Perspective to Help Your Students Write Better Essays

By Susan Knoppow
Wow Writing Workshop
Wow CEO Susan Knoppow

We all know that the competition to get into the nation’s top colleges gets tougher every year, but that’s not because students are smarter or more qualified than they were five or ten years ago.

It’s a simple matter of impossible math.

Year after year, more kids apply for the same number of available spaces at the most selective schools. It’s impossible for them all to get in.

Sharing some perspective with our students can go a long way toward helping them see how their essays fit into the larger application mosaic. Many pieces of that mosaic are already in place: They took AP Chemistry or they didn’t. They wrote for the school paper or they didn’t. They played tennis since age 4 or they didn’t. No matter what the mosaic looks like, most students are thinking about topics to wow you, and the admissions teams, rather than what they want to say. And they might be freezing up because they believe they cannot live up to our expectations.

The more we raise the stakes for our students, the more stuck they feel. You can lower the stakes by encouraging your students to think about their best characteristics first, before they fixate on topics. Once they figure out how to demonstrate those characteristics, they will relax and just write. Even average students can write compelling, effective essays that stand out when they focus on their traits and characteristics. Why? Because those essays are genuine, and they answer the prompt.

Demystifying Admissions

We try to help our students understand the admissions industry overall. I hope that sharing our approach will give you some new talking points to calm your students and their parents. I can almost guarantee that this will help your students write more effective essays.

Here’s how we explain the situation:

  • Because it is so hard to get into the top name-brand schools (think Stanford, Harvard, UC Berkeley, MIT, Vanderbilt, Columbia, University of Chicago, to name a few), the students who are qualified for the most selective colleges look elsewhere to improve their chances.
  • The Common Application and other platforms make applying to college so easy that students frequently check boxes for schools they might normally ignore if more effort were required.
  • This practice helps colleges increase their applicant pool. It works well for schools because it makes them look more selective. If a school can accept only 1,200 students and 6,000 apply, the admit rate — or the percentage of students the school accepts — will be 20%.
  • To see how ease of applying affects the admit numbers at popular colleges and universities, look at the University of Michigan, which began accepting the Common App in 2010. That year, applications jumped by 25%. Five years later, applications to U-M surpassed 50,000, and the admit rate plunged to 26.3%.
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Susan Knoppow is CEO of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication and writing services company that is a leading expert on the college application essay.  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.