Does Your Student’s College Essay Show Insight?

With the first round of application deadlines on Nov. 1, we’ve been reviewing a lot of college entrance essays that have not been ready to submit to colleges. Most of them lack the insight colleges are looking for. And, at its core, a college entrance essay is all about reflection. If your students don’t reflect, they haven’t responded to the prompt.


This is not a new phenomenon. We notice the same trend every year just before the early deadline when scores of students ask us to review essays they think are perfect.


Whether they got help from a parent or favorite teacher, followed advice from an older brother who landed a spot at his top choice college, or worked independently with guidance from books or websites, most of these students at this point are just looking for our stamp of approval.


The bad news: The majority of these essays are not done. Not yet.

The good news: They sent us their essays, and we are able to help them before they make a big mistake.


You can help your students, too, by reading each piece of writing for three things that colleges tell us are most significant:

  • Does the student answer the prompt?
  • Does the answer to the prompt show insight into the student’s character?
  • Does it sound like a 17 year-old wrote it?

Admissions professionals read a lot of descriptive narratives about student experiences; they prefer your students dig a little deeper in their answers to any prompt.


They want applicants to use this space on the application to showcase the traits and characteristics they like about themselves —and the ones they (not you, their parents, or their teachers!) want to share with them.


Colleges are interested in your students. They need to focus their answers to the questions on what they want to share with them, and not what they think colleges want to hear. Your students should tell colleges something meaningful that they would not know about them from reading the rest of the application package.


No matter what the prompt, every essay should answer these two questions:

  • What happened?
  • Why does it matter?

Ask your students, “Why does this matter to you?” That’s how you’ll get insight, which is far more important than what happened (the experience, the activity, or the person who influenced your student).
Tell Students: Write an Essay That Will Help You

We’ve read many well-written essays that would make great English papers. They are descriptive and full of beautifully sketched scenes. We’ve also reviewed our fair share of essays that sound sanitized, as if one or several well-meaning adults got ahold of them with their red pens. These types of essays lack real introspection, they don’t answer the prompt, and they won’t help your students.
The application essay should help every applicant. To do so, they must write it themselves, in their own voices, using their own words.


Your students deserve to get noticed. So don’t just let them click send. Not yet. Make sure it is college ready!


If you need more resources, we have free materials for high school counselors at Wow Writing Workshop.

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a leading expert on the college application essay. Kim is a former journalist who has made it her mission to know EVERYTHING about college admissions. She speaks with senior admissions officers from the nation’s most selective colleges almost every day. Wow works directly with students, and trains school counselors, English teachers and independent educational consultants who want to improve their essay-coaching skills.