#066 Everything You Think You Know About College Essays Is Wrong with Susan Knoppow transcript



Lisa Marker Robbins  01:03

In my opinion, the earliest piece to work on on the college application puzzle is a personal statement, otherwise known as the college essay, opt in in the spring of junior year, well-meaning high school teachers believe they’re doing their students a favor by assigning this essay in class. The problem is, these teachers have likely never had in-depth conversations with those in the admissions office. And they are missing what really makes for an effective essay. Over the last 24 years, I’d say 80% of the essays I’ve seen come out of an English class have to be totally scrapped to begin again, and the other 20% Half Well, possibly some redeeming qualities that can be incorporated into a new essay. Susan NAPCO is a college essay specialist who has sat with those admissions officers at the college level. Susan and her business partner, Ken Liftin, have developed a step-by-step process to help clear the clutter for students to focus on what really matters in an effective college essay. I’m Lisa Mark Robbins, and I want to welcome you to the episode of College and Career Clarity on essays. And we’re a Flourish coaching production. Let’s dive right into a great conversation. Welcome to the show, Susan.


Susan Knoppow  02:35

Thanks, Lisa. I’m so glad to be here with you. Ah,


Lisa Marker Robbins  02:38

so glad to have you on. You know, this is for those that are listening to it in real-time when it drops, it’s spring. And that’s exactly when this English class thing starts going on all over the United States. So I think we’re aligned in that. It’s well-meaning but kind of a mistake. Can you talk a little bit more about that from the perspective of somebody who specializes in college essays?


Susan Knoppow  03:06

Yes, I would love to. And I want to start by saying I love English teachers. I admire English teachers; I have never been a full-time classroom teacher. But I am a writing teacher and I have taught writing in high schools, in writers in the schools’ programs. So, I understand what happens in a classroom. And the issue is that English teachers look at this as a writing assignment. It’s purely a writing assignment, a personal essay, which is what it’s called, is called the personal statement. But the question, the real prompt is, schools want to know something about a student beyond what they’ve done, they’re looking for insight into their best qualities and characteristics. And English teachers often will use sample essays. So that’s one mistake. And also, they look at it as an opportunity to express something personal about the student, which is true, but it’s incomplete. So, the prompt, what we do is we start with the prompt, and we start with the information we have from admissions officers. My partner is a journalist by training. And so, she does her research, though I share everything that she tells me. And the real question in a personal statement for the Common Application is tell us something beyond scores and grades and edit it out something that will help us know who you are, he was one of the six prompts. To help you answer that question, then there are seven options. The seventh one is just essay of your choice doesn’t really give you a lot of information. So, when a teacher will ask students to write something to answer a question, but they don’t have a complete understanding of what the prompt is at all.


Lisa Marker Robbins  04:42

So that you know that number seven, you know, that’s the first thing I get that question all the time from families like, well, should we just write about anything or should we stick with one of the six prompts and well, how do you look at that because you said there are six prompts, you’re like, wow, and number seven is write about anything.


Susan Knoppow  05:01

So, what we do is, so we have a 10-step process. And the first step of our process is to understand the prompt. So, we take our students through an exercise where we share those six essay prompts. And we take them apart, we really unpack them. So, if one of them, for example, asks about identity, or something about you, that is meaningful, we will go through it, we’ll explain that this says it can be something big, it can be something small, it can be an interest, it can be anything that you do anything that you are. And we’re showing them that there are so many pieces here. Another prompt asks about a challenge you faced. But what they’re really looking for is, well, what have you done, because you overcame that challenge, it doesn’t mean that an identity is more important than a challenge, or it’s, you know, something that you struggled with is more important than something that you succeeded at, what we do is we make sure they understand the prompt, and that’s the piece that most people miss, whether it’s students, teachers, counselors, independent consultants, people skip straight to the topic, the Choosing a topic, but the student doesn’t really understand the purpose of the essay, once they understand the purpose is why those English class papers often don’t work. They’re usually beautifully written. Kids get A’s on them, they do a wonderful job, and they write great stories about themselves. And I tell them, this is beautiful. And I’m a writing teacher, and I love it. And you should keep it and be proud of it. But this isn’t going to help you get into college. It tells me something about you. But it doesn’t tell me about who you are. And it’s beautifully written and what admissions officers often say is stop trying so hard to impress me just answer the question. Just tell me something meaningful about you. And if it’s not perfectly written, that’s okay. In fact, for us, polish is at the end of the process. That’s it, steps nine and 10 are all about Polish. But before that, steps one through six are about content. Do you understand the prompt? Have you chosen an effective topic? Have you explored that topic in depth? Do you have some context for it? Do I really understand why you’re telling me the story? And then we move on to structure? Which is what order should I put this all in. And finally, at the end, we look at polish. And doing it in that order makes it possible for students not to focus on the quality of the writing upfront, but instead to focus on the quality of the idea. And making sure as they revise, that they’re clearly conveying what we call a theme. So, what happened? What are you telling me? And why does it matter? Why have you chosen to tell me this? How is this going to help me know you better so I can figure out if you’re going to be successful on my campus.


Lisa Marker Robbins  07:53

So, you know, they I think they’re so used to being in school and getting that letter grade. And there’s such an emphasis on grades and test scores to measure something is like, you know, there’s actually flawed can be beautiful in these essays. Right. Right, exactly.


Susan Knoppow  08:10

And in fact, what we explain to students, part of the reason this can be challenging, is that all through school all through their life to this point, they’ve been focused on what comes next. Where am I going to go to high school? Which classes am I going to take? Should I stay in the band? Or should I join the choir? Should I have this job after school? Or should I go to basketball practice? Where am I going to go to college? What should I major in what should I think about now these are all very, very important things. This is how young people mature and grow and think about their future. But the college essay asks them, especially the personal statement, essence to ask them to reflect and look back. Where have I been? How has it gotten me here? And what does that mean for me in the future, they’re focusing so much on the future, that they don’t really know how to reflect. So, a lot of what we do in our process is we teach them how to reflect and how to think about the places where they’ve been successful or not so successful. And how does that show me who you are? And we also help them understand that the people who are reading this want to make sure that they’re going to graduate. So, are you a problem solver? Are you reflective? Are you resilient? Maybe you are, maybe you’re not? None of these qualities are better than others, but they help the reader the admissions team, see, you know, if you have a difficult roommate, are you going to be okay? If classes are hard? Are you going to ask for help? What kind of person are you? And we also tell them regular normal kids with regular experiences get to go to college and have a successful life. And not everyone has to be extraordinary in their essay. Right and yeah,


Lisa Marker Robbins  09:55

you don’t have to be perfect, but they do want you to be successful. I mean, Colleges are very concerned with students getting in and out, hopefully in four years. They’re very focused on retention. So, when it comes to all of the things related to the data piece, they want to see guidepost or signs of that. And there that makes so much sense where we’re so in the habit of looking forward, I mean, I preach goal setting, to my clients, I preach it in my college major and career coaching program. I mean, I preach goal setting, which is future-focused. So, I have a question. One of the mistakes you said that happens in the English classes is also that they’re showing sample essays. And I, you know, I know there’s a number, I’m not going to name them right now, because I’m hearing between the lines that maybe you don’t want people looking at these sample essays. But there’s a number of colleges out there that will and we both know who they are, that post, like here are samples of excellent college essays. I know the New York Times has done it in the past as well. So what’s the problem with looking at sample essays?


Susan Knoppow  11:05

So, here’s the problem with sample essays. It’s not that the samples are no good. It’s that the samples are out of context. So, an athlete doesn’t just jump over a fence and walk into an admissions office by itself. an assay is part of an application. And in that application, our grades and scores of some sort, whether, you know, test-optional or not, there are some tests somewhere that someone has taken. They have letters of recommendation, they have a trajectory of which kind of classes did you start with? And where did you end up, there is information, the readers have information about your school, they know your zip code, they know whether your parents went to college, they know a lot of they have a ton of data, which is excellent, their colleges, they’re good at collecting information, the essay and the supplemental essays, which we haven’t even touched on all the other questions that schools ask, come together as a package. And what schools will say is a lot of schools will say we read holistically; we’re looking at everything. So even the ones that show why the essays work, and I know which ones you’re talking about. And I’ve gone to those sites and I’ve looked at those essays, they tend to be very clear in why they work, which I appreciate. But students, all of us are pattern makers. And when we’re given a sample, our tendency is to try to imitate it. So, whether we want to or not. So, I believe is that if we explain the TAs, and help students pick an effective topic, they will write an essay that works. Showing an essay that works is helpful if it focuses on why that essay was successful, but it doesn’t say and this student also had all A’s and was a chemistry genius and a tennis champ, or this student really struggled but they went to a school where an A in AP English didn’t mean the same thing as it did in a in AP English 20 miles down the road. I don’t have any context. So, I do a whole session for counselors, school counselors and independent consultants on why you shouldn’t use sample essays. And I explained that if you’re going to share samples with your students, then you need to give them a sketch of the entire application. So they can understand how the essay supported it. And I haven’t had anyone take me up on that yet?


