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Revising, Editing & Proofreading Your College Application Essay: A Guide

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Although it’s only 650 words, writing the Common App essay is a long and in-depth process. That’s because these 650 words can have a major impact on whether or not you are accepted to the college of your choice.

The essay gives admissions officers insight into your personality, goals, and interests, plus an idea of how you will fit into and contribute to their college campus.

For these reasons, revising and editing is an essential step in the college essay writing process. You want your essay to be clear, concise, engaging, and polished.

To accomplish this goal, use this checklist for revising and editing the college application essay.

11-Item Checklist

Revising means improving the overall piece of writing. This includes enhancing clarity, word choice, and structure. It may also mean adding new ideas, improving current ideas, or removing ideas that are unnecessary or off-topic.

When it comes to revising the college application essay, here are some items you should consider.

1. Does the essay clearly address the selected topic or prompt?

It’s very important that your college application essay fully addresses the topic you selected or were assigned. This is the foundation of college essay revisions; nothing else matters if you don’t address the topic correctly.

For example, imagine you selected this prompt from the Common Application:

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

First, make sure that your essay is directly related to the selected topic. It should be focused on a challenge or failure you have experienced and the lessons you learned as a result.

Additionally, ensure that you answered all parts of the question. An essay addressing this prompt, for example, would not be fully on topic if it only described a challenge you experienced. You must also explain how this challenge affected you and what you learned from the experience.

Key words from the prompt (in this case “challenge,” or “setback,” and “lessons”) should be mentioned in the essay.

If your essay is off-topic or doesn’t address all parts of the question, you will need to do some revising.

You want to check the soundness of your essay and how it expands on the topic and conflict during the first draft revision. The first draft is where you’ll make major changes, such as changing the structure, shifting the focus on the story, rewriting entire paragraphs, or even scrapping the entire essay.

2. Is the college essay well-organized?

The first paragraph of your essay should include some sort of thesis or main idea for the essay. The rest of the essay should be organized around this thesis, with all additional paragraphs developing and supporting the main idea.

Each paragraph should also have its own subtopic, and all information within each paragraph should further develop and support the subtopic.

For example, your introduction could mention a challenge (like being bullied growing up as a result of a speech impediment), how this challenge affected you (it was hurtful and made you self-conscious for a while), and the lessons you ultimately learned (to be confident in yourself regardless of what others say, to handle hardships with humor and positivity, etc.).

You could then have one paragraph focused on describing the challenge, one on discussing how the challenge affected you, and a third, longer paragraph explaining the lessons you learned as a result.

You should also use transitions to smoothly connect ideas and help readers follow your thought process.

It’s important to note that an essay with a complex structure or storytelling arc still needs to have an effective and clear payoff. Complexity is no substitute for solid writing. If you think the story and its message are becoming too convoluted, chances are that it is. And if you already think it is, then your readers would definitely agree.

While there’s no need to write a five-paragraph essay (I really mean that), the following structure will help you write a clear essay with an easy-to-follow structure:

  1. Introduction (Keep this short and sweet; don’t get bogged down with the details.)
  2. Conflict (What happened? What’s the problem?)
  3. Solution (What did you do to proactively solve the problem?)
  4. Lessons learned (What did you learn from pursuing a solution or experiencing this conflict? How have your values changed? How have these changes shifted your perspective? How will you change moving forward?

3. Supporting details, examples & anecdotes

Each paragraph should be well-developed with specific details, examples, or anecdotes supporting your point.

The college essay is not the same as a typical academic essay, which may be dry and lacking in personality. Instead, the college essay is intended to demonstrate your voice, personality, and uniqueness. It should be engaging and colorful.

You should include vivid, specific details to bring your points to life. In this way, a college essay is similar to a more creative piece of writing. As you and your parents or high school counselor look over the first draft of it, find places to add colorful examples and concrete details to breathe some more life into your writing.

Make sure all details and examples help support and develop the main points you are trying to convey.

Having trouble coming up with details? Think of the following:

  • Who was involved?
  • What happened? What did you do?
  • When did this occur? Is there an important chronological context?
  • Where did this occur? Is the setting relevant to the story?
  • Why did this happen? Why did you react or act the way you did?
  • How did you go about solving this problem?

Important: There’s an important principle in writing called “Chekhov’s gun” – use this principle when evaluating whether details are relevant to your essay. So, what is Chekhov’s gun?

  • If you’re going to mention something in your college essay, make sure it plays a role somewhere else in the story.
  • Don’t describe the color of the sky and the sound of an instrument if they aren’t mentioned again in the essay or don’t influence the plot.
  • If you describe a bully as “strong” or a problem as “habitual,” the conflict each is a part of should be influenced by the strength of the bully or repetition of the problem.

