How to Stand Out in a Community Essay for the University of Michigan

What does the University of Michigan want to know about you from the supplemental essay about community?

Here’s the prompt:

Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.

Kim Bryant University of MichiganIn a recent interview with Wow, Kim Bryant, U-M’s assistant director of admissions, offered some insight for students who are responding to this prompt.

Tip #1: Show who you are outside the classroom.  “We have an amazing, vibrant, thriving community mixed up of students in athletics, strong academics, research, over 1,200 student clubs and organizations. We want to know what they do to stand out. What do they do in their community, church, high school, synagogue, mosque? What are they going to do on our campus to make a difference in the world?”

Tip #2: The essay is your interview. “We don’t do interviews, so I tell students, this is your interview. Let me know who you really are.”

Tip #3: Tell a story. “I like reading a personal story that is tied to real life. I like it when I can hear a student’s voice. Storytellers are always good.”

Before you start writing, ask yourself what you would like the university to know about you. Then brainstorm for subject ideas. Did you start a club at school? Do you spend weekends with your youth group? Do you organize basketball games for the kids in your neighborhood? Perhaps you are a member of the debate or sports team or tend a community garden. Once you find a subject, tell a story to illustrate your point.

Read more stories about writing outstanding college application essays for UM and other selective schools:

How to write the Common App personal statementHow to Write the Common App Essay
Top 5 College Essay Myths
What’s The Biggest Mistake Students Make in their College Essays?
Don’t Try So Hard to be “Unique” In College Essay
How to Write Great Supplemental Essays

Before you read more about how to think about and parse any college essay supplemental prompt, consider what you think you know about the college essay. Ask yourself, what if everything I think I know about the college essay is wrong?

There’s a good chance the information you’ve heard is indeed wrong. That’s because a lot of inaccurate and out-of-context information makes its way to you through the Internet, books, blogs, and even inside your high school hallways. It’s so important to get accurate information when you are applying to college. That’s where we come into the picture at Wow. We will always give you the most accurate information regarding the college essay, its purpose, how to write one that is effective and also captures the right kind of attention (the kind you want!) inside the admissions office.

No One Knows More than the College Essay than Wow

Want to know what else admission teams care about? Click here. If you want to learn more about how to write a college essay that Shawn and any admissions officer would want to read, please join me for a monthly free webinar for students (invite your bring your friends; Mom and Dad are invited, too!)

We offer the college essay class, called Everything You Think You Know About the College Essay Is WRONG, the second Wednesday of each month at 7:00 pm Eastern (February – September). In it, I take students like you through the first 4 steps of Wow’s signature process to give students a taste of our approach to the college essay. I dispel the college essay myths, share our best tips, and answer questions live. Can’t join us live? No problem! Just register, and I’ll send you the recording.

There’s so much information about college essays out there, how can anyone, even a bright, talented student, tell the difference between what’s worth listening to and what’s not? That’s where I can help. I’m a journalist by training, and I only share information I have checked and double-checked, then checked again.

I go straight to the source to admissions leaders like Kim Bryant to find out what they’re looking for in application essays, and I’m excited to share what I know with you. Need more help?

Learn About the Wow Method

Wow writing workshop Kim and Susan
Kim Lifton & Susan Knoppow

The Wow Method is broken up into ten steps. The first six steps are all about generating content, exploring your story and why it’s meaningful. This phase will likely take up the majority of time you spend on writing any given essay.

Once you are set on content, you’ll move on to the next two steps, which focus on structure. You might still revise some of your content, but in general, this phase is about restructuring the content you already have. You’ll go from the top of your essay to the bottom, reorganizing and reworking until you 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, you’ll polish your essay and make it shine. At this point in the process, your essay is almost finished. Here, you’ll 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 you don’t have to worry about awkward sentences while you’re still generating content. Oftentimes, those sentences don’t even make it into your final draft, so why worry about them earlier in the process?

By the end of the ten steps, you’ll have an effective college essay that’s ready to be submitted. Each individual step takes a manageable amount of time and effort, making the college essay writing process easier to wrap your head around. Learn more about the Wow process here.

The 10-Step College Essay Writing Process in Detail

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

CONTENT (Steps 1 through 6)

Step 1: Understand the Prompt

In this step, you’ll answer a number of questions. To start, which prompt are you responding to? Common App personal statementGeorgia Tech‘s Why Us? Write down the prompt word-for-word so you have it as a resource. Then, 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, you’ll answer two related questions: What do readers already know about you, and what else do you want them to know? Readers already know a lot about you, both from your transcript and from the rest of your application. The college essay is a space to share something new, something readers wouldn’t be able to glean just from knowing what sports you’re involved in or what your ACT score is. Don’t worry about trying to figure out exactly what you’ll be writing about yet—Just list some personal characteristics you’d like readers to know, and stay positive! We can help.

Step 2: Brainstorm Ideas

Before you decide what to write about, you’ll want to explore several ideas. Depending on which essay you are writing, you could approach this task in different ways: 

  • If you are working on your Common Application essay, you might want to consider several different options from the choices they offer (a background story, a time when you experienced failure, a time when you challenged a belief, etc.), or you might have several ideas in one area (e.g., several background stories, several problems you have solved.)   
  • If you are responding to a prompt other than the Common Application, keep an open mind and consider various stories that could effectively show readers something meaningful about you.

