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  • Lisa K. Buchanan

A Tutor's ABCs

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

By Lisa K. Buchanan

A. I came to understand the college application essay as a discrete subgenre of flash nonfiction. Resolution was a must: interior transformed and hindsight applied.

B. Though beginners at creative nonfiction, many of my students were high-school seniors who had five-page resumes and were almost fatally fluent in the lexicon of achievement. Just as I’d had to unlearn the prescriptive tone of my early work for glossy women’s magazines, my students had to learn to confide in the reader, not seek to impress.

C. Ninety percent of my students’ parents were warm and available without interfering in the tutoring process. They spoke affectionately of their kids: "I miss her goofiness" or "He breathes, dreams, and chefs Russian culture." Other parents, however, couldn't refrain from coptering (See L. for lurking; M. for micromanaging.), presumably because they viewed the application results as lethal or lifesaving. Either that, or a random bunch of parents happened to hire me after inhaling helium. Over time, I got better at predicting parental behavior. (See S. for screening.)

D. At the peak of my tenth season as a writing coach, I was diagnosed with a fast-growing cancer that had an abysmal survival rate. Fortunately, all but one of my students had finished their essays for the imminent deadline, and they sent me kind wishes. The remaining student’s parents demanded a family meeting the night before my surgery and were indignant when I declined.

E. The strongest student writings conveyed expectation, vulnerability and discovery: an ingenious defense against bullying, the price of overconfidence at the chessboard, the emptiness of a victory. They wrote about surviving an air raid and forging hydroponic innovations and defying the pressure on even a hobby to glean accolades.

F. Before the work became entirely virtual, two proud parents brought their son to my office and gave him a loving introduction, his qualities gleaming like autumn sunlight through redwoods. In response, the son struck a jaw pose and said, “I just want to know, Dad, did you rehearse that speech?”

And yet, I would learn that the father had only recently recovered from a terrible illness. The son had been frightened, perhaps too frightened to even say he'd been frightened. The trauma of watching his father decline—weight dropping, energy fizzling was still too fresh for him to convey skillfully in an essay. Years later, a different student wrote about his personal transformation when adapting to his post-stroke father—a resolution my sunlight gleamer hadn’t yet experienced. (See G. for grieving.)

G. When students were grieving, I respected their decisions not to write about it. Still, despite (or perhaps, because of) their efforts to bypass the trauma of loss, it often screamed to be written.

One student declared she would not write about the father who had died suddenly just two years prior, but she was willing to write about the digestive disease she had since developed. A passionate baker, she could no longer eat (but still enjoyed sharing) her prized creations. Her father had taught her to bake, and though the essay mentioned him

only briefly, his presence flavored every line. My work included helping her hear the potency of her own words, the quiet metaphor in a middle paragraph that could make a knockout ending.

H. Long before I had to focus on my own healing, I worked with students who wrote about healing themselves: transforming hypochondria into a love of anatomy; studying the disease that had claimed the lives of several relatives; adopting an unconventional diet to supplement a medical treatment. (Dear former students, please become my doctors when the incumbents retire.)

I. I encouraged students to write for their ideal reader: one who wanted them to succeed, cared about their experiences, and grasped their wit; one who was on a committee of admissions officers voting to accept or reject their application. That last one might sound obvious, but some students conflated a confiding tone and first-person narration with confession. However, just as application essays are not enumerations of fabulousness, nor are they throat-bearing surrenders. No to expecting points for choosing not to cheat; yes to the dilemma of whether to report a classmate’s academic violation in a class graded on a curve.

J. Without exception, students and their parents bemoaned the torment of junior year, immediately prior to college-essay season. An otherwise cheerful senior told me she didn't smile for eight months.

K. A gamma knife is not a metal blade, but a radiation treatment I received for a brain metastasis one December, a month once busy with students and travel delays. “You’re not coming for Christmas?” my father asked repeatedly. At ninety-seven, nothing stuck like the sorrow of missed holidays.

L. When a student claimed her laptop camera wasn’t working for our one-to-one topic discussion, I suspected her mother was lurking. When I asked the student what had inspired her award-winning medical research, she cited a grandparent’s disability—and the call dropped. Phoning back immediately, the mom said she had disconnected the call because her daughter was crying. The student had sounded appropriately solemn, but the mom was sobbing wildly.

