The Mad Libs Cure for the College Essay

Have you ever read an essay draft and thought, Yikes! What will readers think? Such a great kid, and he comes across as pompous (or rude or self-important or….)

Maybe your student really is full of himself. Or maybe his self-confidence just doesn’t translate well on the page.

We’ve all been there.

The solution? I call it the Mad Libs Cure.

Next time you’re struggling with tone, try responding with this formula:

  • I know you are trying to convey _____________, (I’m a committed volunteer) but it’s coming across as _______________ (I’m the only one who REALLY cares about racism in my community.)
  • I believe you. You sound like _______________ (a really committed volunteer), but let’s refocus on your audience and the purpose of this essay. 
  • If your audience were _______________ (your town council), and you were trying to convince them to _____________ (revamp the volunteer program), you might use this essay to ____________ (demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of the program). 
  • But that’s not your audience. Your audience is admissions reps, and your purpose is ____________ (to demonstrate that you will be a great addition to the campus community. With that in mind, you need to focus on ________________ (yourself; not you in comparison to others.)
  • Let’s look at this essay together and figure out how to get the tone right.

Give it a shot and let us know how it goes.

About the Author

Kim Lifton is President and Co-founder of Wow Writing Workshop a premier college application essay coaching and professional training company, offering private, virtual writing coaching services to professionals and students throughout the world.  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 leads a team of writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. Kim blogs regularly about the college essay’s role in the admission process for multiple industry publications and websites. In 2019, she was named a LinkedIn Top Voice in Education. She can be reached by e-mail at


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