Are you looking to write the most awesome personal statement ever? Are you wondering what factors comprise essays that make college admissions staff go “WOW!” From working with students as a private college counselor for over a decade, I have found certain patterns in the essays that help get students into the most exclusive universities, like Stanford and Harvard. For students applying to colleges with more generous admit rates, a “wow essay” can help secure admission to reach schools.
Don’t be fooled. At top colleges, a “wow essay” may compensate for several B’s or a test score a sliver below the 25th percentile, but don’t expect admission if your stats aren’t close.
Is a “wow essay” the same as a “wow factor”?
To be clear, a “wow essay” is not the same as a “wow factor.” But they are related. A “wow factor” is an activity or accomplishment that you achieve before sitting down to type that first draft. A “wow essay” is a piece of writing that arrests the reader with its ideas and narrative. Often the material for a “wow essay” comes from a “wow factor.” Still, you can write an amazingly engaging essay, even if your activities don’t place you among the modern gods of extracurriculars. Additionally, incredible “wow factors” can sometimes lead to unexpected admissions (like David Hogg getting into to Harvard). But with a wow essay, you’re likely just getting in to Harvard when your grades/scores/activities are on par.
What if my essay isn’t a “wow essay?”
Take heart: over 90% of college essays are NOT wow essays. Plenty of students gain admission to the 2000+ 4-year colleges in the US without a “wow” essay. Even Ivy League schools admit academically qualified students with typical essays if they fulfill other university goals, such as geographic diversity. Students with impeccable test scores, academics, and activities who lack “wow” essays are just less likely to gain admission to the most competitive schools (typically MIT, Stanford, Yale, Princeton and Harvard), or to get into “reach” schools.
How to write it:
The fundemental secret of a “wow essay” is that it says a lot with a little.
A typical college essay, on the other hand, gets a single point across. For example, it might demonstrate a characteristic that reveals personality such as: “I’m hardworking,” “I really enjoy helping others,” or “I’m compassionate.” It might focus on your biggest accomplishment, such as the story of how you started a school debate club.
But a wow essay conveys much more that that. It checks off multiple boxes on your list of “things colleges should know about you.” It helps me feel like I know you better, makes me like you, and impresses me in some way. It’s not only a piece of writing that convinces me I want to go have coffee with you once you get to campus. It also often highlights some kind of insight, some emotional moment where I nod along, feeling the epiphany as you communicate some truth of humanity.
Below are ten factors that I find in wow essays. Not every wow essay will have every factor, but most wow essays have several.
1. It impresses me.
You want to impress us with you. People are impressive for different reasons. You can be impressive because you dare to do things that most 17 year olds don’t. Because you have a story of incredible grit and because you’re a survivor. Because you have a mature perspective on our complex world that makes me feel as if you’ve just articulated something I know is true and out there but couldn’t quite put my finger on.
Sometimes you impress us with your wow factor, but there are other ways, too.
2. It shows that you’re a person who values excellence.
Often I get essays that are only about excellence: the story of how I pushed my robotics team to achieve more, or of how I worked hard to set up my non profit. A better essay incorporates ideas or themes of excellence but may not dwell on them. They’re side details in an essay about something more significant, original, or deeper, such as ethical responsibility. Your essay could even highlight your genius sense of humor or incredible narrative writing ability– not by saying you’re genius, but by showing it.
I also love essays in which the context is a very impressive activity, but the story focuses on an intellectual idea or other point of emphasis, not the activity itself.
If your accomplishment is such a huge wow factor that it’s the kind of activity we almost don’t believe a 17 year old could accomplish, you can tell a “wow” story of an achievement and still impress. But do so in a way that is down to earth, i.e. just tell what happened. Don’t act like you’re better than everyone; simply explain how you did it. Details help us better understand how amazing feats happen, and they bring them down to earth with the rest of us.
3. It’s a story that draws me in.
Stories are the most powerful tool we have as people to connect with others. Arguably it’s stories that make human beings different from many other animals, they allow us to cooperate in incredible ways. They are the tool we use to build relationships and to make meaning from our lives. Nearly every wow essay capitalizes on the power of a good story: real events that happen in your life and your actions and decisions in the midst of these events.
4. Everything I “read into” your story tells the narrative that bolsters your case.
Remember each CHOICE you make, and each ACTION you take is read as a reflection of you. Be sure you are an ACTIVE person on the page and not just an observer.
