Some parents and students ask, when concerned about plagiarism: what is the line between editing and writing a student’s essay? What does academically honest editing by a tutor look like? As a long-time teacher, I teach the principles of academic honesty, and I live by them in my business.
Here are some questions to ask a college essay coach before booking them.
The tutor should coach thinking first.
- Do you ask a student to come up with their own ideas? After I ask students to do brainstorming exercises, we discuss which prompts and topics excite them most. I listen for passion when they are telling me stories. I ask them to identify their top beliefs and values. I celebrate the stories and values that they believe are most representative, and help them understand how to explain these to an audience of strangers. The final topics are ultimately their choice.
- Do you ask the student to solve the writing problem first? I point out the problems I’m seeing in a draft, and ask students to respond by generating details, elaborating, restructuring, discovering something new. I don’t have those answers to the problem; they do.
The tutor should address writing needs with tailored strategies.
I want my writing strategies to last a lifetime. This isn’t simply one exercise or one moment; great storytelling and the art of persuasion apply to many writing tasks a college student will face in their future. I’m always sharing the big picture and how the strategies students are mastering can last forever.
And now in the age of AI, this is even more important. Will the person prompting the writing machine actually know what good writing is?
More of my thoughts on this at my post, “Create, Edit, Verify: Three College Essay Skills I Teach.”
Do you assess a student’s writing strengths and gaps, and how? I am always curious to see whether a student is a big-picture, conceptual thinker, or more of a details and sensory thinker. I like to see how much voice and personality they are comfortable sharing. I ask for prior writing if they have it, especially memoir or other narrative pieces written for English classes. I also have a Great Essay Rubric that I use as a guide for the Personal Statement in particular, so that students can see how the feedback I give them fits the standards for longer essays.
Do you teach tailored strategies? How? If I’m asking a student to revise, I give them the rules or principles, and I give them models. I have handouts. I never assume that someone understands what I mean until I show them models that are labeled, what teachers often call “mentor texts.” If a tutor can tell you the types of strategies they teach, and make them comprehensible in a brief conversation, then you probably have someone who understands how to differentiate coaching based on writing strengths and gaps.
Proofreading should always teach grammar rules and mechanics rather than just fixing an error.
Proofreading should focus on teaching students to avoid top errors that impede clarity, such as comma splices or misplaced apostrophes. Proofreading should not heavily edit a student’s voice and diction.
I always link to a website such as Grammarly, where the rule is explained in detail in wonderful blog posts.
But shouldn’t I really just do the whole thing myself and not get any help at all?
Let’s think about the college essay for a second. How often in your life have you been asked to sum yourself up with various stories, arguing that your are a perfect fit for a particular school?
Not often, right?
So this mode of discourse is fairly new to you, which is why you’ve hired a tutor to better understand the mode and how to handle it. If the tutor is teaching you strategies that help you meet the goals of this fairly-foreign task, what I call the narrative-persuasive essay, that’s a fairly good sign you are improving your writing process overall.
You shouldn’t feel badly that you’re getting an advantage. You should feel good you’re getting access to strategies that will help you be a better writer overall, assuming your tutor does what I describe above.
For your own peace of mind, resolve to never use a single word that the tutor recommends. (I always tell students to find a synonym anyway.) Sometimes, I recommend sample phrases (a bucket of them) to model how you can, for example, convert 10 words to five. I teach the art of cutting, a four-part system, which is often not something taught to most high school students, because there just isn’t time in the typical curriculum.
If a student puts the right time into drafting, and revisits an essay multiple times, it will always become their own draft. As an author, I rely on edits from my agent, editors, reviewers, and beta readers all the time, and listening to their thoughts has made me the writer I am today.
Remember: if you get a detailed set of answers from a prospective tutor, that’s a good sign.
Good luck with the interview!