Secrets of a College Application Essay Coach: How I get my students to write amazing essays!

Secrets of a College Application Essay Coach: How I get my students to write amazing essays!

Meet our College Essay Coach

Hi! I’m Ashley Dorian, an English instructor and college application essay coach at MEK. I have been a teacher at MEK for 12 years and a high school English teacher for 11 years. I love teaching my students about grammar and literature of all varieties, but the best part about teaching is getting to see students have their “aha!” moment. In my free time, I like to play board games, go to concerts, listen to music, and organize my closets (it bothers my fiance without end).

My favorite part of teaching at MEK is the college essay work that I get to do with incoming seniors. It is such a joyful experience to be able to help these students craft their stories while sharing with me, and the world, all of the great things that they have learned and experienced.

But what happens when a student comes across a major issue in his or her writing?

Read below to see the 4 types of students I often encounter while coaching, and how I help them overcome obstacles to write an amazing essay.

If you identify with any of these students, I’ve included plenty of tips, but the best solution is to let me or one of our other expert coaches help you!

#1. The Student Who Doesn’t Know

This kind of student absolutely has an interest, an idea, or a story to tell, but perhaps he or she is too shy, or, sometimes, isn’t putting full effort into brainstorming. What happens then?

The first thing I do is establish trust with my students by discussing their interests. I have them complete an extensive brainstorming questionnaire that helps me and the students discover their passions, interests, and experiences. Often this helps both of us discover a great essay topic that they might not have originally considered.

If you are this student, you might want to begin this journey with the Common App essay by writing down a list of the things you love. If you are struggling to do this, it might be a good idea for you to sit in your room and take some time to look at the posters and pictures you have hanging up, the trophies you have won, and the items that mean something to you. Once you have done this, the list should be easy to write.

Another way to handle this problem might be to do a freewriting session. Set an alarm for 10 minutes. As soon as your pen hits the piece of paper, or your fingers land on the keyboard, begin to write and see where your mind goes! Then, go back a few days later and pick out the common themes or ideas about which you wrote.

The importance of having a coach who has done this before is that they have the ability to discern what stories are great for the Common App and what stories are probably better saved for Instagram.

#2. The Student Who Wants to Write About Everything

This is the kind of student who comes in with two, or four, or sixteen ideas and wants to knit them all together into one narrative.

Spoiler Alert: this never works.

I love that this student has several ideas, but based on experience, I know that the story has to be streamlined and focused. 

If this feels like you, it’s a good idea to write a list about the things you love. But instead of writing about each, see if there is a common theme among all of them.

For example, here would be my list: donuts, my family, my friends, working out, concerts, learning, playing board games, visiting museums, listening to podcasts, and talking to the people in my life on an everyday basis.

The common theme to this list is that most of these experiences involve other people. Trust me, it is very boring to play a board game if you are the player and also the opponent. 

Therefore, I would write about an experience where I learned something with someone and how that exchange shaped my perspective or my life. But remember, my essay would have to focus on me and not that other person. I am the star of my essay, and my best friend would simply be the supporting actress.

When I sit with these students, I unpack each idea with them and discuss any similarities or connections that can be made among those ideas. After this, we determine if there are any stories that we can bring together in a parallel way. If not, we decide on which one we will focus, and keep the others on reserve for supplemental essays.

#3. The Student Who is Stuck

Unfortunately, this issue will come up at least once for every student in their college essay writing experience.

However, it is especially difficult when this student cannot begin the Common Application Essay.

This is the type of student who is excited to write, but doesn’t know where to begin or what she should focus on. Perhaps this student has had a lot of older friends or a sibling who has written beautifully brilliant essays, and he  just feels that his story will never stack up.

That’s okay; we have all been there.

If you are this student, you need to move away from your computer IMMEDIATELY.

Go for a walk or a run, play a video game, go on TikTok, read a book, watch a documentary or TedTalk…do anything but stare at your computer. Keep a limit on how much time you spend doing these things, and make sure to go back to your computer within a day or two. Sometimes you need to do something else that you find enjoyable as a way to recharge and get those writing juices flowing. Perhaps by doing something else that you love, you will unearth the perfect story. 

For these students, it is integral that I have a sense of who they are before they even walk into our session. They complete my brainstorming questionnaire before we even meet for the first time. I review it beforehand, and then the student and I  use it as a jumping off point to discuss his or her interests during our session.

Then, I usually have the student do some freewriting about a particular topic.

This sort of writing allows for no restraints, so we can often parse through to find the story within.

There is also a lot of confidence boosting that I provide as a coach to this student as this is normally the student’s biggest hurdle: he or she does not think that his or her story is good enough.

With my guidance, these students  are able to see that their story is absolutely worth telling.

#4. The Student Who Wants to Write About a Bad Topic

Sometimes a student picks a topic that just won’t work. It’s too inappropriate, off-putting, overly complex or boring.

While this kind of issue is infrequent, it does come up.  So how to fix it?

Well, at this point it is time to absolutely get a coach, pass the idea by a teacher, or talk to a peer. If everyone gets a bad vibe about the topic or they just don’t understand it, you should move on. 

It might also be helpful to ask your guidance counselor or an older friend so that they can give you insight into why the topic is bad, or a poor choice. It could also be good to write the essay and then read it over days later. While we don’t want to pick polarizing topics, there might be something in your essay about politics or religion that could become a really wonderful essay. 

As a coach, I try to work with the topic to see if I can help the student take it from another angle. After one or two new brainstorms, if I still believe that the essay will not work, or might wind up being polarizing, I go back to the brainstorm questions and review what I have learned about the student. Once the student and I are at this point, we look at another topic and move forward.

Sometimes it can be difficult to look a student in the eyes and tell them that his or her story isn’t good, but this is why it is helpful to have a coach. You do not want to send in a story that could be offensive, or one about how your bunny rabbit died when you were seven years old.

(What examples of bad topics? Check out this other blog my co-worker wrote: 5 Cliche Topics to Avoid and my blog: The right way to write about tragedy)

Getting Started

All of us have stories that are worth telling, but more often than not, we need direction when telling them. This is where MEK comes in.

If you want expert guidance on crafting strong college application essays from start to finish, sign up to work one-on-one with me or one of my fellow expert essay coaches through our Application Essay Writing Program.

You can call 855-346-1410 or contact us here to get started!

Ashley Dorian

As a high school and MEK English teacher, Ashley brings ready classroom management skills and a strong rapport with students to MEK. However, she is also well-versed in MEK strategy for teaching College Test Prep, H.S. Test Prep, and College Application Essays.

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