5 College Essay Myths to Know Before You Write

by Kim Lifton |  05/31/2013

high-school-student

What does the college admissions counselor really want to know about you when reading your application essay?

Here are five college essay myths and facts for a high school student to consider before writing your application essay:

 

Myth 1

A college essay has to be written about an impressive topic.

 

Fact: A college application essay is your opportunity to share something meaningful about yourself. You are impressive, not your topic. Write a genuine story about yourself that shows some reflection; use your own words and your own voice.

The story, not the experience, is most important. Colleges want to know what you learned from the experience. The topic does not need to be big.

Mission trips to third-world countries are great experiences, but a story about the trip might not make a good college essay. Write about it if you learned something significant about yourself.  This past year, a high school student wanted to write about her mission trip to Central America. But after brainstorming ideas, she realized her aha moment occurred during that trip when she jumped off a cliff into the water to get over a fear of heights.

Another girl showed determination through a meaningful story about learning to mow the lawn. The girl had assumed it would be easy, no big deal, when her dad suggested teaching her how to do it. It was really hard, but she stuck with it for several weeks until she mastered the task. 

(Wondering which college essay topics to avoid? Check out our tips here)

 

Myth 2

Your application essay should sound sophisticated, like Hemingway or a college professor.  


Fact: It has to be written like you. You are a 17-year-old high school student and you should sound like one. Not your mom. Not your dad. Not your teacher. Not the writer down the street from your house.

Last fall, during the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Denver, I asked Duke University Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag what he looked for in a college application essay.

“By the time (the application) comes to us, many of them have gone through so many hands that the essays are sanitized," Guttentag said. "I wish I saw more of a thoughtful voice of a 17 year-old.”

 

Myth 3

Admissions officers will never know if a parent, tutor, teacher or college coach has “helped” a student with an essay. 

 

FACT: There is a fine line between helping and writing it for a student. Parents and others cannot always tell, but admissions officers know when a story does not sound like a high school student, and they don’t like it. 

I used to ghostwrite columns for executives; I spent a lot of time telling my students I was one of the few people who could write in their voices, even though I would never do it. I was wrong.

Earlier this year, I tried to write a current events summary in my 14-year-old’s voice just to prove my point. She laughed at me, saying the piece didn’t sound like her – or any other teen. My summary read like an adult trying too hard to sound like a kid.

Our message to adults: Resist the urge to write for a student! It is not your journey.

 

Myth 4

There is a right way and a wrong way to write an essay.

 

Fact: Your best essay will grow out of the process of writing it. 

Trust the process! Your college application essay will emerge from a process of discovery that includes brainstorming, free writing, revision, review and editing. Wow developed a 10-step process that can take you through the process. 

Whether you choose the Wow Method or another process, keep in mind there is no magic formula to help you ace this assignment. It needs a beginning, middle and end – that’s it.

To stand out, tell a genuine story about yourself using your words and your voice, and show some reflection!

 

Myth 5

Only superstar students will impress admissions officers with their essays.

 

FactAnyone can stand out with a great story!

You don’t have a rescue a child from a house fire, get a million downloads for an app you developed, or teach an autistic boy how to swim to impress admissions officers. One boy wrote a fabulous essay about memorizing the general intestinal track to ace his anatomy final. 

A high school student wrote a gorgeous story about finding her passion for nature while pulling weeds from a community garden. Another boy honed in on the moment he forgot his cello for an orchestra concert and improvised his performance with a bass guitar. His problem-solving skills impressed admissions officers, and one college sent him an offer of admission that praised his essay.

 

kim-lifton

 

Kim Lifton, a former journalist and communications consultant, is president of Wow Writing Workshop, a Michigan-based company that teaches college application essay writing. Wow launched Wow Online – College Essay, the first self-guided online tutorial for writing college application essays. You can sign up for Lifton's weekly blog about the college application essay and the journey to college admission; Wow is also on Facebook. You can follow Lifton and Wow on Twitter.

 

 
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