Writing Standout College Essays

There’s a lot of advice out there when it comes to writing the college essay. We’ve read and heard it all—and if you’re working with high school juniors or seniors, you’ve probably heard it too!

But you should be careful about what you believe:  

Standout College Essays

Some folks share templates for writing standout college essays. (Don’t be fooled. Essay writing is not a fill-in-the-blank task; essay templates are not helpful.)

Others promise that if your students answer a bunch of specific questions, they’ll be guaranteed great essays. (Questions can help your students think through ideas, but there’s no magic formula. Writing takes time and exploration. No one can do it for your students.)

There are countless books on the market filled with sample college essays that apparently got students just like yours admitted into the nation’s most selective schools. (This type of claim is out of context; even the most amazing essay never got a student into college on its own!)

Some people might tell you there are only a few types of college admission essays; if your students master those, they’ll be golden. (That’s too simplistic.)

Trust us—there’s only one type of essay admission officers want to read. And that’s your student’s story written in their own words and in their own voice. Beware of the gimmicks and promises surrounding the college admission essay. We hope you’ll ignore them because there really are no shortcuts.

Our Process Is Our Magic

At Wow, our process is our magic for standout college essays. The Wow Method is simple, effective and has clear instructions to help students succeed, every time.

We help our students build on their strengths.

Participate in our free Pro Chats, read our book or sign up for our professional training, you will learn how your students can write essays that demonstrate their best qualities. We guide pros like you through our 10-step process as you write your own college essay during our premier training program, the College Essay Experience. We believe that this is the best way to learn how to help your students write any number of effective college essays.

When we work with our students, we create a custom schedule for every student to help them plan ahead of time; this makes the writing process calmer and more efficient. Each of our coaches are trained fully in the Wow Method, so they have experience with a process that works (without gimmicks or shortcuts!).

Take the example of Sophie.

Sophie was not the kind of student who typically needs help. She taught herself BC Calculus when it wasn’t offered at her high school. She tutored classmates in advanced chemistry and physics. When it was time to apply to college, Sophie did the research and picked her own schools. Along the way, she signed up for Wow’s free College Essay 101 class and read our book cover to cover.

Imagine her surprise when she sat down to write her essays and still felt stumped! Effective essays could only strengthen her application, and she felt like the ones she was writing didn’t represent her strengths. Fortunately, Sophie was insightful enough to know she needed help this time. That’s when she called and asked to work with a Wow coach.

We got her back on track, guiding her through our process with a plan, simple instructions and a schedule to tackle all of the writing tasks for four highly selective schools. Her mom was delighted, too. “You are truly a magician!” she said. “Her essays are amazing.”

If you are trained in the Wow Method, you can improve how you work with your students, too.

Wow Can Help You Take the Stress out of Your College Essay Coaching Process

Most of our students apply to four or more schools, so we’re used to helping students manage a dozen or more essays. Our scheduling and writing processes were developed with this in mind. Writing so many essays may seem insurmountable at first for your students, but, if you are trained in the Wow Method, essay coaching can become much more manageable.

The training reinforces the importance of a process that is automated to a large degree. The more the communication—assignments, emails, whatnot—associated with each step are automated, the more efficient a coach can be.

There are no gimmicks here—just an effective process that has helped thousands of students write effective college essays and hundreds of high school counselors, teachers and IECs improve their coaching practices.

Learn About The Wow Method

The Wow Method is broken up into 10 steps. The first six steps are all about generating content, exploring the story and why it’s meaningful. This phase will likely take up the majority of time any student (high school or professional) will spend on writing any given essay.

Once a student is set on content, they will move on to the next two steps, which focus on structure. They might still revise some of their content, but in general, this phase is about restructuring the existing content. Students go from the top of their essay to the bottom, reorganizing and reworking until they have a cohesive piece. Exploring content before moving on to structure makes revision easier, instead of trying to focus on both content and structure at the same time. Young writers often make this mistake, making their essay harder than it needs to be.

During the final two steps, our students polish their essays and make them shine. At this point in the process, the essay is almost finished. Here, students tie up any loose ends, make the essay more engaging to read and iron out any minor typos or grammatical errors that may have cropped up along the way. Saving this stage for the end means they don’t have to worry about awkward sentences while still generating content. Oftentimes, those sentences don’t even make it into any final draft, so why worry about them earlier in the process?

By the end of the ten steps, Wow students have an standout college essay that’s ready to be submitted. Pro students will have an effective essay after modeling our process with a coach as their guide. If you learn our process, you will see how each individual step takes a manageable amount of time and effort, making the college essay writing process easier to wrap your head around.

The 10 Steps to Standout College Essays in Detail

Now that you’ve read about the Wow Method’s general structure, we’ll go through what each step actually looks like. Before students and pros start writing, they’ll meet with a trained Wow coach to discuss how and when they’ll complete upcoming steps. Along the way, the coach will help students understand what each step requires in more detail.

