Application Essays in Class vs. In Reality

President, Wow Writing Workshop

Jun   2015



Not too long ago, my daughter, Sarah, a high school junior, took her first crack at a college application essay. It was an assignment for her English class. Sarah said she needed help—she had no idea what story to tell.

I suggested she take a step back and rethink how she was looking at this assignment. Instead of thinking solely about what story to tell, she should also consider what she wanted colleges to know about her beyond her grades, transcript, and extracurricular activities. This advice was new to Sarah.

Her assignment said to read a sample essay, pick a prompt, and tell a story about herself that answered the prompt. While there were also some decent tips included in the assignment, everything about the assignment focused on what do to and what not to do—there was no mention of how to get there. It was a good class assignment; it just wasn’t enough to help a student master this task and write an essay that would stand out in a college application.

The secret to standing out in your application essay

Here are the questions admission counselors are asking themselves when they read your admission essay: Who you are? Can you write well enough to succeed in college? Are you a good fit for the university?

Answering those questions and letting them know who you are requires thinking and reflection. To start, you must answer this question: What do you want colleges to know about you that they can’t find out from the rest of your application? Are you smart? Resilient? Funny? Social? Hard working?

Sarah told me she wanted colleges to know she was responsible. That was perfect because it was her idea, and there was no right or wrong answer to my question. Once she answered it, brainstorming for story ideas was a lot easier.

Don’t treat the college essay lightly. Good grades and test scores are not enough to land you a coveted spot at your top choice college in this competitive landscape. When it comes to your application essays, take a step back and think about how they can best help your case in proving to admission counselors that you’re the kind of student they want in their school.

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About Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is the President of the Wow Writing Workshop, one of the nation’s premier resources on the college application essay. Sign up for WOW and stay in the loop!  You’ll find out what University of Michigan Assistant Director of Admissions Kim Bryant wants to read in a college essay, plus get expert blogs, video, and other tips from many other top admission experts, including Johns Hopkins, Michigan State, Brown, Middlebury, Rice, Santa Clara, University of Miami, Cornell, Vanderbilt, and Yale. Using a 10-step online system, we teach college-bound students how to write application essays that stand out so they get in! Our students get exclusive access to videos, articles, and writing activities to streamline the essay-writing process.

A journalist and communications consultant, Kim has been teaching college-bound students how to tell their own stories in their college essays for two decades. She started her career as a reporter for the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel. Since then, Kim’s work has appeared in The Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, Crain’s Detroit Business, and a variety of regional and trade publications. She also has managed print and online communications for corporate and nonprofit clients nationwide.

Kim is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she was a reporter for The State News and covered campus news for United Press International. She served as a research/writing fellow for the Youth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. and spent a summer honing her journalism skills at Northwestern University.

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