What’s the Single Best Piece of Essay Writing Advice?

What’s the Single Best Piece of Essay Writing Advice?

Regardless of whether it’s crunch time for your high school senior who may have been “a little lax” about applying to college, or whether your student is a great planner and has left herself with a good time buffer, writing college essays, filling out applications, asking for teacher recommendations, requesting transcripts, and on and on, can be stressful. 

And on top of that, there’s keeping up with school work for 1st semester grades that will be sent to colleges.

We can’t eliminate all the stress, but thought we could help students writing essays by getting advice from an expert.

Kim Lifton, of WOW Writing Workshop, has been working with students over the past 20 years, helping them craft their stories for colleges admissions officials to read. 

Here’s what Kim had to say…


How to Write Better Essays

The best piece of advice for writing a college admissions essay that stands out from the crowd

Once you’ve got filling out the Common App down and avoided any of the common mistakes, it’s time to think about the essay.

But before you start writing the Common App essay (or any other personal statement), ask yourself this question: “What do I want colleges to know about me that is not apparent from the rest of my application package?”

The question may not seem like such a big deal. But the answer is crucial.

College admissions officers want students to reflect on their life in the Common App essay.

Applicants are only 17 or barely 18 and most have not had much practice delving deeply into their lives.

They are focused on the future – thinking about education, career, travel, and dreams.

Many of our students tell us they cannot answer that question.

We assure them that they can, and we teach them how to reflect.

Without an answer, you will have trouble writing a college essay that will help admissions officers decide if you are a good fit for their school.


How to Answer the Big Question 

First, get a little help from someone who knows you well – a parent, a friend, a trusted teacher or other adult.

Ask what he or she thinks of you. What are your best attributes?

Are you industrious? Funny? A leader? Shy? Outgoing? Curious? Are you a risk taker?

Think characteristics, not accomplishments.

Consider what colleges already know from your application.

They know your grades, test scores, awards, clubs, jobs, and the names of your brothers and sisters.

They will know if your mom is Canadian or if your grandfather is an alumnus.

Now, ask the question again: What do I want colleges to know about me that is not apparent from the rest of my application package?” 

With input from someone who knows you well, you should be able to come up with an answer.

Then you will be more than ready for the next part of the essay writing process.


How to Select a Prompt

Once you know which characteristic(s) you want to share, look at the five prompts on the CommonApp site and consider one or more of them more closely.

Any prompt will do.

Colleges do not choose favorites.

Now you can find a story that illustrates the trait you want to share, and answer the prompt.

Anyone Can Stand Out With a Great Story!

You are all superstars in your own way!

You don’t have to rescue a child from a house fire, get a million downloads for an app you developed, or train seeing eye dogs to impress admissions officers.

Last season, I read a fabulous college essay about a girl who found her passion for nature while pulling weeds in a community garden.

Equally compelling, another boy discovered his problem-solving skills when he forgot his cello for an orchestra concert and improvised his performance with a bass guitar.

“I think sometimes students feel that because they haven’t found the cure for cancer they have nothing to share,” said Vanderbilt University’s Assistant Director for Undergraduate Admissions Jan Deike. “Life is truly lived in the smaller moments.”







by Kim Lifton, President and Co-Founder of Wow Writing Workshop


Debbie Schwartz is former financial services executive and founder of Road2College and the Paying For College 101 Facebook group. She's dedicated to providing families with trustworthy information about college admissions and paying for college. With data, tools and access to experts she's helping families become educated consumers of higher ed.