Remember that everything you write we will “read into” Be careful about what anecdotes you choose and details you include. If you choose a time when you realized you hadn’t put in the effort and you weren’t going to win because of it, that shows me that you’re potentially lazy at times. Though you may have realized a need for effort, be careful about where the balance lands.
If you discuss a weakness of yours, be sure it’s clear that weakness is overcome or eradicated.
I had another student who wrote about getting lost in a foreign country to show how he’s calm when in a bind— but the choice he made to bike off in another direction “for a block or two” from his family with a dying cell phone and no knowledge of his location know made him seem foolish or reckless. He got himself into that situation because of his boredom and cavalierness— unless those are qualities he’s going to be unpacking, the story is a bit problematic. Though you might be focused on the part of the story that you think says what you need it to, be careful about what others might read into other parts of the narrative. If you’re going to bring up potential flaws, they must be addressed head on, or it’s best to find another story.
Still another essay I had a student complaining about how she didn’t like traditional school so switched to homeschooling. But here, wouldn’t colleges wonder whether she could handle “traditional” college? That question must be addressed.
In particular, if your weaknesses are related to effort, academic performance, etc. those can be more challenging vulnerabilities to write about successfully. Don’t whine about how hard your AP classes are. You don’t want a school worrying about whether you can or will handle the workload. We all have plenty of weaknesses— pick one that doesn’t lead us to question your capacity to stay in school and graduate. Be careful about your “subliminal” messaging.
5. It highlights personal qualities that make you YOU and show your awesomeness.
Everyone has strengths, qualities that somewhere someone probably will fall in love with— and your goal is to help the admissions team love you. Or at least see you through the lens that someone who adores you would. By the time I finish your essay, I should get to know you. Similarly, if I handed your essay to a parent or a friend, they would instantly recognize this personality on the page as yours. Your essay should show the unique person you are.
6. It reveals your values: what matters to you, and what motivates your life choices.
It shows that you life a life with intention and direction. Don’t just tell me WHAT you want to do, but tell me WHY! What drives your choices and motivates your actions?
That being said there are a couple of “values” that tend to not come off terribly well in most essays: being “dedicated” and being “hard working” — if you’re applying to a very competitive school, these qualities likely already surface in your GPA. Talking about them doesn’t help you stand out or wow anyone, because they’re just so common to anyone who is trying to compete at a really elite level academically.
7. It shows you have a sense of VISION.
Vision is the idea that you want to make an impact in your world. It’s also the idea that you think in terms that transcend the bubble that is your high school, or the horizon that is your current situation. It may be career ambition, but it also may be something more abstract, a personal mandate. An intention. College want people who are going to change the world. That usually doesn’t happen by accident, but rather, it happens because people have a vision they realize.
Don’t just speak to your past. Speak to the future.
8. It captures the zeitgeist.
Another kind of essay that I’ve seen wow admissions offices is an essay that taps into the current societal debate in a meaningful way. If a story in your life resonates with the stories populating news feeds, and you can draw that personal connection with a more societal level context, your story can resonate with readers more. This could be a story about personal experiences with bullying, school shootings, white privilege, racial profiling, immigration, #metoo, artificial intelligence, privacy and technology, income inequality, refugee crises, LGBTQ+ rights, or otherwise.
Could your essay be an op-ed in the New York Times? If so, that could be a “wow essay.”
9. It offers a nuanced and complex understanding of life and the world.
A wow essay reveals a strong ability to analyze and find patterns in your life or personal experiences and the world around you. This essay may prove the power of your intellect. But it can also offer insight into human nature or behavior. It’s a perspective that makes me nod along and go, wow, yeah, I hear what you’re saying. And it does so in a way that makes me feel like I’ve learned something from you, not talked down to, or left out of the conversation because you spoke of things in a way that I couldn’t understand.
In this sense, it’s an essay that’s focused, that’s organized, that has a central theme and culminates into something worth reading, that has a point. It is driven by ideas.
This is the AHA: the kind of stuff that good Opera stories and NPR profiles are made of.
10. It takes me with you.
A great essay takes me on that journey with you, so I feel what you felt. It provokes empathy. You can’t summarize your story, you have to take me on the journey. I want to know what goes through your head– I want to feel the suspense, the resolution.
When you want to make an impact on people, you must make them feel.