The Secret to Nailing the College Essay: Help Students Understand the Prompt

A few years ago, a father, Alan, saw the effect the college essay can have on a high school student during his daughter’s junior year. Katie came home from school one day, flustered over a seemingly simple English class assignment: Write a personal statement for college.

He had never seen this side of his daughter. She could always manage her schoolwork on her own. Not this time. The teacher sent students home to write the essay with no instructions. Katie, not knowing where to start or what to do, was fixated on a topic — ice-skating. And why not? She was a competitive skater. It was integral to her life. Would that topic help her stand out, she asked her father?

Alan knew about the essay. He had been doing some research on college admissions so he would be prepared to guide her. Alan had already participated in one of the free online chats Wow hosts monthly (one for parents and another for professionals) to answer questions and provide tips to help college applicants.

Katie was too far ahead of herself in the process, and Alan knew it. She was thinking about a topic before she understood the prompt. The topic, he told Katie, was not as significant as the subject. In other words, the essay needed to be about Katie (the subject of the essay), not ice-skating (the topic).

Katie was about to make one of the most common mistakes high school counselors and colleges see in application essays. She was prepared to write about an experience, rather than what she learned from it or what that experience demonstrated about her. Katie was so focused on finding a good topic that she paid little attention to the prompt, one her teacher selected from the Common Application: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

The key word here is “meaningful.” Katie needed to reflect on her experience.

Fortunately, Alan was able to guide her. Similarly, you can help your students reflect so they can respond effectively to any college essay prompt. Alan asked his daughter the one question we use repeatedly with all of our students to help them slow down before choosing an essay topic: What do you want colleges to know about you beyond your grades, test scores and extracurricular activities? This is the question you can ask every student who comes into your office to talk about college application essay topics. If they cannot answer it, they are not ready to write. The answer should be a characteristic or trait, not an accomplishment or experience.

The single question about what’s important to Katie worked for Alan. It will work you’re your students, too. After a 30-minute conversation with Katie, she said she wanted colleges to know she was compassionate. She felt confident she could demonstrate that trait in her personal statement.

Alan did an excellent job encouraging his daughter to reflect upon who she is. Ultimately, she did find a topic through her experience on the ice. And, in her essay, Katie showed colleges she was compassionate in a focused story about a time she taught a young child how to skate. That experience could have happened at a library, teaching a child to read, or on a nearby sidewalk, teaching a child how to ride a bike. The setting did not matter because it showed introspection into Katie’s character in a way that could help colleges get to know her better.

How do you approach the college essay? We’d love to hear how you talk to your students when they panic, and what your biggest college essay challenges are. Feel free to email me


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Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication and writing services company that is a leading expert on the college application essay. Kim, a former journalist, speaks with senior admissions officers from the nation’s most selective colleges all