Chekhov’s gun is critical because it will help you trim word count and stay on message.

4. Voice & Personality

Another way to make the essay interesting and engaging is to ensure that it is written in your own unique voice.

Of course, the essay shouldn’t include slang, and it shouldn’t read like a text message to your best friend. But it also shouldn’t sound stiff, forced, or unnatural. It should read almost as if you are talking to a teacher you feel comfortable with, or to a favorite older relative.

When revising the essay, make sure you didn’t include too many high-level vocabulary words in an effort to sound intellectual, as this can sound forced. You can even read the essay aloud to see if it flows naturally and “sounds” like you.

The essay should also give the admissions officer a glimpse of your personality. Does the essay accurately portray who you are beyond your GPA, SAT scores, and extracurricular activities? If not, spend some time making sure it captures your unique identity.

This is the climax of the entire process of the revisions process — your own voice, perspective, and lessons learned are the most important elements of the essay.

5. A Good Candidate for Admission

Remember that another key purpose of the college essay is to show your school of choice that you are a strong candidate for admission. When reading your essay, the admissions officer should form an understanding of what you can contribute to a college campus.

Be sure that your essay paints you in a positive light. The rest of your application has already provided information about your GPA, SAT scores, and other accomplishments, but what else should admissions officers know about you to see that you are a good candidate for admission?

This could include your love of learning, curiosity, persistence, motivation, resilience, teamwork, kindness, work ethic, enthusiasm for the school, leadership abilities, etc.

Before you submit the essay, check that it highlights some of the qualities that will make you an excellent college student and an asset to any campus. Also, consider sharing it with one or two friends or trusted adults to get a second opinion.

This is the Barebones Exercise, a helpful exercise to determine whether you told an effective story and demonstrated your personality, values, and themes:

  1. Grab a highlighter and print your college essay.
  2. Highlight the most important sentences of your essay. These sentences should include topic sentences, sentences that propel the story, and sentences that imply or state your values.
  3. Write or copy and paste those highlighted sentences into a new document.
  4. Organize the sentences by the order in which they appear in your college essay.
  5. Read the sentences in order. How does it sound?
  6. This is the barebones version of your essay. What message are you getting? Is your simplified story still a cohesive narrative?
  7. Does this barebones version of your essay still imply or state the newfound values found in the conclusion of your original essay? What will the college admissions officer learn about you?

All told, you want this barebones version to emit the same messages and important elements found in your real college essay. The barebones version helps you momentarily remove complementary details and determine the central premise of your essay.

6. Do you stick to the topic?

We already talked about addressing the topic, but it’s important that you stick to it as well. Check the essay for any information that is off-topic or unnecessary. During the entire revision process, it’s important to keep this in mind: Do you stay on topic, and do you extrapolate values as the essay progresses?

An easy way to do this is to identify your thesis statement. Anything in the essay that does not support, develop, or relate to the thesis statement should be cut.

It can be tempting to include unrelated information that you would like to share with admissions officers, but doing so will make the essay disorganized and difficult to follow.

Additionally, each paragraph should have its own subtopic. Anything that doesn’t support, develop, or relate to each paragraph’s topic sentence should also be cut or moved to another, more relevant paragraph.

Use the Barebones Exercise from the previous section. Here’s how it works when checking whether you stuck to your topic:

  • Highlight your topic sentences.
  • Underline the set-up sentences that immediately follow your topic sentences.
  • Highlight your resolution.
  • Now, read your highlighted topic sentences. Ask yourself whether they are properly telling the story.
  • Read your set-up sentences that follow your topic sentences. Do they support the topic sentence or main idea of the story? Are you getting off track? Do you exaggerate or sound overconfident or doubtful? Are you providing unnecessary details? Your words are $100 bills. Spend your money wisely to abide by the word count.
  • Read your resolution. Does it properly end the story in your own image? Is it a cliché? Are you using pop culture or literary phrases? Too many of these supplant your voice for an artificial one. Are you closing the loop? Open-ended endings are perfectly fine but difficult to execute. Make sure you’re ending the story on your own terms.
  • Of course: Did you answer the essay prompt?
  • Overall: Are you covering too much ground? If so, rewrite and decrease the scope of the essay. Your job is to write effectively, not compose the next Harry Potter entry.

7. A good mix of short and long sentences

Sentence variety gives writing rhythm and life. It can make essays easier to follow and more engaging. For these reasons, it’s important that the essay doesn’t include too many short sentences or too many long sentences. Instead, it should include a mix of both.

