Help Your Juniors get a Jump Start on the College Essay

AP exams are just around the corner; junior year is winding down. It’s never too early to think about college, or prepare for the application essay.

As you’ve probably heard, a few things are changing for the Class of 2017: The University of California system has overhauled its essays for the first time in a decade. Now, instead of two broad essay questions, UC is requiring all freshman applicants to pen four 350-word essays; applicants can choose from among eight prompts.

Earlier this month, I spoke with a top admission representative for the entire UC system. She told me admissions officers at the various UC campuses wondered if the broad questions had anything to do with the large numbers of off-topic essays they received. Many students, she said, wrote about people other than themselves; others failed to show any insight. She hopes the shorter, more specific questions will generate better essays that share something meaningful about the applicants.

The ApplyTexas system has also revised its essay prompts. The Common App questions remain unchanged.

Regardless of which prompts they are faced with, you can help your students learn how to reflect so they can better answer any question, broad or specific. At Wow, we teach students how to write about themselves by looking a little deeper into who they are. We know what colleges want, and we know there are no gimmicks, quick tricks or secrets to doing this right.

Resources for You, Your Students and Families

If you have involved parents at your school, we encourage you to share this article with them. You can also use our tips with students yourself. If your caseload is too large to spend enough time with each student, encourage them to do this together, ask a few teachers to engage the students, or contact me at for more ideas and guidelines. We have free resources for schools, and will be glad to share them with you.

We also offer free monthly webinars for parents, and we hope you’ll encourage your families to join us. You’re welcome to call in too.

How to Help Your Students Master the Essay

Keep in mind that it can be hard for kids to write about themselves, especially when the stakes seem so high. When we train counselors and consultants, we guide them through the same essay-writing process, and they see that it’s hard for them too! So be compassionate and patient. Handled right, the writing process can leave students feeling empowered, confident in their own abilities and certain of their words.

We caution parents, counselors, teachers and other well-meaning adults to be cautious. While you might know your students well, you will not be doing them any favors if you overstep your role by telling them what to write, suggesting words to use, or editing it to the point the story becomes voiceless or sanitized.

The bottom line: Be a cheerleader, not a coach. Encourage, but don’t criticize or insist. This is the student’s essay: students get to make the important decisions, and that begins with what they want readers to know about them.

Ask each student this one question: “What do you want colleges to know about you beyond test scores, grades and extracurricular activities?”

Many students have trouble answering this question. So prod, but do it gently. Ask open-ended questions to avoid ‘yes,’ ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know’ answers. The answer to this question is the key to reflection. Here are some tips to help you get there:

• Emphasize the student’s best traits. Is he funny? Is she serious? Compassionate? A voracious reader? Resourceful? Studious? If your student isn’t sure what he or she wants readers to know, point out the traits you recognize, and then ask how the student views himself or herself. Do they agree? Disagree? Why?

• Think characteristics, not accomplishments. Telling a child you have noticed how hard she works in everything she does is a good start. Pointing out the time he scored the winning goal is not.

• Be patient. Just because you ask the right questions, the student might not have a great answer for you. The conversation might meander and veer off topic, but that’s ok. It can sometimes take time and several brief conversations to encourage meaningful reflection.

• Stay calm. Remember to breathe. This one is especially important for parents!

This is an opportunity to engage in a meaningful conversation about a child’s self-perception. You might be pleasantly surprised at the valuable insight you discover when you point out a student’s positive characteristics.

Once they know what they want readers to know about them beyond scores, grades and other accomplishments, your students will be prepared to brainstorm for great topics and write meaningful college essays.

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop (WOW Writing Workshop), which teaches writing to students, businesses and nonprofits. Wow’s writing coaches guide students through the essay-writing process, train counselors and consultants to work more effectively with their own students, and speak at industry conferences throughout the country. In May, Ms. Lifton will travel to Chicago for IACAC to moderate a panel discussion about the essay with top admissions representatives from Indiana University and Northwestern University.