandemic, it would be remiss for admissions teams to adopt any approach that frowned upon essays that showcase sensitive topics, like mental health, learning differences or other personal experiences.

“Students went through a lot. Families went through a lot. We all went through a lot, so the people who are evaluating the applications went through a lot,” she said. “I often say there is no topic that’s off limit as long as you are committed to it 100%. If you pause at any point, and you begin to be uncomfortable with what you’re saying, then there’s a problem.”
‎Students can write on any topic, but they should make sure that an effective college essay is about them, not the topic. This means their story should highlight a personal characteristic, not just that the student experienced something challenging, traveled to a foreign country, or scored a winning goal.

As Markiecki-Bennetts, the panelist from Mercy High School, put it: “Why do you want to share this story? Then I always follow up with, what did you learn? Why are you telling me this?”

Holly Markiecki-Bennetts school counselor at Mercy HS in Farmington Hills MI
Holly Markiecki-Bennetts

For stories about mental health, the questions we need to ask to determine if the topic will work are the same.

  • What does your student want colleges to learn about them from the story?
  • Why does your student want them to know that?
  • What does this story demonstrate about your student that the college does not already know?
  • Is this story only about the fact that they have experienced difficulties with trauma, mental health, or similar issues?

If the answer to that final question is “yes,” it’s probably time to steer the student toward a different essay topic.

Cunitz said that students can write about “scars,” but they should probably avoid writing about active “wounds.” Having some degree of emotional separation from whatever the student is writing about can make the difference between writing about themselves and just writing about the topic, which can be the difference between an effective and an ineffective essay.

Siler added that students shouldn’t write about depression just to try to get extra attention from readers. “If you’re talking about depression, what is it that you want us to get out of that? Why do you want to share this? What perspective are you able to share with others based on the fact that you’ve dealt with depression?”

Keep in mind, to write the most, if asking why shows your student that a sensitive topic will not work to create an effective college essay, the information may fit well in the additional information section on the Common Application or other applications.

Apply the Question “Why?” to Essay Review Process

The panel addressed how the question “Why?” can help you improve your essay review process. As you near the finish line, ask yourself: Why do I want to keep working on this essay with this student? Does it answer the prompt? Has it improved?

It is likely that throughout your work with your students, you’ve been paying attention to what each student is capable of and what work they’re willing to put into this process. Let the student’s willingness and ability as a writer guide your decisions during revision. You should also pay attention to your own ego, making sure that you’re not just pushing a student because you want to say you helped them get into Harvard.

Knoppow reminded the crowd that in time, it gets easier to know when to stop, when to let the essay be done. But in the meantime, the work will be easier if you “always know why you are doing what you’re doing, and that will help you stay focused throughout.”

Rice Supplements: Asking “Why?” in Context

To practice Wow’s approach to writing effective college essays, the panelists reviewed Rice University’s supplemental essays. Cunitz asked Siler about the school’s prompts:

  1. Please explain why you wish to study in the academic areas you selected.
  2. Based upon your exploration of Rice University, what elements of the Rice experience appeal to you?
  3. Rice is lauded for creating a collaborative atmosphere that enhances the quality of life for all members of our campus community. The Residential College System and undergraduate life is heavily influenced by the unique life experiences and cultural tradition each student brings. What life perspectives would you contribute to the Rice community?

Specifically, Cunitz wanted to know exactly what Rice is trying to figure out, what students get right and wrong with these essays, and what Siler would like counselors to tell their students about the questions.

Siler stressed that she and the team at Rice carefully think through and craft the questions every year. Each prompt is meant to help the student convey something different about themselves that officers don’t see in the rest of the application. Some aspects of a student that they want to learn are:

  • What excites them about learning?
  • Why are they excited about whatever that is?
  • Which general areas of study are resonating with them right now?

Siler told the audience there are no “right answers” to these questions, no systems to game. An effective response to Rice’s prompts should address its question without much trouble. If you ask your students “Why?” throughout the writing process, they should arrive there naturally.‎

But what if a student wants to respond to Rice’s third prompt with a story about a volunteer trip they took to Guatemala?

First, Siler said, ask them why they want to write about this topic. Maybe their answer is that the trip changed their life, so it makes sense to talk about it. But does that truly address the prompt? Does that indicate a unique life experience that the student is bringing to the Rice community? Maybe not.

‎Work with the student to understand exactly what Rice wants to know from this question. If their “why” answer doesn’t fit, either work with them to reframe the story so that it highlights a personal trait and more effectively answers the prompt, or brainstorm other topic ideas.

‎Once they have a satisfactory answer to why they are writing about their topic, the writing process can continue. Then, during revision, ask “Why?” again. Why did you start the essay here? Why did you end there? How does your essay structure help you address the life perspectives you can bring to the Rice community?

‎Asking “Why?” is a powerful tool for any college essay coach, high school counselor, teacher or independent educational consultant. There’s a reason it’s our favorite question at Wow! Ask your students and yourself “Why?” throughout the writing process, and you’ll be more effective in your role.

‎For more information about Wow, and to access free resources we provided to NACAC participants, go to

Picture of 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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