By the end of this step, you’ll have a few different ideas that could effectively answer your prompt. Then, you will choose your essay topic. You can write about almost anything, as long as the topic feels genuine, fits the prompt, and shows a characteristic. Learn more about Wow Writing Workshop.

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, you’ll answer these two questions for the essay topic that you chose in Step 2. All effective college essays have a clear theme: What happened? (your specific story) and Why does it matter? (the characteristic your story highlights). Your theme will help guide you 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, you will quickly write down as much as you can recall about the story at the center of your essay. Be specific and use all of your senses, but don’t worry about sounding polished or even making sense. If it’s easier, you don’t even need to use complete sentences. The important thing here is capturing details.

Step 5: Write Draft 1

Now that you have chosen a topic and identified your theme, it’s time to start writing your essay! Don’t worry about perfection, word limits or structure. Just get your story down on paper. Remember—The details will help you tell your story. At the same time, keep your theme and your prompt in mind. This will be the first of several drafts, which will gradually develop into a strong and polished essay. Do not try to shortcut the process by focusing on structure and polish too early. We encourage you 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 you 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, you will write outside the essay, instead of trying to revise your first draft directly. You will also write new potential openings for your essay and consider how different starting points would affect your essay’s structure.

CONTENT + STRUCTURE (Steps 7 and 8)

Step 7: Write Draft 2

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

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

Even if you choose to keep large sections of your first draft, you should retype every word. It may seem easier to just copy and paste, but retyping will force you to slow down and only use the best of your first draft, while making necessary changes. You might also want to use one of your 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 you just wrote. Go through your essay and make notes on what you like about the new draft and what still needs to be clarified. It can also be helpful to look back at your work from Steps 5 and 6 as you consider what changes did and did not work. Your coach will do the same and will give you specific feedback on your draft.


Step 9: Write Draft 3

You’re now ready to retype your essay once more from start to finish, keeping your second draft close by as a reference. With an eye on you and your coach’s comments, craft this new draft by keeping what worked in Drafts 1 and 2 and revising as needed.

Along with content and structure, you should be paying attention to clarity and style. Make every word count. You can polish your writing a little bit, but don’t try to sound like anyone else. 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

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

Your coach will proofread your essay to make sure that everything reads clearly and is spelled correctly. Then we’ll send it off to a professional proofreader for a final read. Once you’ve made any necessary changes, your essay is ready to be submitted!

Sample Personal Statement Student Schedule
Week 1 starts Sunday

SundayReceive welcome email from your coach with link to brainstorm datesStudent
SundayMake sure you’ve chosen a brainstorm dateStudent
WEEK 1DateTaskWho
SundayIntro-Step 2: Prework due (1 hour)Student
MondayNo new assignment
TuesdayYou will schedule a brainstorm Tues, Wed or Thurs this week, then complete Steps 3-4 after the meeting. Together, this will take about 2 hours.
Your coach will respond within a day so you can start writing your first draft.
FridayRespond by Friday; assign Step 5Coach
WEEK 2DateTaskWho
SundayStep 5: Content draft due (2 hours)Student
Monday Step 6: Assign Write Outside the Essay exerciseCoach
TuesdayStep 6: Write Outside the Essay exercise due (1 hour)Student
WednesdayStep 6: Assign New Openings exerciseCoach
ThursdayStep 6: New Openings exercise due (1 hour)Student
FridayStep 7: Assign Plan Your Next Draft exerciseCoach
WEEK 3DateTaskWho
SundayStep 7: Plan Your Next Draft exercise due (1 hour)Student
MondayStep 7: Assign Draft 2 (Content + Structure)Coach
TuesdayStep 7: Work on essayStudent
WednesdayStep 7: Content + Structure draft due (2 hours)Student
ThursdayStep 8: Respond to Content + Structure draftCoach
FridayStep 9: Content + Structure + Polish draft due (2 hours)Student
WEEK 4DateTaskWho
Sunday Continue working/revise if another draft or more time is requiredCoach and Student
MondayStep 10: Respond to Content + Structure + Polish draftCoach
Tuesday Send essay to proofreaderCoach
ThursdayReturn essay to student after proofreadingCoach

Steps 7-10 are flexible, and sometimes require extra drafts

Want to know what else admission teams care about? Click here. If you want to learn more about how to write a college essay that Kim Bryant and any admissions officer would want to read, please join me for a monthly free webinar for students (invite your bring your friends; Mom and Dad are invited, too!)

We offer the college essay class, called Everything You Think You Know About the College Essay Is WRONG, the second Wednesday of each month at 7:00 pm Eastern (February – September). In it, I take students like you through the first 4 steps of Wow’s signature process to give students a taste of our approach to the college essay. I dispel the college essay myths, share our best tips, and answer questions live.Can’t join us live? No problem! Just register, and I’ll send you the recording.

Picture of Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop. Perceptive, resourceful and curious, Kim can get a story out of anyone. Kim is a former newspaper reporter and corporate communications manager. With Susan Knoppow, Wow’s CEO, Kim developed the Wow Method by combining her journalistic training with Susan’s organization and instructional design skills. She holds a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University. Kim’s articles on the college essay appear regularly in print and on the web, and her work has been featured in a variety of newspapers, magazines and online publications. Kim and Susan have co-authored three books – How to Write an Effective College Application Essay (The Inside Scoop for Parents, Students, Counselors). They are members/affiliates of the Michigan Association of College Admission Counseling (MACAC), the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA).
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