5 Best Ways to Help Students with College Admission Essays

5 Best Ways to Help a Student with a College Essay...Without Helping too much.png

…without helping too much

The essay can be a critical piece of a successful college application. It is also one of the only opportunities students have to put a personal and descriptive touch on their candidacies.

As such, the college essay can also be one of the most challenging and stressful steps in applying to college. Ensuring that you can effectively support a student through the college essay writing process is an invaluable resource to be able to offer to your clients.

Be warned, however. Helping a student with a college essay involves walking a fine line. Offering too much support (either knowingly or unknowingly) may raise red flags rather than a raising a student’s admission chances.

In a world where a Google search generates thousands of ethically-dubious services offering to churn out a “perfect college essay,” college admissions counselors are more attuned than ever to sniff out suspect submissions. After all, the essay is supposed to be the applicant's expression in his or her own voice, not the work of a third-party. Any assistance that compromises that integrity can turn a student's opportunity for genuine reflection into a reason for suspicion - or worse, an outright rejection.

The last thing you want is one of your clients being lumped in with the worst of the amoral shortcut-takers because you were a bit too overzealous in your support.

So how can tutors offer essay assistance in a way that actually helps their clients? These five tips will give your students a supportive boost while still keeping each student at the center of his or her own essay’s effort, focus, and voice.

Learn what the admissions officers want

You can’t support quality college essay writing without an understanding of what comprises a great essay.

Start each application season by looking up examples of the current essay prompts popping up on college websites. The current writing topic options for the Common Application - which is accepted at over 750 US colleges and universities - is a great place to start. 

From there, peruse the news. Every fall there are new examples of interviews with admissions counselors from top colleges offering insights into how they are screening applicants for the next year’s freshman class. Some of the regularly occurring tips include:

  • Follow the prompt closely. Don’t get too creative for your own good.

  • Write in your voice. Don’t try to sound like someone you’re not.

  • Personal > generic. Don’t tell a story that everyone has already heard.

  • Infuse your own personality, values, and humor. Don’t be afraid to be yourself.

  • Storytelling matters. However, self-reflection matters more.

With that advice in mind, compile examples of high-quality products. There are plenty of such cases across the web, but be careful to avoid pieces from so-called essay writing services. You want real-deal examples from actual students (read: 16-18 year-olds), not advertisement material from shills.

Rest assured, there are reputable examples out there. Many schools, like Johns Hopkins University and Hamilton College, are even starting to provide sample essays that led to student acceptances.

While the best college essays are usually profoundly personal (more on that later), having models to share with students will help make your advice more tangible.

Taken further, you can build your own reference set of high quality essays from students you have coached through the process. To do so, be sure to follow up with clients once they receive their college acceptance letters. Not only should you be seeking out business-boosting feedback and testimonials, but you can also ask permission to share their successful application essays to help future students.

Expect that many students may wish to keep their essays private, but those who consent to allow the use of their essays as examples are giving you a valuable tool to help future students. Amassing a catalog of example essays can give you a significant advantage over competitors.

Frame the essay within the context of the entire application

The college application essay is undoubtedly unique, but it is just one piece of a much larger puzzle. Test scores matter. Transcripts with good grades and challenging course loads are valuable. Extracurricular involvement is always a plus.

When helping a student to evaluate application essay options, always do so with an eye towards the bigger picture. A college essay is not the same thing as a cover letter on a resume. The student's piece should not focus on drawing attention to the same accomplishments already outlined throughout the rest of the application - quite the opposite.

The best college admissions essays are the ones where students expose passions, experiences, and reflections that don't necessarily have a place or presence elsewhere in their applications. 

Relationships matter

I can tell you, as someone who writes regularly, sometimes the hardest part is just getting started. One of the most useful services you can provide to a student that is staring down the college essay process is helping them find that initial spark.

Providing this assistance is is unlike many of the other things you’ll teach students. Tutors don't enter into college essay writing sessions with all the answers. The perfect essay for one student is almost certainly not the perfect essay for another student. Given the raw and personal nature of the challenge at hand, the process must begin with developing a rapport of trust and safety.

This should make sense. The optimal college essay ideas are often the most personal. When a student is struggling to latch onto their perfect topic, the tutor must be able to ask the personal questions about the student's feelings, successes/failures, and motivations in order to help the student discover the best version of their story.

If you think that sounds easy, then you probably haven’t ever tried it. Getting a teenager to be forthright and vulnerable is no simple task. However, if you do it right, you can unearth a goldmine of college essay fodder.


Like most worthwhile pursuits, success here requires deliberate effort. My advice: start early.

The first session of any new tutoring relationship needs to include some deliberate relationship-building. Get to know your students through conversation, thoughtful and though-provoking questions, and - most importantly - listening. Reflect back what you hear them saying and ask whether you’ve understood what they’re attempting to communicate.

This is a skill that requires a lot of practice. Most teenagers aren't going to simply throw open the gates and let you into their world. That said, they’re still human. And as such, they still possess an innate need to feel heard, understood, and respected. You don’t have to become their new best friend; in fact, you really shouldn’t be trying to bond with them on that level.

Instead, pay attention to the little things - humorous comments, a sticker on a notebook, a team or band logo on a shirt. Find any inroad you can to show that you are actually paying attention to who they are and what matters to them. Remember, your goal isn’t to convince them that you two have a bunch of shared interests. Instead, your goal is to show them that you’re interested in whatever their interests are. In the end, you can’t provide your best help unless the students are willing to let you help them. And to that end, your best best is to present yourself as a reliable, experienced guide who can help them through an otherwise daunting process.

Relationships matter

For more practical and actionable tips for helping students craft exceptional essays, be sure to check back later this week for Part Two of this short series. Better yet, subscribe to our blog and ensure you never miss the latest helpful advice for supporting students through the test prep and college admissions process!

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