College Essay Dos and Don’ts

Kim Lifton
July 24, 2023
min read

Every year, parents like you look for help understanding college application essays. They want to help their children, but they’re not sure how.

We understand. We know you want to help.

At Wow Writing Workshop, we believe success on the Common App essay can begin at home—sooner rather than later—with you as the guide. As a parent, you know your child better than anyone else.

Who else would go to the moon and back to help them prosper as an adult?

But what’s the first step?

Make sure you understand what the Common App essay is all about. That’s critical!

At its core, the Common App essay is all about reflection. That is the key to standing out where it matters most—inside the admissions office. The Common App essay provides students an opportunity to show people who they may never meet just what kind of person they are.

It’s often hard for students to identify their best features. They’d rather talk about accomplishments. At this age, they are not generally known for being reflective. They think about the future: where they will live, what job they might have, or a trip around the world.

In any case, they’ll have the chance to discuss some of these aspirations for the future in their supplemental essays. What’s more, most of them have had very little or no practice writing about themselves or being reflective, so they’ll be building this skill as they go.

You can help your child look inward so they can find meaning in any experience. This is a great opportunity to help your child—and bond a little in the process. The effort can make the difference between a flat essay that bores the admissions office and one that shines. This should make the essay experience much less daunting for the entire family.

Reflection begins with a conversation that you can guide—if you can initiate that conversation without taking it over.

To begin, spend some time thinking about what makes your child so wonderful.

ƒ What do you love about your child?

ƒ What are some of their defining traits and characteristics? Focus on positive qualities, not accomplishments or impressive experiences.

Next, find a time to sit down together, then share and listen with an open mind and heart. This is a journey into self-discovery for your child, where they will identify the characteristics that best define them and think about how they exhibit these traits in the world. If you choose to participate, be patient and kind. If you are not up to this challenge, that’s okay too.

If you are game, check your child’s schedule and set a time to chat when you know they are not rushed or unduly stressed. Weekends are good. The dinner table can be great. Car rides work, too.

Make sure your child knows what you are doing. This should not be a secret. Keep it casual. Your first task should be easy. Share what you love and admire about your child. What do you brag about to your friends when your child is not around?

After that, ask your child what they consider their best characteristics. If the answer is “I don’t know” or “Huh?” try a different question: What do your friends like about you?

Your child might have answers, or they might look at you with confusion. If it seems appropriate, discuss the traits you identified. Listen to—and make sure you hear—the reaction. You may think your child is compassionate, but do they agree with you? If not, why not?

Ask your child to keep thinking about the characteristics that define them, and to consider when and where they exhibit those traits. Your goal is to plant a seed and to help your child understand that colleges know very little about an applicant’s character or who they are as a person. Explain that the Common App essay offers an opportunity for students to differentiate themselves from other applicants with similar credentials.

At this point, your conversation should be well under way. We don’t believe in using a formal script, but we can tell you that this deceptively simple line of questioning gets results. You will be actively engaging in a discussion that could trigger a connection, rather than blank stares.

Guide the conversation. Keep it moving over a series of days or weeks or months. Sit at the kitchen table, in the backyard or go to your favorite coffee shop. Talk for 10 minutes or three hours. It doesn’t matter. Just keep talking.


Here are some questions to help you:

  • ƒWhat three words would you use to describe yourself?
  • ƒWhich three words would your best friend use to describe you to a new student who came to your school?
  • ƒWhat do you like to do when you are not at school?
  • ƒWhat do your friends say about you? Are you a problem-solver? Do you like a challenge?
  • I think you are ______ and ____________ (list a couple traits). What do you think?
  • If you were standing on a stage, and five people you never met were in the audience interviewing you for your dream job, what would you want them to know about you that they couldn’t find from reading your resume? What makes you great?

You might be pleasantly surprised at the valuable insight and depth you discover by talking about your child’s positive characteristics. Getting started is the single biggest challenge. Especially because this task involves getting a teen to sit still for long enough to have a real conversation about something personal and meaningful.

Whatever you do, keep the questions open-ended. Avoid yes-or-no questions. Probe, but do so gently. You can discuss your child’s dreams and aspirations later. For now, focus completely on what makes them who they are today—not five years ago or five years from now.

Then, listen to their answers. Those answers will help guide their essay.


A Calm Journey Is the Goal

At Wow, we do our best to keep our students calm as they endure the daunting college application process. Because there is always something going in the world on around us (college admissions scandals, increasing competition at all types of colleges, Covid, concerns about standardized tests, the Supreme Court ruling that ended affirmative action) our students and their parents feel a lot of pressure to get into the nation’s top colleges.

I’ll talk more about the journey, how to keep the peace at home, and how you can help your child write meaningful college application essays during an Applerouth webinar, College Essay Dos and Don’ts, on August 1st at 7:30pm. You can register here.

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop. Learn more at

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