How to Help Your Students Get Off on the Right Foot With Their Common Application Essays

By Kim Lifton, President of

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

How many times do students come into your office and tell you they don’t have good topics for their Common Application essays? If your office looks anything like ours, that question surfaces countless times during the fall of senior year.

That’s because most students think the first step to writing a great college essay is selecting a topic. Guess what? That approach usually leads them down the wrong path.

You can help them start on the right path by asking your students to first answer this question:

“What do I want colleges to know about me that is not apparent from the rest of my application package?”

It can be challenging for students to come up with an answer. At 17, they look forward, not backward. They think about careers that might make them lots of money or save the world. They dream about traveling and raising families.

Getting an answer to this question is key to teaching your students how to reflect. Admissions officers ask students to write application essays so they can find out who they are beyond grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, and awards.

Colleges want students to show them in a personal statement, Who am I now, and how did I get here? – not – What do I want to do with the rest of my life? They want to read genuine, meaningful stories that show learning and reflection. Answering that question will help students give colleges what they want.

Students who cannot come up with an answer may have trouble writing anything that will help colleges know them a little better and decide if they will succeed at their schools. Why not take the opportunity to give your students an advantage and get them started the right way?

There’s no one better than you to get students started on this process. You understand high school students and know how to get them to talk. Here are Wow’s tried-and-true tips to help your students find their best traits:

  1. Ask your students what they think colleges know about them.
    Share what you know to keep the conversation moving. Colleges have their grades, test scores, awards, clubs, jobs, and the names their brothers and sisters.
  1. Ask your students to share their best attributes.
    Share what you think are some of their best attributes to get the conversations moving. When you do this, emphasize that you are looking for characteristics, not accomplishments. Are they industrious? Smart? Do they work hard? Are they curious? Mature? Generous?
  1. Once you are done talking about traits they want to share, ask the question again: What do I want colleges to know about me that is not apparent from the rest of my application package?
    Repetition is critical to this process. Your students have not been asked this question before. They may need to hear it multiple times before it sticks.

With input from you, each student should be able to come up with an answer to that question and list the characteristic or characteristics they want to share. Then – and only then – it’s time to think about topics for their essays – stories that illustrate those characteristics.

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop, which developed the college admission industry’s only proven process for teaching students how to think about and write the essay so admissions officers will pay attention. Wow offers free resources to high school counselors and families on their website,


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