Why Colleges Don’t Want “Unique” Application Essays

I cringe when I hear parents, teachers, students, and counselors talk about the importance of being “unique” in a college essay.

Why? Because it’s not true. Because too many people believe it. Because at Wow, we are so committed to accuracy, and no matter how many times we tell people this is a myth, it just won’t go away.


We’d like to dispel this myth, once and for all. And we’ve got some great info to help you do that, direct from one of our favorite sources, Shawn Felton, Executive Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Deputy Chief Admissions and Enrollment Officer at Cornell University.

In a foreword to the second edition of our popular guide, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay, the Inside Scoop for Students, Shawn discussed why focusing on unique stories or experiences should not be our students’ goal. Stay tuned! The book will be published early next year, and we’ll give you a link to get free e-books for your students!

Here’s what Shawn had to say:

I’ve been working in college admissions for a few decades. In this time, I’ve noticed that students spend too much time searching for stories they believe will make them sound different or unique.

Please don’t do that. It’s a waste of your time. I don’t want different. I don’t want unique. I just want to know what makes you the person you are. I want to know what matters to you. I want to know what you care about. I want to know what you dream about.

If you want me or any admissions decision maker to notice you, try to worry less about standing out, and focus instead on standing up. There is a preoccupation with being different and unique among college applicants. I get it. The stakes are high, and there are so many applicants to so many schools these days.

But the reality is, most college applicants are much more alike than they are different. The search for something unique to share is a long, windy road going nowhere quickly. Instead, worry less about being unique and just be you and show admissions readers who you are.

I hope this insight helps you and your students. Please share Shawn’s words with your families and colleagues. The more we can lower the stakes at this high-stakes time, the calmer our students will be. And calm students write stronger college essays.

Here’s a link to get free resources for you (including a book for counselors and a free monthly Pro Chat)!

About the Author

Perceptive, resourceful, and curious, Kim Lifton, President of Wow Writing Workshop, can get a story out of anyone; she helped create the brainstorming process used in the Wow Method. Wow provides students and educational professionals a simple, step-by-step process for writing effective college essays, so students can stand out and tell their stories. We’re transforming the college essay experience from daunting and frightening to calm and empowering.

Kim’s articles on the college essay appear regularly in print and on the web, and her work has been featured in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and online publications. Kim is a former newspaper reporter and corporate communications manager with a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University.