Information that can help your students write a better essay

More often than not, your students make the same two mistakes in their college application essays:

1) They do not answer the question.
2) The essays lack any real insight.

This is not big news. I hear it every year from admissions officers throughout the country. But I had a few questions this season due to some college industry buzz about the large numbers of ineffective essays submitted from this past year’s applicant pool.

Curiously, the University of Texas and University of California admissions teams had just changed their essay prompts for the Class of 2017. I asked the UC folks and about a dozen admissions officers from other colleges why.

As a group, the reps voiced the same concerns. Some said the essay questions were too general; perhaps they should be more focused, more specific. One Big 10 admissions director told me that 75 percent of the essays to that school this past year showed no reflection. A rep from one of the most selective public universities said just half of the applicants in his pile wrote compelling stories.

At Wow, we don’t think the prompts are the culprit. We believe students need more clear instructions. You can help.

Time and again, admissions officers tell us they want the straight scoop. More direct answers. A focused story. In the student’s voice. About a moment when a student learned something meaningful. They don’t want clever. Maudlin. Or some huge story. No gimmicks, either!

No matter how a prompt is worded, colleges want reflection. Most colleges don’t do interviews; a personal statement helps them round out and add a personality to the application. Yet all too often, the message – that thing colleges really want students to do with the essay – gets lost in translation.

Be a better guide to your students. Help them answer the prompts.

UC has done a great job providing instructions for answering the new questions; they are much more clear than directions in previous years.

But given the competition to get in, and the anxiety it creates, you can rest assured a lot of students will still be confused. Even with good instructions.

Now is a good time to step it up. Figure out what colleges really want, and supplement the instructions they provide for the essay with your own tools so the task is clear before your students start writing. We are happy to provide you with some additional tools!

At Wow, we believe the essays will begin to improve on a larger scale when we (the writing coaches, high school counselors, teachers, parents and educational consultants) do a better job translating the message from admissions for students.

You can pick up some insight about the essay in this video feature, College Essay Writing Tips, from’s College Planner section, and you’ll pick up some great tips to help your students avoid these common mistakes.

After interviewing dozens of experts for this story, Money selected Wow Writing Workshop President Kim Lifton, Cornell University Director of Undergraduate Admissions Shawn Felton, and Bucknell University Dean of Admissions Robert Springall to share tips for mastering one of the most stressful components of the college application.

“Your students should never write their college essays about their experiences,” said Lifton, who speaks nationally about the college essay. “It’s about what you learned about yourself from that experience. Students like to write about experiences; colleges want them to dig a little deeper and show some reflection.”

Need more resources? Get tips and tools from Wow
or you can e-mail Kim Lifton directly at with your questions.