Writing your college application essay can be one of the most difficult parts of the college admission process. We sat down with college essay expert Kim Lifton, co-founder of Wow Writing Workshop, to ask her four of the biggest questions students have while writing their college admission essays. Check out the video below to get her insight!
Common questions about college admission essays
We’ve condensed Kim’s answers to the top four questions down to the highlights for your reading and notetaking ease, but if you want to hear the extended responses and full insight from the expert herself, be sure to watch the full video.
College essay topics
What are some of the best and worst topics for college essays? (05:09)
Kim tells us the biggest key to finding the best topic and avoiding the worst is actually one in the same: answer the prompt. She recommends that you make sure you fully understand what a prompt is asking of you before you even start brainstorming ideas.
Beyond that, here are some of the worst things you can do in your essay:
- Write something that doesn’t share anything new that the admission committee can’t already glean from elsewhere in your application
- Write about something very negative
- Don’t take the essay as a serious opportunity to share something meaningful about yourself
The best essay topics will do the opposite of everything mentioned above. It will:
- Answer the prompt;
- Be a positive reflection of yourself;
- Share something meaningful; and
- Present the admission committee with something about you that they wouldn’t have known otherwise.
Working on your essay
How much time should I be spending on my essay? (15:22)
There are many steps between starting and completing your college essay. Here’s an outline of the steps you should take as recommended by Kim:
- Step 1: Choose and understand your prompt. (She says “choose” because in Wow Writing Workshop’s essay prep courses, they use the Common App as a guide, which gives you seven different prompt options.)
- Steps 2–4: These are all content steps, meaning this is where you should be brainstorming your ideas, free writing, and asking yourself tough questions that could lead you to other insights to include in your essay.
- Step 5: Although it seems like this should come sooner, this is where you’ll write the first draft of your essay. The reason there are so many steps ahead of this is because it will set you up for success in completing your essay. This first draft will already be fairly clean and cohesive after all your content planning.
- Steps 6–10: These steps all include expanding upon, editing, and polishing your essay. After you’ve written the first draft, Kim encourages you to ask yourself (or have someone else read your essay and ask you) more questions about your essay that could fill in any important gaps you’ve missed for your prompt or topic. Then, of course, you’ll edit and polish for a final product in the later steps.
You might be wondering what questions you should be asking yourself about your essay. Well, Kim says the two biggest questions you should repeatedly be using as a guide are “What happened/what’s your story?” and “Why does it matter?”
What are the best strategies students can employ for juggling multiple essays/supplemental questions for different applications? (26:59)
Kim suggests using a three-month schedule to plan out blocks of time to work on each essay for the schools you wish to apply to. But before you begin, she says you should definitely start with your Common App essay first. The Common Application is used by many colleges around the country, and by tackling that first, you may save yourself some time if some of your schools of interest don’t require any supplemental essays beyond your Common App prompt. The one big thing you want to be careful of is not trying to work on multiple essays at once. Set personal deadlines for completing each required essay one at a time, starting with your Common App prompt, to keep yourself on track and avoid any confusion. Another helpful tip is to compare your essay prompts, because as Kim indicates, there are limited types of essays you can write. Find out where your essays overlap and you’ll rarely have to start from scratch for the next one.
What do admission officers want?
What are admission officers thinking when they read a college essay? What are they looking for and what makes them say “yes”? (31:19)
First off, Kim shares the tough words you probably don’t want to hear: admission counselors are looking at your whole application—not just your essay. So don’t put too much stock in thinking it’ll definitely be the gamechanger for your admission decision. However, she says admission counselors have and always will be looking for your essay to show them something real and genuine about you that they wouldn’t otherwise know. While they don’t know exactly what they want to read, they do know what they want the essay to do: allow them to get to know you in your own words.
If you’re looking for more helpful resources while writing your college essay, Kim regularly holds free 60-minute student classes where she answers more questions and shares her top tips. Also, check out her book The Inside Scoop for Students to learn more about the college essay writing process.
During COVID-19, we’re extra grateful to helpful people like Kim who try to make college admission easier and more accessible to students. We hope this insightful Q&A helped you in your application essay writing process!
For essay examples and more advice from us (and Kim), check out our Application Essay Clinic section.