The Time I Screwed Up as a College Essay Coach

I have been working with students on college essays for decades. But I wasn’t as good at it in the beginning as I am now. As the writer-in-residence for my friends, family members and neighbors, my dining room became a coffee shop office for anyone applying to college who needed help with an application essay.

I was flattered. It felt good to be asked to help them with their college essays.

I knew how to tell a story; I knew how to write one. But I had no experience working with students applying to college, and I had never set foot inside an admissions office. (Not yet).

I was a writer and journalist, and I felt up for the challenge. I made brisket for my young friends. They loved me; I loved being loved. Even better, it made me feel good to see how happy they were, and how satisfied their parents were with the results.

I wasted a lot of time because I had no process; I was winging it. And these kids were at my house all the time. Rather than teach them how to write meaningful essays in their own words and their own voices, I helped too much, made myself too available, and worse than anything, I over-edited. At first, I didn’t even know how much I had needlessly marked up their essays.

Sound familiar? As a high school counselor, you might not get a chance to see a student essay till the end of the process. Or students might come to you to talk about their ideas, and then you won’t hear from them again until they think they are done. And they are not…

Sometimes the essays sound like those 5-paragraph essays composed in English class. Other times, they read like clichés (winning the competition, working as a camp counselor, going on a mission trip).

You might not be sure what to do or what to suggest. You become frantic, anxiously wanting to help. So, you might start marking up their essays with that red pen.

It’s not your fault, but that red pen won’t help the students, either.

In my former life as a journalist, and basically someone who liked helping out my friends and neighbors, my voice became way too prevalent in student essays. I was a writer without a teaching process. I knew what a good story sounded like. I had a knack for getting a story out of anyone. But I did not know how to help a student write a story.

When I read a final essay and heard my words in it, I knew I had overstepped: I stopped.

I evaluated what I was doing. I called Susan Knoppow; we had already done many writing projects together. I asked Susan if she could develop a curriculum for college essay coaching.

Susan said yes. She taught me how to teach and review without overstepping my role. That was more than 10 years ago. And that’s how Wow began.

I do things completely differently today. My students get the same me, just better qualified, hands-off and a lot more efficient. That’s because our Wow Method works, and I am living proof of that!

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About the Author

Kim Lifton, a 2018 Top Voice in Education, LinkedIn, is President of Wow Writing Workshop. We are a team of professional writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. The Wow Method has been used by students to write application essays and resumes; by professionals to develop college essay boot camps and improve their essay coaching practices; and by English teachers to improve student writing skills.