Why Content (Not Structure) Must Always Come First in Any College Essay

Before we begin guiding professionals through our ten-step process in the College Essay Experience program, we ask them to name three challenges their students face when they write essays.

Many participants mention structure:

  • After years of writing in five-paragraph essay format, writing in a more freeform narrative style can be daunting.

  • How do I communicate a structure that will make sense to — and support — my students?

  • Can the Wow process work with a multiple-scene-style essay and other types of structures to catch the reader’s attention?

They are generally surprised (and relieved) to learn that we don’t teach a variety of structures, at least not in the way they might expect.

We teach content first, followed by structure and polish. We guide students through a simple, reflective writing process that teaches them how to understand the task at hand. We give them simple instructions and the freedom to make their own editorial decisions.

Structure emerges from content.

When students learn that structure comes first, they try to fit their ideas into boxes without first exploring those ideas freely. Why are our colleagues struggling with structure? Because they are taking the little pieces of content out of those boxes and trying to untangle it.

Does that sound like you?

It doesn’t have to be so hard.

If you want your students to write meaningful college application essays that are genuine, reflective and answer the prompt, you’ll need a process that puts content before structure (if you don’t have one already).

It should come as no surprise that we are not fans of the five-paragraph format; most of you are not either. But our concern about format extends to any externally imposed structure. When her children were learning to write in school, Susan wrote this insightful blog about her crusade to blow up the five-paragraph essay. I hope you’ll check it out. Substitute any structure you’ve been taught to follow for the words “five-paragraph essay” in the blog, and you’ll understand the heart of our approach.

I’m curious to know what you think. Do you teach structure first? Do you try to fit your students’ first drafts into a pre-formed structure? Does it work? Let’s continue this conversation. You can share your thoughts with me at Kim@wowwritingworkshop.com.

 Kim Lifton, of Farmington Hills, MI, is President and Co-founder of Wow Writing Workshop, which teaches students and educational professionals a simple, step-by-step process for writing effective college essays, so students can stand out and tell their stories. Kim leads a team of writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. 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 is also an executive board member of Michigan ACAC and a national delegate. When she is not teaching students or training professionals, Kim likes to write her own stuff, do yoga at her synagogue, drink coffee, and swim laps (slowly but steadily) a few mornings a week at the high school she attended a very, very long time ago.