Top College Essay Myths Debunked

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

College essay mythsYou’ve done all you can up to this point to get good grades and test scores. There’s only one thing left you can do to stand out: nail that college essay!

We teach students just like you how to write stellar application essays year after year, so we’re going to share some insight to help you improve your chances of admission to your dream school.

Consider these college essay myths and facts:

Myth #1: No one really reads the application essays.

Fact: Of course admission officers read your college essays!

Colleges wouldn’t ask you to write something they did not plan to read.

We polled about two dozen admissions representatives last fall during the National Association for College Admissions Counseling’s annual conference in Indianapolis; we asked them if they really read college essays. The collective answer was yes!

“Last year we received 25,000 applications, and we read 25,000 essays,” said Amy Hoffman, Assistant Director of Admissions at Miami University of Ohio.

Myth #2: An application essay has to be written about an impressive topic.

Fact: You are impressive, not the topic.

The subject is you; the topic is secondary. A college application essay is your opportunity to share something meaningful about yourself. Colleges want to know what you learned, not what you did.

Many of our students come to us with topics in mind.  One young woman started the process confident that discussing a trip to help the poor in Central America would impress admissions officers. It was a big trip, and she was sure someone would want to read about it.  Using the Wow Method, the student realized that her most important personal moment occurred during that service trip when she overcame her fear of heights by jumping off a cliff into the water. She wrote a gorgeous, meaningful story that showed what she learned about herself during the terrifying jump, and she got into her stretch college.

“The essay does not have to be about something huge, some life-changing event,” said Calvin Wise, the Senior Associate Director for Undergraduate Admissions at Johns Hopkins University. “You can write about an ‘a-ha’ moment, what defines you as a person. But it doesn’t have to be really extensive. Students think they need a monumental experience, but the essay can be about something small. What does it mean to you? That is what we want to know.”

Myth #3: Your college entrance essay should sound sophisticated, like Hemingway or a college professor.

Fact: Nope, admission officers do not expect you to sound like a professional writer.

The college essay is your story, and only yours! You are a high school senior, and you should sound like one. Not your mom. Not your dad. Not your English teacher. And certainly not one of the most revered writers of all time!

“I wish I saw more of a thoughtful voice of a 17-year-old,” said Duke University’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag. “By the time the applications come to us, many of them have gone through so many hands that the essays are sanitized.”

While parents and others cannot always tell the difference, admission officers know when someone other than the student writes a story. And they don’t like it.

“If a student has an adult write it, the admission committee can tell,” said Michigan State University’s Director of Admissions Jim Cotter, a 30-plus year industry veteran.

Keep in mind, many schools will automatically reject a student’s application if they suspect plagiarism.

Myth #4: There is a right way and a wrong way to write an essay.

Fact: Your best story will grow out of the process of writing your college application essay.

There are no gimmicks, magic formulas, tricks or shortcuts to writing the “perfect” college application essay.  Just trust the process.  We break our process down into small, manageable steps that will free you up to focus on what matters most: finding and writing stories in your own words and in your own voice.

“We need to dig deeper where the essay comes into play,” Hopkins’ Wise said. “That’s where we find out more about the student. The essay is a student’s opportunity to speak directly to the admissions office.

Myth #5: Only superstar students impress admission officers with their essays.

Fact: Anyone can stand out with a great story!

You are all superstars! You certainly don’t have to rescue a child from a house fire, get a million downloads for an app you developed, or train seeing-eye dogs to impress admissions officers.

Last season, I read a fabulous college essay about a girl who found her passion for nature while pulling weeds in a community garden. Equally compelling, another boy discovered his problem-solving skills when he forgot his cello for an orchestra concert and improvised his performance with a bass guitar.

“I think sometimes students feel that because they haven’t found the cure for cancer they have nothing to share,” said Vanderbilt University’s Assistant Director for Undergraduate Admissions Jan Deike. “Life is truly lived in the smaller moments.”

Want to learn how to catch the attention of the admissions office at your dream school? We teach our students how to write application essays using a proven step-by-step process that is easy to follow and gets positive results.

Wow students get into their dream schools year after year. You should too.