M. Three minutes after I emailed a student to inquire about her college-application results, her father responded with a tally of acceptances, waitlists, and rejections—probably before the student even saw my request. Another father urged his son repeatedly to write about him. Another mother said she was sick of micromanaging the situation, but then repeatedly replied within minutes of my essay-feedback to her kid. I understood. It’s hard for parents when their kids don’t seem to be working in a timely manner. Too, this was the cusp of a major transition, anticipated by each family member with mutable degrees of eagerness and dread. Looking back, I think this accomplished student just needed (and had said as much) an actual summer. Also, the student may have valued the fall term’s peer support and collective panic. In this, I pictured high-school seniors congregating to read excerpts aloud for constructive feedback, while managing a few laughs and slinging back the caffeine. If this never happens, don’t tell me.

N. When my cancer progressed to stage four, I wrote notes to my loved ones, mostly in my head while peeling carrots or not sleeping: Dear Husband, I cannot begin…. Dear Parents, I was supposed to outlive you…. Brother, I’m sorry we never…. Stepdaughter, you once called me your rock…. Cousin, the plan was to be old ladies together: loud colors, weird eyebrows, frequent lunches…

O. My primary objective as a tutor was to help students improve their application outcomes by strengthening their writings. A father was determined to get his kid into an undergraduate business school with an acceptance rate of about six percent. Though the student’s writings didn’t reflect the competitive work experience and entrepreneurial drive I’d seen from other applicants, the student was an athlete who had the ear of a particular coach. While schools have long recruited athletic students who don’t otherwise fit the admissions profile, I wondered how this application would fare next to those of the mini-CFOs I’d known, students who’d been fascinated by capital investment and profit margins while still at summer camp. A different student had started a lucrative small business, pursued a genuine interest in market behavior, rocked a distinctive wit, and had applied to a competitive school attended by a relative. Both students got into their respective programs, but I wonder, was the deck stacked against the athlete who didn’t, at seventeen, come across as a mini-CFO or have an influential relative? Or was it stacked against the mini-CFO who preferred spreadsheets to sports? Surely, it was stacked against them both amid legacy admissions, bribes, paid testtakers, and other fabricated credentials. (See U. for unfair and unwise.)

P. Though students crafted their statements for the eyes of strangers (See I. for the ideal reader), their topics could be deeply private. A student raised and schooled in religious environments wanted to write about his emerging (secret) atheism. I asked how this profound shift had changed his behavior. What was his greatest challenge as an atheist and how had he managed it? Had he thought his parents would be reading every draft, he might not have considered the topic. As it was, the form and its requirements—to demonstrate the abstraction in concrete terms—revealed that his important change was too new and too fragile for a strong personal essay.

A different student wrote about withdrawing from a Catholic confirmation, how it had both cost and renewed, how it had both strained and sustained a parental bond. After years of contemplation, the essay sang itself onto the page.

Q. On my pre-agreement questionnaire, I asked students to write briefly about an intriguing piece of reading, for school or otherwise. The majority contributed to a heartening array: a book on genetic inheritance, a news article about the nation’s economy, a James Baldwin essay, a Tom Stoppard play, a Christopher Isherwood novel, a zombie novel and its social commentary. I included this question partly to get to know the student, and partly because it often showed up as a college application prompt. However, the question served a bonus purpose. Sometimes, an eager parent would answer my student questionnaire, using the “I” pronoun. If “leveraged my skills” or “incentivized choices” weren't obvious enough, the impersonators usually flubbed the reading question. (See. S. for screening.)

R. Seeing my role as more suggestive than corrective, I focused on the strengths in the writing. If some students were commaphobic or initially unschooled in the beauty and utility of semi-colons, more than a few were deft metaphor-makers. Some of their strengths appeared in the first draft, while others showed up later with the help of literary examples. Here’s how Charlotte Brontë’s sentence gets its rhythm from parallel construction; how Neil Gaiman uses repetition to characterize a smile; how Maxine Hong Kingston opens in media res; how both a contemporary memoirist and medieval poet use sentence fragments. Adopting a literary technique was often a matter of recognizing the opportunity.

