The One-Question Key to Writing a Great College Essay

This time of year, every year, many high school students and their parents start to get nervous. Schools are celebrating acceptance offers; social media sites are filled with photos of people you might know wearing caps and gowns. And seniors are coming to school wearing college-themed T-shirts and caps. Now it’s your child’s turn to start thinking about college.

The journey to college can be overwhelming. Confusing. Distressing. But there’s no need to panic! We want to help you get through this process with minimal stress inside of your home.

We’ll start by giving you the real scoop on the college essay on Tuesday, August 20, during a webinar focused exclusively on the college essay and your role in the process. Please join us at 7 p.m. ET for Time to Write Those College Essays! How Parents Can Help Without Overstepping. It’s free! Click here to register.

The College Essay is All About Reflection

We know that most high school students spend a lot of time thinking and talking about friends, moving out of the house, figuring out life, choosing a career and deciding which college to attend. They don’t spend much (or any) time reflecting. And, at its core, the college essay is all about reflection.

Despite what you might believe, writing is not the most challenging part of the essay. The tough part for students comes at the beginning, when they consider what matters to them – and why. That’s the first step toward reflection. You can help your son or daughter reflect by encouraging them to explore how they exhibit their most significant traits or characteristics.

If you teach your child how to reflect before they choose a topic or try to write a first draft, you will all be better prepared for the last phase of this journey to college.

The good news: You are more than ready for this challenge

When we help our students reflect and focus up front, the rest of the process moves much more smoothly. Too many students start in the wrong place. They come to this process full of ideas about topics, with little consideration of the essay’s purpose or why they are writing one (or twelve).

All too often, students look for activities that might lead to stories, and they waste a lot of time talking about their experiences and their accomplishments. When they do this, they do not answer the prompt, which, no matter how it’s worded, is really asking students to show some insight into those experiences or accomplishments. That’s reflection.

Encourage your child to start reflecting at the beginning of the process – by having a conversation with you. You know what’s amazing about your child; help your child figure this out, too.

A Journey of Self-discovery

This is a journey into self-discovery, teaching your future college student how to be introspective and find meaning in life experiences. Find a time to sit down with your child and have a conversation that includes sharing and listening with an open mind and heart.

No matter what you discuss, it’s critical you ask your child to answer the one question that can really help hit that essay out of the ballpark: What do you want to share with colleges that they don’t already know about you, beyond grades, test scores and extracurricular activities?

The answer is a trait or characteristic, not an accomplishment or experience. Please don’t tell your child what trait to select. Once your child can answer this question with a specific trait or characteristic, they will be able to find a meaningful story that illustrates that trait and also answers the prompt.

If you can get your child to this point, your son or daughter will be ready to continue the process of discovery – and will be better prepared to write those essays this summer.

Our Gift to You: Free Book for Parents

Success on the essay begins at home. Learn how to support your child with their college essay without taking over in our book for parents, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay: The Inside Scoop for Parents. It’s yours FREE for a limited time only.

How to Write an Effective College Application Essay is a simple, straightforward guide offering insight from our decades of experience as writers and writing teachers; it provides tips so you can prepare your child to respond to any college application essay question. In the book, we clarify the mixed messages that confuse parents and students, to help families like yours make sense out of the noise surrounding the essay.

Get your copy here.

Questions about the essay? Contact Kim Lifton at

Kim Lifton, President and Founder of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication company, leads a professional team of writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. Kim teaches students how to write application essays for college and graduate school and adults how to write anything that involves the written word (such as books). Kim also supervises Wow’s business communication services, including running online seminars for small business and nonprofit leaders interested in blogging and social media.

Before co-founding Wow, Kim worked as a reporter and communication consultant. Highlights include: Co-producing a PBS documentary about teens and depression, No Ordinary Joe: Erasing the Stigma of Mental Illness; writing “First Class,” a weekly lifestyle column about the area’s most successful businessmen and women for the Detroit Free Press; creating “A Small Business Adventure,” a 12-part monthly series about the perils and pitfalls of running a small business for the Detroiter Magazine; supervising a public relations campaign and accompanying print materials that attracted local and national print, radio and TV media coverage for the National Council of Jewish Women’s annual convention, celebrating its 100th anniversary.

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