What’s the Biggest Mistake Students Make in their College Essays?

In an interview with Capital Area College Access Network‘s Executive Director Michele Strasz, Wow President Kim Lifton ended with an important message: ANYONE can write an effective college essay. Writing about yourself can be challenging, but if you follow a process the task becomes much more manageable.

Michelle Strasz
Michele Strasz

As a guest of podcast, CapCAN Knows,  Kim explained how Wow’s writing process that we share with students is the key to our success. We break the college essay-writing process down into small tasks with easy-to-follow instructions so that the daunting task of writing an application essay becomes doable for any high school student.

Michele asked a lot of good questions, including one we hear all the time: What’s the biggest mistake you see students make in the college essay-writing process? Kim explained that students come to this task with an idea in mind before they even understand what a prompt is asking. They are too focused on the topic, and not thinking enough about what they want colleges to know about them.

The goal of any college essay is to answer the prompt with a reflective story that is focuses and genuine. Without parsing that prompt before settling on a essay topic, it will be hard to write an effective essay.

College Essay Topics

Often, when students come in with a topic in mind, they haven’t thought about what telling this story will add to their application. What do colleges already know? What do you want them to know? Why does this story matter? These are essential questions that we ask students before we decide on a specific story to tell.

Kim also discussed how important it is for adults who love these children to keep a healthy distance from a child’s college essay. Parents, teachers, and other adults in students’ lives can often overstep their roles. Parents and teachers can certainly read student essays, but they should never do so with a red pen in hand.

Instead, it’s much more helpful for students if other adults who read their essays are supportive. They can be cheerleaders but not coaches! This is the student’s journey above all, and overhelping isn’t useful at all. Instead of line editing, parents and teachers can look at broader issues, like making sure that the essay answers the prompt and has a clear theme.

They shouldn’t ever change the essay, suggest what words students should use, or rewrite the whole thing.  Admissions officers can tell (easily!) what has or hasn’t been written by a 17-year-old high school student.

However, if you notice that your child’s essay doesn’t have a theme (A theme answers these two questions: What happened? Why does it matter?), let them know. The student can make their own edits and changes.

To hear more from Kim, check out the video below. Kim talks about how she and Susan Knoppow started Wow, when they changed their business model to virtual, and she dives deeper into all of these topics and more. You won’t want to miss it!

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.
Recent Articles

Learn More About College Entrance Essays

Get the Inside Scoop

Stick with us, and we'll help take some of the pressure off with relevant, helpful (but not too frequent!) emails.