Interview: How to Write Good College Essays

Cindy McDonald Founder Guided Path
Cyndy McDonald

In this interview by Cyndy McDonald, Founder of Guided Path, Wow’s CEO Susan Knoppow shares her best tips to help students nail the college essay.

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Cyndy kicks off the interview with a wonderful introduction: Susan has been a writer and writing teacher for over 20 years. She started Wow Writing Workshop with Kim Lifton in 2009 to fill a need in their community. Friends and others would approach each of them, asking them to help their kids write standout college essays. Now, more than a decade later, Wow helps students move through their 10-step process to write effective college application essays. The company also trains professionals—independent educational consultants, high school counselors and teachers—how to guide their own students through the writing process.

Read interview highlights below, including Susan’s top college essay coaching insights and tips.

What can a writing coach do to best help students write good college essays?

writing coach for good college essays

Susan talks about the best ways that writing coaches help their students during the writing process. She touches on a number of issues, including how to help students “keep their voice” while writing, why so-called bad writers can still write effective college essays and how to help students choose a topic.

Susan goes in depth about helping students write good college essays during the revision process. If your student or child asks you to read a draft of their application essay, you should! This is an honor, and it means that the student trusts you to read this very personal piece of writing. But, if you do so, remember that admissions officers aren’t reading students’ essays with a red pen in hand, so you shouldn’t either.

You are a college essay coach, not an editor with a red pen

As a professional, you are a coach, not an editor. This is Susan’s biggest piece of advice for professionals who read student essay drafts. Watch the recording, and hear Susan explain something you might not have heard before: The college essay does not have to be a beautiful piece of writing. Instead, it has a specific task—to communicate something meaningful about the applicant that admissions officers don’t already know from reading the rest of the application.

What does the essay teach you about the student?

If you’re reading a student’s essay, keep this in mind. Pay attention to whether or not the essay accomplishes its task, not whether the student uses commas correctly. And you don’t have to be an excellent writer yourself to do this. Instead, try to read like an admissions officer. This doesn’t mean rewriting sentences that you think sound awkward or telling the student that they should actually be writing about another topic.

The student voice is critical in any good college essay

Admissions officers know what the voice of a 17-year-old high school student sounds like; they can tell when an adult gets too involved or takes over the writing. What’s more, Susan addresses how the best topics are ones that highlight a trait that the student wants admissions officers to know about. Your job is to make sure that this trait comes across in the essay. Talk with the student about what works in the essay and whether it’s effective in its current form. And, as Susan says, “let go of the imperfect essay.”

The big takeaway from this interview

Good application essays do not need to be works of art. Remember this, and both you and the student will be less stressed and more focused on what matters in the essay-writing process.

To watch a recording of Cyndy McDonald’s fabulous interview with Susan here

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.
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