This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Jerome Barty-Taylor, the 35-year-old British Australian owner of BartyED, a private tutoring business in Hong Kong. This essay has been edited for length and clarity.

Most of my customers are elite families in Hong Kong whose children are enrolled in international schools and pursuing the International Baccalaureate diploma because they have their sights set on top US colleges.

My private tutoring business launched in 2016 and has grown into an 11-person company. The package rate for our admissions consulting is 315,000 Hong Kong dollars, or about $40,000. This includes monthly meetings starting in ninth grade until they’ve been accepted.

In 2022, my clients had a success rate of over 75% at colleges like Columbia, Yale, Brown, and NYU.

Here are four key things I tell my clients to remember when they approach college admissions.

1. College prep starts earlier than expected

Even though applications aren’t submitted until 12th grade, the college admissions process can begin as early as ninth grade — and that’s when families typically hire me — for three big reasons.

First, there are a lot of materials to prepare, like college videos and standardized tests — and the SAT and ACT can be taken many times.

I advise families to get started on these tests as soon as possible. A student is unlikely to get their best score the first time they sit for the test in 10th grade, but having a good score by 11th can be advantageous. That’s because schoolwork and the admission essay — not to mention teenage life — can get busy after that.

Second, developing a candidate’s profile throughout their years in high school is important so they’ll appeal to specific colleges or universities.

Third, it’s important to consider how they stand out from other candidates. For those passionate about a particular school, I advise booking online tours and seizing opportunities to engage with students, faculty, or local alumni from that school to build their awareness of the candidate.

2. Good grades aren’t enough

Top colleges all receive applications from kids coming from good schools with great test results and a long list of impressive extracurricular activities.

As anyone can be enrolled in any number of activities by their parents, it’s important to demonstrate passion and values beyond just showing up.

When my clients hire me, typically during their kid’s first year of high school, they’re signing up for monthly sessions where we figure out what the student’s passion is, whether they’re developing a profile, and whether they’re executing their own projects and demonstrating leadership.

I had a student in 10th grade who was passionate about social justice and started an offshoot of an established charity at his school. He got other kids involved in redistributing clothing and schoolbooks to disadvantaged neighborhoods in Hong Kong during the winter.

It’s cynical to think about everything through the lens of admissions. Still, given that he was socially able and interested in studying policy or international relations, this showed that he was capable of community building, which could enrich his college studies if admitted.

3. Stories that can’t be replicated are key

The college entrance essay is key to any student’s application. It requires students to write reflectively while also sharing their experiences. It’s a style of writing that doesn’t come intuitively to most.

One of my ex-students had written a draft of his college entrance essay on his struggles with dysgraphia — a learning disability — and how he had to overcome it.

As well written as it was, it’s something others have already written about. And that essay would’ve put him in a box alongside many others who’ve written about overcoming their disabilities because of how analogous it is.

As a result, I encouraged him to think about something else.

He’d been outgoing from a young age and was gregarious enough to befriend adults even as a child. So he wrote a new draft about a childhood camping trip to Mongolia, where he went to a remote monastery and managed to befriend the monks by finding common ground over all the birds they kept.

The unreplicable story illustrated this student’s ability to go out there and engage with people in a new environment. Reflecting on that anecdote and what it means about how he approaches the world and his studies was a much more interesting approach that led to admissions success.

4. Time management helps avoid stress

Considering how fraught, stressful, and time-consuming applications are, I’ve witnessed many relationship breakdowns between parent and child during the admissions process.

Regular client check-ins are a significant part of my job during the application cycle — it’s a way of mediating some of the stress involved. That sometimes involves parents telling me, “Hey, can you tell my younger son that he needs to start preparing for his SATs, because he isn’t talking to me right now.”

Getting through this process requires a lot of support, and I think it necessitates having a conversation as a family about timelines and what that support will look like.

Categorized in: