Juniors, we know you’re super busy right now, staying involved in school and extracurricular activities, keeping up your grades, thinking about your college lists and prepping for standardized tests. Have you thought about your college essay yet?
While you plan for life beyond high school, it’s important to start thinking about the final phase of the journey to college, which is just around the corner. In a few months, you will begin applying to college in earnest. Will you be ready?
Good grades and test scores aren’t enough to land a spot at a top college, but a standout college essay can send your application to the top of the pile. We’d like to teach you how to write a college essay for the Common App.
For a brief time, we’re giving away our College Essay Crash Course, the Common App, a 1-hour video workshop taught by our senior writing coach, Joe Kane. You’ll get instructions to simplify the college essay writing process, plus the confidence you’ll need to write genuine, meaningful college essays that will get attention where it matters most — inside the admissions office.
Joe will walk you through Wow’s unique, step-by-step method to help find your personal writing voice, understand the Common App college essay prompts, brainstorm ideas, and gather all the details you’ll need to write a meaningful personal statement in your own words and your own voice. As he moves through the writing process, he’ll pause for a few brief writing activities; by the time you’re finished, you’ll be well on your way to an effective college essay.
Kim Lifton, named one of 10 LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Education, 2018, is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication company staffed by experts who understand the writing process inside and out. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the industry with our unique approach to communicating any message effectively. Click the Wow Method to find out how we help students write college application essays, grad school personal statements and resumes that get results. We also help business and nonprofit leaders create better blogs, manage social media, develop websites and create other communication materials. If it involves words, Wow can help.High school juniors, don’t forget to sign up for your free College Essay Crash Course. You can sign up now, and and watch it at your convenience.
By Joe Kane
Senior Writing Coach
Wow Writing Workshop
Does this scene sound familiar? Your child is sitting down, staring at a blank screen, hands poised over the keyboard, but not writing anything. It can happen for an AP Language paper or a college essay. Your child feels stuck and calls it writer’s block.
Many of my college essay and creative writing students have shared a version of this story with me before starting the writing process.
It’s Really Not Writer’s Block
No matter what the writing task may be, when students feel stuck, they often doubt their basic writing skills. That makes getting started even harder. The student feels trapped; the parent feels helpless. Anxiety creeps into the home. As a result, students tend to avoid writing the first draft by continually searching for “better” topics. This won’t work. It’s not writer’s block.
When this happens with your child, give yourself permission to take a step back. First and foremost, it’s important for you to understand that writing skills and topics are not the culprits. Nor is writer’s block. Students are not really stuck; they’ve just jumped the gun. They are unprepared to write a first draft because they’ve skipped important beginning steps in the college essay writing process.
Find the Real Starting Line, Forget Writer’s Block
The famous author Flannery O’Connor said: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” This quote reminds me that writing is a great tool for exploring ideas and clarifying thoughts. This is true with any kind of writing project, and it’s especially true for the college essay.
Admissions readers want to see stories that are personal and reveal meaningful traits and characteristics about the writer. They want to know something real about each applicant.
To do that, students need to take the time to clarify their own feelings about the story they want to write. At Wow, we usually assign two or three brief writing exercises before tackling the first draft, to give students low-stakes opportunities to gather details, organize their thoughts, and warm up their minds. After all, this is a thinking task, even more than it is a writing task.
• Set a timer for 10 minutes.
• Think of the story you want to tell your best friend.
• Write down any detail about that story that comes to mind.
• While writing, keep your mind open to physical details (what you saw, heard, touched) as well as emotional details (what you were thinking and feeling).
• You don’t need to write in chronological order or even use complete sentences. It’s okay to be messy. Just write down every detail that comes to mind as fast as you can until the timer runs out.
This exercise works because it removes the pressure that’s often associated with writing a draft. The time limit is important. The feeling of racing against the clock help to turn off the second-guessing and self-editing parts of our brain is real; when that happens, it’s amazing to see what kinds of details students come up with. I’ve never heard a student say they couldn’t do this exercise due to writer’s block.
When the timer goes off, your teen will have spent 10 minutes refreshing their memory about the story they want to tell, and they’ll have a stockpile of details they can draw from when they write their first draft.
Is Your Teen Feeling Stuck on the College Essay?
If your child thinks they have writer’s block, it might be time to call in a professional. A Wow coach can guide your child, and help keep things calm in your home during this stressful time. We’re still taking private coaching students for the 2018-19 season, but our coach slots are filling up quickly. Reserve your spot now.
Has your teen already written a draft? You might want to get some professional feedback before clicking send. We’ll be happy to give your child a professional essay review. We will provide comprehensive written feedback, notes on what works, plus suggestions for improvement. We pay attention to items that matter to admissions officers, like reflection, theme and flow, and comment on technical issues, including grammar, spelling and sentence structure.
About the Author
Joe Kane is Wow’s Senior Writing Coach. A poet and editor, Joe coaches Wow’s college essay, ACT/SAT writing and creative writing students, and he teaches Wow’s intensive, online workshop, Be a Better Writer. He is also a program director of SLANT, which provides creative writing opportunities for Nashville area teens. In all he does, Joe has never complained about writer’s block.
Wow Writing Workshop is a strategic communication company staffed by experts who understand the writing process inside and out. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the industry with our unique approach to communicating any message effectively. The Wow Method helps business and nonprofit leaders create better blogs, manage social media, develop websites and create other communication materials. It also helps students write college application essays, grad school personal statements and resumes that get results. If it involves words, Wow can help.
As your child starts to wrap up their college applications to meet the Nov. 1 deadline, they may ask you, “Is my essay good?”
How will you know?
In its simplest form, a good personal statement will have a theme that answers these two questions:
1) What happened? 2) Why does it matter?
Many other types of application essays, such as the Why College X? prompt, activity, creative or community essays, can be judged by these criteria as well. While the story will naturally take center stage, readers should also know why the writer chose to share it.
Admissions officers will not get excited over a piece of writing that beautifully details an experience, then adds a generic sentence at the end, stating that the writer learned something significant. Nor will they enjoy a five-paragraph essay with an introduction, thesis statement, supporting paragraphs and a conclusion. For college admission, the story needs no introduction or conclusion.
You can search the Internet for the “best” ideas, or read samples, but it won’t help. There is no best idea, shortcut or structure to imitate for the college essay. The best essays emerge from the writing and thinking process; they answer the question, show some insight and illustrate a positive trait about the applicant.
A few years ago, one of our students illustrated his determination with a simple story about memorizing the parts of the gastrointestinal intestinal tract to ace his anatomy final. Another girl wrote about finding her passion for nature in a community garden while pulling weeds. A boy with an autism spectrum disorder blew us away with a powerful story about his problem-solving skills. He forgot his cello for an orchestra concert and improvised his performance with a bass guitar. His story impressed admissions officers at his top-choice school, and the admission letter even praised the essay.
While these stories were beautiful, none was perfect. The college essay is not about perfection. Not even the most selective colleges expect brilliant prose from a teenage applicant. They know they are dealing with kids, so they often will cut applicants some slack. At the same time, they don’t appreciate students throwing together sloppy essays the night before the deadline. They want to see some effort and a healthy respect for the rules of written English.
The essay is the best place to show colleges who your child is. We encourage every student to reflect and honor their voice so they can confidently share their stories.
It’s hard for students to write about themselves, especially when the stakes seem so high. But handled properly, college essays can make or break any application package. As a bonus, writing them can leave students feeling empowered, confident in their abilities and certain of their words.
Would you like to make sure your child’s essay is effective? Is their theme clear? Does the essay illustrate what they want colleges to know? Before your child clicks send on that application, find out if they’ve hit the mark with a professional review from a Wow Writing Coach.
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.
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?
At the end of every school year, moms and dads call us in a panic, asking for help understanding college application essays. They tell us they are worried about the competition to get into college – and the amount of work required for their children to stand out and get noticed inside the admissions office.
We will never suggest you write a college application essay for your child, or edit an essay so heavily it loses your child’s personality and voice. But we believe you can play a critical role in the preparation process. Who else would go to the moon and back for your child?
Parents have called the book engaging, informative and a must-read for any parent with a child applying to college. Here are a few reviews:
Debbie Logan, from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, read the book before her second daughter applied to college. (She now attends Columbia University.) Logan said the book helped her keep a healthy distance from her second daughter’s application, particularly the essay. “This book gave me insight into the parent’s role in the process. I had no idea what colleges were looking for or where my job ended. The insight is priceless.”
Rebecca Gold, from Providence, Rhode Island, was about to start working with her third child on the college application journey when she read the guide. She said it was easy to follow, well-written and more helpful than any other college-related book for parents. “Rather than telling me what to do, the authors helped me understand what my son needed to be successful in this essay writing process, and what I could do to support him.”
Mark Cornillie, from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, thought his background in public relations and journalism would be valuable when his sons applied to college. The book gave him a reality check. “I thought I had some wonderful ideas about the essays my son should write and how he should write them. This book convinced me to step back, and empowered my son to remind me whenever my conviction faltered. The essay he submitted was wholly his own, and not only did he achieve admission to his top-choice school, but his essay was among a handful referenced in a letter by the Dean of Admissions to incoming students. I doubt my envisioned ‘perfect’ essay would have achieved that.”
Our Go-to Guide Parses all 7 Common Application Prompts
How to Write an Effective College Application Essay includes a complete list of the new Common App prompts; we’ve even parsed all 7 prompts to make your job easier. You’ll find chapters with useful resources, information on our unique approach to writing the essay, and additional access to writing exercises we use with our own students.
The essay is the most daunting part of the college application process for many students; you won’t want your child to wait till the last minute to start. Start now. Parents who read our book and follow our advice are always surprised by how straightforward it is. Many are also surprised by how wrong they were about their role in the process.
When students learn how to reflect before they start writing, they write more meaningful college essays. With our book as your guide, you can help your child approach the college application essay calmly and confidently, and get a better shot at admission to their dream school.
Get your copy of How To Write An Effective College Application Essay now. It’s just $9.99.
Is your child ready for the college journey? Are you? What are you doing to help keep the peace at home during this unusually stressful time?
Today’s teens are under SO much pressure to succeed! Every spring, parents call us in a panic, wanting help with the college essays because they are worried that their children will not get into college.
While the fear is unfounded, it often feels real. What’s more, the essay can make the process even more daunting, and it should feel like an opportunity, not a burden.
Writing an effective college essay is more important than ever, and doing it right does set students apart inside an increasingly competitive admissions business. But if students take the time to learn HOW to write it, from beginning to end, anxiety levels should decrease in your house. We can help calm your teen, and you, during the college admission season. We wrote a book for you so you know how to get your child prepared, and we can teach your child how to write that essay.
Our students get into their top choice colleges year after year; your child should too. To learn more about what it takes, check out my interview with Dr. Maggie Wray, a leading educational psychologist from Atlanta, for her 3rd annual Unstoppable Teens Online Interview Series.
I loved my interview with Dr. Wray. She asked fantastic questions! We talked about what the essay is, our new book for parents like you, why your child needs to write 1 or 10 essays, what admissions wants, and how to knock it out of the ballpark so admissions will notice your child.
3rd Annual Unstoppable Teens Online Interview Series Helping parents empower their teens to excel in high school, college, and beyond! June 14-24
During this event, some of the top experts in education, college admissions, parenting, and psychology will be sharing their insights and strategies about how to help your teen…
Write outstanding essays (that’s me!)
Better grades with less stress
Ace their SAT and ACT tests
Find a college that’s a GREAT fit for them
Win more college scholarships
Successfully transition to life as a college student
Start thinking about career choices
…and so much more!
I’m honored to be one of the featured speakers on this series and am looking forward to sharing this information with you!
I’ll look forward to seeing you there! Thanks & best wishes.
Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication and writing services company. Wow was founded by professional writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. The Wow Method has been used by students to write application essays and resumes; by business owners to create blogs, websites and other communication materials; and by English teachers to improve student writing skills. To reserve a space for the upcoming season, sign up now for one Complete Essay writing package.
Have you seen the two new essay prompts on the Common Application? Every few years, the Common App, a tool used by more than 700 colleges to help students apply seamlessly to multiple schools, updates its essay prompts. The changes are based on feedback from students, parents, high school counselors, educational consultants and member schools following each admissions cycle. This year, the Common App added two new prompts; they also tweaked some of the current questions.
What does it all mean for high school juniors who are about to start the journey to college? Nothing, really. The task is the same. The revisions to prompts 2, 3 and 5 clarify the purpose of those questions, while the new prompts provide a few more options.
Reflection Matters Most
The changes reinforce the message we share with our students and in our popular book, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay, which was just released in paperback. At its core, a personal statement is all about reflection. An effective essay shows insight into a student’s character because it answers two central questions: 1) What happened? and 2) Why does it matter?
Why a topic matters to a student (the reflection) is more important than what happened (the experience, the activity, the idea, the concept, or the person who influenced that student).
Here are 4 simple steps to help you understand any Common App prompt so you can choose a meaningful topic that demonstrates both what happened and why it matters.
Review the instructions
Most students skip straight to the prompts and miss the important information built into the instructions. Make sure you read this first: “The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response.”
Ask one more question
Before choosing a prompt or exploring topics, ask yourself: What do I want colleges to know about me that they wouldn’t otherwise know from the rest of my application? Think about traits and characteristics, not accomplishments.
Review the prompts
Look closely at the seven prompts once you know which characteristic(s) you want to share. (We’ve tackled #6 and #7 below.) Do not dive into topic ideas until you’ve confirmed that you understand the 7 options.
The goal is to find a topic that best illustrates the trait or traits you want to share, and which also responds directly to the prompt. If you choose a story but can’t explain why it makes a strong Common App topic, or how it demonstrates something meaningful about you, you’re not ready to write a draft.
The New Prompts: What Are They All About?
Just to confirm that we understood the purpose of the changes, we went straight to the source – Scott Anderson, Senior Director of Education and Partnerships for the Common Application. He said:
The prompts have changed slightly, but the instructions remain the same: What do you want application readers to know about you? The prompts simply serve to help students approach that question from as many angles as possible, whether it be maturity, identity, curiosity, pastimes, aspirations, community, relationships, or anything else. Students should pick the prompt that supports and gets them excited about the story they want to tell about themselves.
Here’s our take on Prompts #6 and #7, which have generated the most questions from our students and industry colleagues:
Prompt 6: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
The key word in this prompt is “engaging,” but even that word can seem overwhelming. Remind yourself that the essay is not about the topic, idea or concept; it’s about the applicant. You don’t have to impress with big ideas. Try asking yourself questions like these: Why is this topic, idea or concept so engaging? How does it make me feel? Who do I talk to about these ideas? Where do I go to research new concepts? What have I learned about myself?
Maybe you care about social justice. Perhaps you’re captivated by humor or technology. You can explore the concept overall or share an example of that concept in action. Whether you collected clothes and toiletries for a local family who lost their home in a fire or attracted ten thousand followers by tweeting a daily joke, why did you do it? How does that activity demonstrate how you think, problem-solve or process information? What did you learn about yourself? How did the idea affect or change you? If you want to focus on the big picture, make sure you know how you want to approach the concept before starting to write a first draft.
Prompt 7: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
The key word in this prompt is “choice.” While #7 appears to be different from the other prompts, the purpose is the same. Yes, applicants can submit any essay they want in that 650-word space, but as the overall instructions clearly state, even an A+ paper must still illustrate something meaningful about the student.
Suppose you want to submit a critical analysis you wrote for Honors English about a character in Jayne Eyre. Could it work? Maybe. Ask yourself what the essay demonstrates about you. Do you yearn for more than what traditional society allows, like Jane? Does the paper demonstrate how the book propelled you toward political activism? Does it show how the book changed you? After admissions officers read the paper, will they learn something new about you? If not, it won’t work as a college essay, no matter how well-written.
Both new prompts do exactly what the old ones did – maybe better.
Parents, find out how you can help your child respond to any prompt in our next monthly Parent Chat. It’s June 6, and it’s free. If you cannot make it, sign up anyway, and we’ll send you a recording.
Counselors and other professionals, find out TOMORROW how you can help your students respond to any prompt in our monthly pro-chat. It’s a free 30-minute session just for you, too. Join us live or listen to the recording.
This blog about tips to master the Common App Essay was published on Aug. 1 on the Washington Post site, StudentAdvisor.com.
The new Common Application went live Aug. 1, and you might be worried about your personal statement. The good news? Everything you need to know about how to respond to the Common App essay is included in the instructions:
The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.) Read more
Last week, after we praised a student for a well-written essay, he looked surprised and said it was the first time anyone had complimented his writing. He did not know he could write such a gorgeous story about finishing a challenging hike in the mountains with a group of rugged teens while he was violently ill.
He did it. And the final draft was exceptional. The first few sentences drew us in:
I had hiked 45 miles in three days with a 60-pound pack, and I was physically exhausted. I woke up on the fourth morning, and I wasn’t sure if I could do it again. My shoulders were throbbing, like somebody was punching me repeatedly.
He went on to tell a heart-wrenching story with vivid details that showed determination and strong will. He didn’t give up; he made the best of a bad situation. What might a college admissions committee get out of it? This student takes risks, finishes what he starts, will get his work done no matter what – and without excuses. He is ready for college and will give it 100 percent.
Why did he think he couldn’t write? He knew what happened, and he knew why it mattered. He just didn’t know how to put all the pieces together. Our process taught him how.
We work with many high school seniors who claim they don’t like writing or who say they are not very good at it. We ask them, “Can you think?” They all say yes.
We tell them, “If you can think, you can write,” but we don’t leave it at that. We take our students through a tried-and-true process that teaches them – step by step – how to develop an idea, brainstorm, free write for details, revise, edit and add the “wow factor” so it can stand out from the crowd.
Like most of our students, the boy with the hiking story was ready for this writing task. He just needed a process to get it done. That’s what the Wow Method is all about. Most people can recognize a great story; we know how to help students tell those stories in their own voices and in their own words.
Ready to tell your story? Join us for a drop-in session this Sunday, October 9, 1-4 p.m., 30150 Telegraph Road, Suite 120 in Bingham Farms. Everyone is welcome.