Lisa Marker Robbins  13:29

Yes, I while they probably use privacy as a reason not to, or whatever. But, you know, if you ask the student in, you get their permission, and they’re an adult now that way, I think we could find a way to work that out. Right? Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.


Susan Knoppow  13:43

Like that’s important. Well, it


Lisa Marker Robbins  13:45

makes me think of, you know, you lead with about this is we’ve been looking forward, we look for it all the time, and that’s great. But this is one time that this is a reflection piece. This is who you are, how have you become the person you are today? And how does that impact where you’re going? And to your point about like, we’re not seeing the entire portfolio of the student, the entire application. You know, the extracurriculars list is the same way. It’s backward leaning, it’s backward looking. And colleges do they want to know You know, you and I were talking earlier off camera about that my episode with Andy Borst, where he’s the Director of Admissions at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, and he was so transparent and everything. And you just referenced the supplemental essays that the colleges will ask and he spoke directly to the why my major essay and that episode, we’ll link to that this episode in the show notes. But he just said, why my major is 150 in theirs is rather short. Not all colleges are that short on the number of words. He’s like, I just want to get right down to brass tacks. Why? Write that major, what have you done in the past? So, we’ve got a couple of ideas of other signs on the roadmap that you’re exactly right. This is about reflection.


Susan Knoppow  15:10

Yeah, absolutely. And in fact, we do the same exercises for all supplements. So, I have a worksheet that we use with our students on the why this college or why this major assay, where we asked them, we draw this very simple Venn diagram, I have two circles, one is me, and one is the college or the major or the program, whatever it is, that is in the question. And we said all they want to know is the overlap. That’s what they’re looking for. Is it large? Is it small? It doesn’t matter? Where do those two circles intersect? It’s a dating essay. You know, that’s a term that’s been used a lot. We didn’t make it up. But it’s a dating essay. I can say, I like movies. And you say, wow, I love movies. And it turns out you love horror films. And I like indies, with subtitles from other countries. We both like film, we don’t belong together. So, you have a business school? I have a business school? Oh, good. I want to go into business. Well, are you like an entrepreneur? Do you want to go into you know, work in a corporate world? Are you? What does that mean? I want to be in business? Do I know anything about your business school? Do I know anything about your arts program? Do I know anything about you as an institution, and this major or this program at your school, and if I can show you that in an essay, then I know more about you as an admissions reader. And I can decide if you’re going to be successful here. And it’s interesting because what we do is we take our kids through 10 steps, and our students go through 10 steps. When we do training for counselors and consultants, we take them through the same process, where they experience it from the inside out. And then they use it with their students. And we they always ask us, well, what do you do after the personal statement? You just took me through 10 steps, and I say do the same thing. Except I’m using the supplements understand the prompt? What are they asking? Why does one college say why this major? For example, your interview with Andy horse? Why did they say why this major because that school, really, really cares? Why does the University of Michigan say why do you want Allison A which is their liberal arts school or engineering or kinesiology or architecture? We want to know about the school or the program that you’re interested in. It doesn’t ask specifically about the major; you could talk about the major; the question is different. And so, they want to know, are you answering the question? If they ask about activities? Are they asking this if they asked about community, Kevin had a conversation with an admissions officer from the University of Michigan, I’m in Michigan, and we work with students all over the world, but we are based in Michigan. So, we have a lot of connections here in our home state. And she said, Tell me about the community essay. And the person she was talking to said, we want to know you’re going to be in a lot of communities here. You know anything about how you operate within a community? Can you reflect on that? Can you tell us anything about that. And so, when we help students understand the prompt, before they just dive in and write, we save them from having to write eight drafts and making sure that you know, every word is perfect, we get to a point at the Polish stage of the Andhra, we say, this is good. You’ve done your work. You’ve shown me what you are willing and able to do through this process. And this assay does this job. It has served its purpose, let’s move on to the next one. We do not need to spend any money, you can


Lisa Marker Robbins  18:34

make it like writing one at a time. Once you know, it’s gonna look really ugly in the beginning. I mean, that’s another thing I see with students is they’re just afraid to even start writing.


