Writing College Essays: A Guide For Parents

Kim Lifton, right, and Susan Knoppow, authors of How to Write an Effective College Essay: The Inside Scoop for Parents

Kim Lifton, right, and Susan Knoppow, authors of How to Write an Effective College Essay: The Inside Scoop for Parents 

Authors Kim Lifton and Susan Knoppow, founders of the Wow Writing Workshop, both have daughters embarking on the journey to college this fall. But that wasn’t the impetus for their recently published guide, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay: The Inside Scoop for Parents, a 51-page primer that aims to enhance parents’ role in the application process.

Instead, Lifton says, the inspiration came began with a conversation with her sister, whose son was applying to schools two years ago and who was “super involved” — and super worried — about the college essay. “She called me up and she was asking me questions about the essay, and I said, ‘You know what Tammy, I really think you should step away from this and let me work with him, because you don’t know what you’re doing.’ And I wasn’t very nice to my sister. I just said, ‘Step away, you’re too involved, and you don’t know how too help him, and this is what I do, so let me help him.’

“And she was very diplomatic, and she said, ‘You know Kim, it would be more helpful if you could tell me what I could do to help him.’ And that was the impetus for this project.”

As they have many times over years of collaboration, Lifton, president of Wow and a long-time journalist, and Knoppow, CEO and a writer and teacher, went to work together to craft a guide that would not only teach students to write an effective essay — a common goal of the self-help book cottage industry — but, for the first time, encourage parents’ involvement.


The Wow Writing Workshop is no newcomer to the world of college essays. Since launching in 2009, the Royal Oak, Michigan-based company has been in the business of helping prospective students, graduate students, counselors, and others better communicate via the written word. They developed the first self-guided online program for college application essay writing, and they conduct regular webinars on a wide range of related topics; the next, titled “Get In, Get Out and Get It Right: The 30-minute Essay Review,” scheduled for Aug. 17, will offer guidelines and templates based on the theory that “it should never take more than 30 minutes to review a student essay if you know what to look for and what to set aside.”

Experts they may be, but Lifton’s conversation with her sister sparked a new idea: Why not write a guide that brings parents into the fold, includes them in the process and values their input, rather than pushing them away? Parents have traditionally been urged to step aside as a way to let the students learn to stand on their own, but as Lifton’s sister said, “Everybody tells (parents) to stay away, back off. Nobody gives us anything that we can do, and all we want to do is help our kids.”

So Lifton and her business partner went about designing and writing a new kind of guide, keeping in mind the fact that, as she says, “Most parents really and truly just want to help, and it’s overwhelming.”


Lifton says it’s important for applicants, and parents, to be realistic. It’s simply harder to get into college these days, she says, pointing to the top school in her state, the University of Michigan, which accepted just 29% of total applicants in 2015. Not far away, the University of Chicago accepted a mere 7%. Much of the difficulty, Lifton says, lies with the advent of the Common App, used by nearly a million students a year to submit more than 4 million applications.

“All of the things that we hear about college are true,” Lifton says. “It is harder to get in, the Common App does make it really, really easy to apply — maybe it’s even too easy — and the admit numbers go down every time a new school takes the Common App.

“It is what it is. But as they open up admissions, as they make it easier with streamlined applications, it truly is harder (to get accepted), and I don’t think that we should be telling kids otherwise.”

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