5 Best Ways to Help a Student with a College Admission Essay (Part 2)

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In Part 1 of this series, we shared 3 ways to help tutors support students through the college essay writing process. We focused specifically on the combination of preparation, relationship building, and an understanding of the role of the essay should play in the complete application.

If you haven’t already read that post, click here to get caught up. We’ll wait.

If you haven’t already read  Part 1 , then take a moment to do so.

If you haven’t already read Part 1, then take a moment to do so.

These final two tips focus more on the actual writing process itself. This is an area where too little help could result in a weak, error-ridden submission. Conversely, too much help could raise concerns that the applicant’s essay is actually the work of someone else.

So how do you find the line between too much and too little?

Make honesty the priority

For most people, college is full of opportunities for self-discovery and expanding horizons. The essay is one place where applicants can demonstrate their readiness.

The most essential quality of a high-quality college essay is honesty. The best college essays aren't the ones that aim to blow a reader's hair back with thrills and excitement; they're the ones that bring the writer's character and values to the forefront. For this reason, even the most mundane life experience can provide the fodder for an excellent essay if that experience is paired with introspection and reflection.

As a tutor, be on the lookout for student essays containing events or self-appraisals that seem too fantastical to be true. Odds are an admissions counselor will feel the same way. Encourage students to avoid exaggeration and hyperbole and instead dig deeper and get real. It may mean throwing away an idea and starting over, but that beats throwing away a chance at getting into a dream school.

Bragging about accomplishing some great feat pales in comparison to demonstrating the self-awareness, vulnerability, and strength of character that are crucial to a successful college career. For that reason, mistakes and failures are often better topics than the most brilliant successes.

Whatever the topic, help students focus on being open and honest above all else.

Be a proofreader, not a copy editor

In a world where fewer colleges are opting for standardized writing tests as admission requirements, the admissions essay serves double-duty. While students are being evaluated on the substance of their personal statements, the quality of the writing itself counts, too. Students should not only be composing deep, insightful pieces, but those pieces must be 100% error-free.

This is an area where you can help. Make time to comb over a student's essay for elements like spelling, grammar, consistent verb tenses, subject-pronoun agreement, syntax, and other crucial writing conventions. The best substance can be lost when the structure is a mess.

I know what you're thinking: "But wait, isn't that the student's job?" Of course, it is. Students should always proofread their own work before you provide assistance in doing so. However, even the Common Application website itself suggests students should have a third-party proofread their essays. It is entirely acceptable to be the extra set of eyes to help catch these types of mistakes that your students may have overlooked.

The key is to offer proofreading help, not copy editing. A good tutor must know the difference.


Proofreaders ensure that the writing follows the rules of language and style for a given task without changing the actual substance of the writing. They provide feedback like, “this is working” or “I think you should rework that part.”

Copy Editors

By contrast, copy editors actively revise writing for both content and flow. They take liberties by adding, removing, or wholly rewriting elements of a piece for the sake of readability.

With college essays, it's OK to do some proofreading for a client; it isn't OK to serve as their copy editor.

Be sure to sell the value in providing this type of targeted help to your clients while also explaining the limits. While there are plenty of applications and services out there that will do proofreading work (or copy editing mislabeled as proofreading) for a nominal fee, they don't have the same experience you do. Emphasize the fact that not only can you proofread, but you do have a working knowledge of the overall college application process. It may help to explain exactly where you see the line between acceptable help and assistance that may be deemed disqualifying.

Remember, honesty is not only the key ingredient in any college essay's narrative, but it is also the cornerstone of maintaining the integrity of both your students and your business. Above all, take all the necessary precautions to make sure the essays your students submit are genuinely their own. That means there should be no "tweaks" or additions from tutors, parents, siblings, poets laureates in the final essay - the expectation is that the name on the application is the sole author of the piece.

What If You’ve Got Serious Concerns about the Student’s Final Draft?

If you have genuine concerns about the direction or execution of the essay, then you should make the process of improving the essay into a lesson (or series of lessons) for the student. If you can summon greatness from within the student, then, by all means, do so. However, if you’re doing all the heavy lifting, you should really take a moment to consider what will happen if this student does get into his or her dream school.

If you’ve done your job, the student will be able to draw on the guidance you provided during the process of reworking the essay. If you’ve done your job — and your student’s job — then it’s possible that your student will be outmatched by the rigor of the school that your essay helped him get into. In the latter case, you’ll have done your student no favors by setting him up to fail.

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