Susan Knoppow  18:44

Right? Right. So, we do a lot of exercises at the beginning. Every exercise has a purpose. So my background is in training and teaching. And so, we don’t give anyone there’s no fluff. I’m not going to ask you 500 questions about your personality, I do not need to know every activity you’ve ever participated in. In order to write this essay. We ask very pointed questions. What do readers already know? That’s part of our step one also, what do they already know about you? Oh, you play these sports are you have this kind of a job or you’re, you know, busy helping takes care of your family or you go to the school or when they have when they know a lot of things about you. We say well, what else would you like them to know? What characteristics would you like to share? So, we’re distinguishing between accomplishments, what you’ve done, and characteristics, which is who you are. And then we move into topics. What are some possible topics, hey, let’s just come up with ideas. Often those ideas are broad and generic and cliche and it doesn’t matter. Because that’s when we meet with the student. That’s our magic. You have a conversation and, in an hour, I can take a student who I’ve never met before. I don’t know anything about them except what they’ve told me and I can help them come up with an effective topic and a theme for their essay that they can then execute and write beautifully. And then we take them through a lot of revision exercises and more reflection, but everything has a purpose. So, when you just sit down and look at a prompt and just write something, it feels messy. It’s hard to edit yourself out of a poorly conceived idea.


Lisa Marker Robbins  20:21

Well, it’s easier to get excited about that essay. And then jump into that process now. Right? somebody’s listening to us in real-time, because we’re going to do this episode, drop it in late April. Todd, let’s talk through the timeline. Because we’ve talked about the different types of essays, we’ve talked about this might get kicked off at your school this spring, may not I know that high schools all over the US get out at very different times here in Cincinnati, where I live, we’re out before Memorial Day, but students in the Northeast are frequently not out until like mid-late June. So, what’s sort of a good plan of attack for essays? Timeline wise?


Susan Knoppow  21:04

That’s a great question. We really believe that it’s important to maintain momentum. So, when we work with students privately, and I advise people to do this, even if they’re working on essays by themselves, we create a schedule. And we have a templated schedule that we start with. And then we build in breaks so that the perfect in the perfect situation, is three and a half weeks from beginning to end for the personal state. That is a good amount of time, it gives you time to take a break between drafts you don’t have to write every single day, but not so much time that you lose track of why you are writing the five kids who will say, Ah, I’m out of school on June 10. And I want to start on the 12th. And then I’m leaving on the 15th to work at camp for eight weeks. And I say cool, I’ll talk to you in August. See you later. Yeah, because they’re not going to work. While they’re away. Even if they think they will. They’re going to brainstorm and come up with a great idea. And then they’re going to change their mind when we come back together. Or they’ll forget why they even wanted to write about what they wanted to write about. So we say as soon as APS or your last project at school is over is a good time to start thinking about it. If that’s the end of May great if that’s June, fine. But if you’re not going to be able to focus on it, I’d rather condense it later. It’s okay to work on essays. And it’s not the end of the world. I love it when my students finished in the summer. Once we finished the common app personal statement, then we can move on to supplements which often are not released until August. So sometimes we have to fill that time with an activity list, then additional information and other things. But we really feel that the Common App essay is the teaching essay, it’s where students learn how to think about essays. So, if they concentrate on understanding the prompt and generating ideas that can be effective focusing on content, then structure, then polishing, they can follow that same trajectory, as they write the rest of their essays. And at that point, they can write multiple essays for the same school, I didn’t really have time to go faster way back. So, you don’t have three and a half weeks for everything. But if I have three essays or school, if I look at the supplements for school, and I know they have these three questions, I can strategize, we suppose we spent a lot of time strategizing with our students. So, they already know this about you. What else do you want them to know? What other good qualities do you have? What other kinds of experiences are relevant? Do you want to share with them. And whether student is the kind of writer who could write all three of those essays at once, or needs to do them one at a time, the timing goes much more quickly. So it’s great if they can start singing, but we say, don’t be so anxious to start that if you’re going to have a huge break when you can’t work on it, that you actually lose momentum and waste time at the beginning that you’re going to have to make up again later.


