Because the college application essay is your main opportunity to show prospective colleges who you are–beyond just grades and scores–it’s important to perfect it. This likely means writing more than one draft, as well as revising each draft thoughtfully. In this article, I’ll share some tips for college application essay revision. (By the way, these tips are great for scholarship applications as well!)
After you’ve written the first draft
Reread your first draft after giving yourself some time to distance yourself from it. Does it feel like you’ve chosen the right topic? If not, go back to the drawing board. Remember: colleges are trying to find the answers to two questions: 1) Who are you? and 2) Can you write? Does your first draft offer a glimpse of who you are as a person? Is it about you, or about something or somebody else? When you read it, does it sound like you, or does it sound like somebody else?
Consider why this essay topic matters to you. Remind yourself of what you learned over the course of the events of the essay. Have the events you’ve written about changed you, and if so, how? Are those changes shown in the essay? What were you feeling in each moment? Are those feelings telegraphed to a reader with no prior knowledge of the events described in your essay? Rewrite this draft.
Examine your essay’s structure
Does the essay have a beginning, middle, and end? Should the beginning be the beginning? Should the end be the end? Does the beginning hook the reader? Remember, the people reading your essay will be reading hundreds–if not thousands–of essays. You want yours to stand out immediately. But don’t be gimmicky! Create an outline based on what you’ve written and ask yourself if the structure you’ve created is the best structure with which to convey your ideas and your story. What’s the conclusion doing? Can it be cut? Does it resonate with the beginning of your essay?
Show. Don’t tell.
This is famous writing advice–so famous it’s become a cliché. However, it’s important. Remember these words by Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” And remember the words of William Carlos Williams: “No ideas but in things.”
Reread your essay and take note of moments in which you’re telling rather than showing. Could you be showing, and if so, how? Try showing. Does showing still convey what you were telling? Go through the entire essay and ask yourself “How?” and “Why?” in response to each sentence. If the answer to each question lends specific detail or seems required to understand the sentence, add in those details.
Find–and utilize–your voice
Record yourself reading your essay aloud. Listen to the recording. Does it sound like you? Does it sound forced? Does it sound like you’re trying to be someone you’re not? Note any places where the rhythm is choppy or awkward. It should send good read aloud. It should flow.
Ask a friend or family member to read your essay. Ask them if it sounds like only you could have written it. Write like you talk–that is, incorporate the natural rhythms of your speech.
What words have you chosen? Are they words you knew already, or did you have a thesaurus right beside you as you wrote the essay? Does it contain words you’d never say aloud? Finding your voice is a difficult task, but it’s perhaps the most important thing to do when writing the college application essay. As such, it can be wise to seek help from an experienced writer.
Did you answer the prompt?
If you were following a specific prompt, is your response clear? If you had to condense the message of your essay into one sentence representing the “heart” of your essay, would your actual essay reflect and remain true to that sentence?
Imagine you’re the reader: what will the reader have learned about you after reading your essay?
Never stop asking: have I shown them who I really am? Authenticity is difficult to pinpoint, difficult to teach, but people have a knack for spotting it. Make sure the entire essay is authentic. Every line should convey informational or emotional truth.
Check your word count
Chances are, you’re well over the limit. That’s okay. It’s easier to make something shorter than it is to make something longer. Just as a sculptor begins with a large block of marble and chisels, so too a writer must chisel, refine. What can you cut?
Go through word by word. Is there a better word or phrase? Is a phrase just extra weight? Be on guard for wordiness. “Due to the fact that” should become “Because.” “In spite of the fact that” should become “Although.”
There are many passive words and phrases that can be rewritten to contain fewer words. “In the valley I noticed that a river was flowing, which seemed beautiful to me” should become “A beautiful river flowed through the valley.”
Get my gist? Cutting words like “noticed,” “seemed,” “looked,” “reached,” and so on, as well as forms of “be”–especially “being”–can make language more active. Don’t go crazy with adjectives and adverbs. Nouns and well-chosen verbs matter more.
Again, seek the help of an experienced writer, who will be better able to spot slack language and wordiness.
Does your writing engage the senses?
Reread your essay. Can the reader see what you’re describing? Smell it? Feel it? Taste it? Hear it? If not, make sure that he or she can. Beware of being entirely literal. Sometimes a well-crafted metaphor or simile can be descriptive gold.
Grammar, usage, and mechanics
Have an experienced writer proofread your essay. Aim for a variety of sentence structures and sentence lengths. Make absolutely no spelling, grammar, or punctuation mistakes. You should proofread the essay several times and ask more than one experienced writer to do the same.
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That’s it for now. If you’re looking for help polishing your college applications and workshopping your essay, contact us today.
Additional Resources: “Winning College Scholarships for High Schoolers” Video Course