Step 1: Understand the Prompt

In this step, you’ll see how we parse a prompt and help our students answer a number of questions. To start, we ask, which prompt are you responding to? Common App personal statement #5? Georgia Tech’s Why Us? We ask students to write down the prompt word-for-word so they have it as a resource. Then, they must consider: What is the prompt trying to find out about you? Parsing the prompt is an essential first step before any writing, or even pre-writing, can effectively be completed.

Finally, we ask students to answer two related questions: What do readers already know about you, and what else do you want them to know? We tell them that readers already know a lot about them, both from their transcript and from the rest of their application. The college essay is a space to share something new, something readers wouldn’t be able to glean just from knowing what sports they’re involved in or what their SAT score is. At this point, we advise students to not worry about trying to figure out exactly what they’ll be writing about—They just need to list some personal characteristics they’d like readers to know, and stay positive!

Step 2: Brainstorm Ideas

Before students decide what to write about, they should explore several ideas. Depending on which essay they are writing, they could approach this task in different ways: 

If working on a Common Application essay, they might want to consider several different options from the choices offered (a background story, a time when they experienced failure, a time when they challenged a belief, etc.), or they might have several ideas in one area (e.g., several background stories, several problems they have solved.) 

If responding to a prompt other than the Common Application, they need to keep an open mind and consider various stories that could effectively show readers something meaningful about themselves.

By the end of this step, they’ll have a few different ideas that could effectively answer the selected prompt. Then, they will choose their essay topic. They can write about almost anything, as long as the topic feels genuine, fits the prompt, showcases a characteristic and allows the student to demonstrate reflection.

Step 3: Focus on Theme

The theme of a college essay includes two parts: 1) What happened? and 2) Why does it matter?

In this step, students will answer these two questions for the essay topic that they chose in Step 2. All effective college essays have a clear theme: What happened? (a specific story) and Why does it matter? (the characteristic their story highlights). A theme will help guide any student throughout the rest of the writing process.

Step 4: Free Write for Details

Free writing is an underutilized exercise by many first-time writers. In this step, a student will quickly write down as much as they can recall about the story at the center of their essay. We tell our students to be specific and use all of their senses, but don’t worry about sounding polished or even making sense. If it’s easier, don’t use complete sentences. The important thing here is capturing details.

Step 5: Write Draft 1

Now that a student has chosen a topic and identified their theme, it’s time to start writing their  essay! They don’t need to worry about perfection, word limits or structure. For now, a student just needs to get their story down on paper. We remind them that details will help them tell their story. At the same time, they should keep their theme and prompt in mind. This will be the first of several drafts, which will gradually develop into a strong and polished essay. It’s a mistake to try to shortcut the process by focusing on structure and polish too early. We encourage students to write over the word limit in this draft. Generating plenty of content will make it easier to revise and polish later in the process.

Step 6: Review Prompt and Theme

As students move through the content phase of the essay toward the structure phase, it can be helpful to explore the essay’s topic from a few different angles. In this step, they will write outside the essay, instead of trying to revise their first draft directly. They will also write new potential openings for their essay and consider how different starting points would affect the essay’s structure.

Step 7: Write Draft 2

Students have now entered the structure phase of the Wow Method. From this point forward, they may revise some aspects of their essay, though a majority of the work will be to restructure the content they already have to make their essay more cohesive and effective.

To begin Step 7, they’ll review the essay and past exercises, highlighting phrases and sections that truly shine—great details, examples of their writing voice and elements that help answer the prompt and express their theme. They will also take notes on what they want to improve and change, before moving on to their second draft.

Even if they choose to keep large sections of their first draft, they should retype every word. It may seem easier to just copy and paste, but retyping will force any student to slow down and only use the best of their first draft, while making necessary changes. They might also want to use one of their openings from Step 6, or try out a new ending.

Step 8: Review Content and Structure

This step is all about reviewing the draft that the student just wrote. We advise them to go through the essay and make notes on what they like about the new draft and what still needs to be clarified. It can also be helpful to look back at their work from Steps 5 and 6 as they consider what changes did and did not work. Their Wow coach will do the same and will give them specific feedback on their draft.

Step 9: Write Draft 3

A student is now ready to retype their essay once more from start to finish, keeping their second draft close by as a reference. With an eye on their notes and their coach’s comments, it’s time to craft this new draft by keeping what worked in Drafts 1 and 2 and revising as needed.

Along with content and structure, they should be paying just as much attention to clarity and style. We encourage them to make every word count.  A student can polish their writing a little bit, but they should not try to sound like anyone else. Instead, we suggest they keep asking: Why am I telling this story? What do I want admissions counselors to learn about me that they wouldn’t know from the rest of my application?

Step 10: Final Review and Proofread

A student’s main goal for this step is to finish cleaning up their essay, with an eye toward grammar, spelling and clarity. That said, perfection is not the goal. Over-editing can actually take away from the essay’s effectiveness. Their essay already has a clear theme, evocative content and a well-honed structure. Key for all Wow students: Trust the process.

At Wow, we proofread every essay that every student writes to make sure that everything reads clearly and is spelled correctly. Once a student has made any necessary changes, their essay is ready to be submitted!

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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