Lisa Marker Robbins  23:55

Well, I really liked that because you’ve given not only a framework to how to do this, but like that momentum piece, you know, and I preach inside my course when I’m supporting students on the college wage and career piece, an object in motion, they get tired of me saying it, an object in motion stays in motion. And I am not a physics geek, anything like I hated science in high school I just did. So, an object in motion stays in motion, and an object at rest stays at rest. And so even if it’s just forcing that one foot in front of the other, I like the idea of you’re the professional and if you say three and a half weeks it can be done. Look for that time that you have three and a half weeks, and then object emotion and apply that to keep that momentum going. Are there any supplemental essays that are so widely used that even before August 1 When most colleges are confirming via the common app If their supplemental essays are going to be, are there any that you’re like, Oh, we can go ahead and work on that after the personal statements done, because almost assuredly you’re going to make use of this? Well,


Susan Knoppow  25:11

it seems like there would be, but I’m going to say that there’s not there are types of essays. There are community essays. There are why this college or why these major essays, there are various why SSA is there are more and more identity, or what people call diversity essays. There are activity essays, but because we say you have to understand the prompt, in fact, are why this ethnic college tip sheet, which I can share with you as well, and you can share with your listeners if you want. We show many different prompts that are similar. And we show how they’re different. This one’s 400 words, this one’s 150 words, here are four different activity essays. Oh, well, this one’s 200 words, but this one’s 350. And this one asks about what I learned from the activity. And this one asked about why I enjoy this activity. They’re different questions. And so, we may what we do is we teach them about types of essays, if we have time to spare in the middle, but we don’t have them actually write them. Because again, we say it’s not about the activity. It’s about you and you in the activity. So, we do a little bit, but we try not to get ahead of the writing. Because every so often, a school that has kept the same prompt for 10 years, changes it unexpectedly, and then their work is wasted. So often, sometimes we’ll call Well, Sara, is there any chance you’re going to change these prompts? Can we get started on them? And


Lisa Marker Robbins  26:38

sometimes they’ll answer a question. And there’s a handful of schools that release those early. So, this is a really fantastic framework. And you know, I also think about that question that I just asked you about the supplemental essays, if you’ve got a really good college list, and you’ve done so with intention. I mean, you and I are very niche down and our specialties of how we serve. But many of the clients that we are serving are working with an independent educational consultant, or they get a lot of hands-on approach to their private high school, maybe. But if you’ve built the college list super intentionally, and I talked about this in a recent episode with Marnie Levine, I’ll link to that as well. You already have done some of the pre-work for why this college? Why this major, you probably have done more than you think you have when you see when those essays first pop up. So our students shouldn’t be frightened by those at all? Well, we are, we will link to that fantastic resource that you have in the show notes was a really great guide, I think if they just download that, read it, get their head in the game, and follow the tips that you gave us today. I know you’re setting our students up for success. So how Susan, would anyone get in touch with you that wants to stay in touch all they can find


Susan Knoppow  28:01

us at while writing workshop.com We have all kinds of information for students or counselors. There’s a chat there’s contact sheet. There are all kinds of stuff you can we have a lot of free resources. Of course, we do. We work with students privately we also do a few times during the season. My partner Kim does a college essay roundtable. We have another one if you’re listening to this live, we have another one coming up in May. And it’s an Ask Me Anything session. Just ask her lots of questions. Get the information you need. We’re all about accurate information and resources. So you can find us at Wow writing workshop.com


Lisa Marker Robbins  28:39

Wonderful. Thanks, Susan for making time.


Susan Knoppow  28:42

Thank you, it’s been great.


Lisa Marker Robbins  28:48

Well, if you’ve made it this long, you likely have a high school senior who will be applying to college and needs to write essays. My college-bound challenge for your family this week is to get out your teens calendar, grab your family calendar then search for a time between May after AP exams through August and choose the three and a half weeks that Susan suggested when your teen will write their college essay. Start to finish. Put those dates in your calendar. See, I firmly believe that what gets scheduled what makes it in your calendar is going to get completed write it down. Thinking about it is not setting yourself up for success. Then the next step is protecting that time and sticking with the plan. Do you know another senior who will soon be tackling college essays? Be a good friend and share this episode with them one share at a time. We are letting other busy families with college-bound students know they aren’t alone and it is possible to successfully navigate college admissions. Thank you for Listening to the College and Career Clarity podcast, where I help your family move from being overwhelmed, confused, and not motivated, to clear and confident about your team’s future.