S. Usually, when I declined to work with a student, it was because my roster was full. Sometimes, however, my screening process revealed conditions likely to fry my sweat glands: Parent expects to be copied on each of student's drafts. Parent, too, has written a draft. Parent trashes prior essay tutor on initial phone call.

One forceful father said his son excelled at nearly everything—test scores, GPA, sports, leadership of numerous clubs; even the oatmeal he made on Sundays was gourmet quality (I exaggerate not). Yet, numerous unfinished college-application essays were due in ten days. Forceful Father emailed me Saturday night and left three phone messages before 10 a.m., Sunday, assuring that his son was willing to set aside the next weekend in its entirety to “pound out” his reflective multitude.

When another forceful father proposed hiring me to interview his son and write his essays for him, I said I didn’t work that way. Forceful the Second huffed that he could easily find another writer. When I countered that his son should write his own essays, he huffed again: How could that possibly be so important?

T. Though rewarding, my work with students did not lack for tiny heartbreaks. A student wrote a paean to tree-climbing, a reflection on controlling nature and being controlled by it. The piece was original and exhilarating. However, the student felt that overcoming shyness through a hip-hop performance was a better topic. I warned that surely no fewer than 483,148 applicants had written same that year. (A guess: Gleaning a talent-show standing ovation longer and louder than any ever gleaned by Yo-Yo Ma, the student overcame shyness.) Unconvinced, my student became number 483,149.

Also, a mom disagreed with my suggestion that her son include a brief, clearly identified sample of the science fiction he had written. Engineering schools, she insisted, wouldn’t care about his literary creativity. True or not, it’s a saddening thought.

Other tiny heartbreaks were happymaking:

In high school, she snapped a picture of the novellas on my bookshelf. Now has an English degree, works as a People Analyst, and still reads fiction for pleasure.

In high school, he refused to succumb to college-prep mania, guarding instead his free time to follow his curiosities. Now seeks to combine his knowledge of biochemistry and computer programming in a quest for affordable healthcare.

In high school, he played a Nazi villain in a mock trial and reflected on his ancestors who had—and had not—survived the Holocaust. Now studying criminal justice.

U. It is unfair and unwise that most students can’t afford professional help for college readiness, but must compete with those who can. While awaiting broad systemic improvement, I applaud organizations offering college-application help to low-income students. Among them, 826 Valencia and its offshoots send volunteers to high-school classrooms and hold weekend clinics for essay help. ScholarMatch helps high-achieving, low-income high-school students apply to college, find scholarships, evaluate financial aid packages, and succeed while matriculating. The college applicants I helped through these organizations qualified for school lunches, held part-time jobs, translated for foreign-born parents, performed childcare and eldercare, and lacked the overall support most of my paying students enjoyed.

V. Five years post- diagnosis, I am, to the best of my knowledge, cancer-free. Still, every follow-up scan is a visit with mortality.

W. Many students began our work by insisting they’d experienced nothing interesting enough to write about; they were, without exception, wrong.

X. A student with broken ribs was taken to the hospital for x-rays, having kept his participation in wrestling a secret from his mother. When hospital personnel separated them to discuss not only his injury, but also the bruises his mom said she’d never seen, she was suspected of concealing child abuse. The student wrote further about how the loss of his baby sibling had made his mother protective; he, in his teenage way, had been protecting her, too. Most important, he wrestled with his subject and used his writing, like his x-rays, to look under the skin at what might be broken.

Y. My years as a published writer allowed me to help students with off-the-page matters as well—managing fallow periods and putting rejection into perspective.

Z. Like cancer narratives, application essays are often expected to conclude with an epiphany or zenith: “My [insert disease/other meaningful experience] made me the person I am today.” I urged students to explore more nuanced versions of the backshining light. Some endings circle back to the beginning. Some shimmer in place. And some aim an inquiring beam into the future—however promising, however uncertain.


Lisa K. Buchanan is a San Francisco prose writer, an adoptee, a melanoma survivor, and a lover of Lindy Hop. Her work can be found in CRAFT, TheLascaux Review, and at Here’s what she has been reading lately: The Nightstand.

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