Tips for Tutors: Tackling the Common App Essay

As the college application season begins again, many high school seniors will look for help brainstorming, patching together, and polishing a 500-650 personal statement that may just be the most important piece of writing in their 18 years of life. Having gone through it not too long ago, I know by heart that the process is challenging and can be a bid tedious. Here are some tips I’ve found effective in helping my students piece together a narrative they enjoy and win an admission ticket to selective universities:

  1. Pick out some engaging sample essays for your students to read and analyze. Sure, college essays shouldn’t be formulaic, but they must present a full story in a logical, comprehensible fashion. In the past, I’ve always used selections from Gen and Kelly Tanabee’s 50 Successful Stanford Applications and the Guardian-published satirical essay by Hugh Gallagher. I try to stress that while college essays are diverse in style and content, there is often a single powerful idea behind each piece for the readers to take away. Based on my knowledge of my student’s writing style and tone, I then point them in an artistic direction for crafting their narrative.
  2. Story time is always enjoyable. If my student hasn’t written anything yet, I generally talk with him/her for an hour or so about what he/she sees as significant, personally or academically. While computers and keyboards can take away that sentimentality needed to produce moving narratives, oral communication gives us freedom to express. I’ve listened to many compelling and amusing narratives, some about coping with an alcoholic parent, others about building bird nests. I like to take brief notes for my students and generate a list of potential topics afterwards. Many successful essays I’ve helped craft did germinate this way.
  3. Think twice before you write. Many students may be working under pressure or time constraint during this season. However, I constantly remind them that revamping a non-workable draft will be much more time consuming (and much less engaging) than decorating a functional draft. In all seriousness, a 500 word piece should only take 1-2 days to crank out if one knows what he/she is writing. The hardest part, once there’s an inspiration or general topic for the essay, is to organize the student’s thoughts and insights in a coherent, fluid way. My golden rule is to have the student take twice the time to plan than to write. Making an outline or map for the student is also helpful. One important thing is to remember that all thoughts and stories must fit inside the word limit.  

Most college application deadlines are January 1st. While this seems like miles away, time flies faster than bats. Starting as early as one can puts one at a favorable position when the clock ticks down, don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions!


Jessica L.

Princeton Graduate and ExxonMobil Advisor Passionate about Teaching

400+ hours
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