How to Help Your Students Write Their Best College Application Essays

In one of her Friday Forums for educational professionals, Cyndy McDonald, a CEP who is well known as the founder of GuidedPath and one of the founders of HECA, interviewed Wow’s CEO Susan Knoppow.

Cyndy McDonald

With more than 30 years of experience in college admissions  under her belt, Cyndy recently launched a new venture as a career and business coach.

In the interview, Cyndy and Susan discussed best practices for college application essay coaching.

Read interview highlights below, including Susan’s top college essay coaching insights and tips. You can watch the interview here.

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

Susan talked about the best ways that writing coaches help their students during the writing process. She touched 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 …

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

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

Susan Knoppow


Kim Lifton, of Farmington Hills, MI, is President and Co-founder of Wow Writing Workshop, which teaches students and educational professionals a simple, step-by-step process for writing effective college essays, so students can stand out and tell their stories. Kim leads a team of writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the college admissions industry with our unique approach to communicating messages effectively through application essays, including personal statements, activity and short answer essays and supplements. Kim is also a board member of MACAC. When she is not teaching students or training professionals, Kim likes to write her own stuff, do yoga at her synagogue, drink coffee, and swim laps (slowly but steadily) a few mornings a week at the high school she attended a very, very long time ago.

Kim Lifton

Our free gift to you!

And, if you’d like a free electronic copy of our book for counselors, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay, the Inside Scoop for Counselors, download it here.

Let your students know we have a free class for them, too!

If you want to help students with the basics, encourage them to sign up for our monthly free student class or Wednesdays at 7 p.m. Eastern.

Next up

Wednesday, Feb. 9, Wow Writing Workshop at 7 p.m. ET! You are welcome to sign up, too.

Learn more about Cyndy McDonald at