Read through your essay to be sure it’s not full of only short, choppy sentences or long sentences with many clauses. Try to add more variety to your sentence lengths before submitting the essay.

Still having trouble? Read your essay aloud by yourself or to a friend and ask how it sounds. Short and choppy? Or smooth and fluid?

Think of your essay as if it were a song. Songs with multiple notes sound far superior to songs with dull, awkward notes.

Editing

Editing means fixing basic errors like spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and word usage. To edit effectively, try reading the essay backward. This helps you focus more on spelling and grammar without being distracted by the ideas in the essay.

Focus on one type of error at a time, and read slowly and carefully, sentence by sentence.

The last four items on our checklist will help you ensure that your college essay is error-free. This is the concluding chapter of the revisions process.

8. Are all words spelled correctly?

Spell check doesn’t catch everything. Homonyms, for example, go unnoticed by spell check. Homonyms are words that sound the same but have different meanings, like “pair” and “pare,” or “they’re,” “their,” and “there.” As long as you have spelled the word correctly, spell check won’t notice that the word itself is incorrect.

  • The same goes for wrong words, like using “martial” instead of “marital.”
  • “My favorite hobby it fishing.”

So relying on spell check could result in you turning in an essay that’s actually full of misspellings and wrong words.

Read carefully through the essay, ensuring that all words are spelled correctly and that you haven’t accidentally used an incorrect word.

9. Proper punctuation & capitalization

Check for proper use of commas, periods, parentheses, question marks, quotation marks and, if applicable, semicolons.

If you’re unsure about punctuation use, see if your English teacher is available to read over the essay and offer some suggestions.

Alternatively, research proper use of punctuation on the Internet or at the library.

Additionally, the first word in each sentence should be capitalized, along with proper nouns (names of people and places) and the word “I.” For the most part, all other words should be lowercase.

Similar to the issue with spelling, programs don’t always notice grammar errors. If grammar and usage aren’t your strengths, you might not realize you’ve written something incorrectly. For example:

“My hard work has positively effected my grades.”

This might be the kind of error many people miss. Do you know the difference between affect and effect? If not, it’s a good idea to ask someone. Because grammatical rules can be complicated, it’s better to get help than to risk not using them correctly.

10. Do you abide by the word count?

You need to follow the word count the prompt provides. This is non-negotiable. Not following the word count implies to college admissions officers that you won’t follow the most basic rules on campus.

At first, your Common App essay should be 800 or 900 words long. Extra details and paragraphs in the preliminary stages are OK.

Now that you like the essence of your college essay, here’s a step-by-step process on trimming word count:

  • Step 1: Start cutting down your introduction.
    • You can find the most “fat” here because you likely started writing your essay thinking about big ideas.
    • That means you tried to explain things and give full but ineffective context to your situation.
  • Step 2: Then, cut down your conclusion.
    • Clichés are usually abundant in this part. Don’t use clichés. You’d be drowning out your writing.
    • Be sure to lop off parts that needlessly explain your ending, but be careful not to eliminate useful aspects of your resolution.
  • Step 3: Evaluate your phrasing.
    • Do you repeat things in different words?
    • Do you use clichés?
    • Are your quotes of appropriate length?
    • Do you overuse aphorisms?
    • Are your similes of appropriate length? Do you use too many?
    • Are your metaphors of appropriate length? Do you use too many?
    • Do you use too many analogies? Are any of them excessively clumsy?
  • Step 4: Look at your advanced words
    • Are any of them excessively clumsy?
    • Are you trying too hard to sound smart?
    • Do you use these words in everyday writing? If not, they might not be a good fit for your essay.

11. Sentence Structure

Check that word usage and sentence structure is grammatically correct as well. This includes:

  • Subject-verb agreement
  • Consistent verb tenses (not switching back and forth between past and present, for example)
  • Are there any run-on sentences or sentence fragments?
  • Are the antecedents (Ex: my mom, Mr. Hughes) for all pronouns (Ex: she, he) clear, and do pronouns and antecedents agree in number?
  • Does the essay include any unnecessary adjectives or adverbs?
  • Have you unintentionally left out any words, or included words that should be deleted?

Critical Tips to Help You With Proofreading

After you consult the checklist above, utilize the tips below help you write a stellar and mistake-free essay.

Read Your Essay Aloud

This is probably the best tip for any piece of writing you plan to show someone, but it’s especially important for the college essay.

Most professionals practice reading their work aloud to a small audience or to themselves. When you do this, you are far more likely to hear the errors your eyes tend to miss.

Reading to an audience of one or more people can also be beneficial, because they can catch the errors you didn’t hear.

While reading aloud won’t always help you with typos, it will give you a sense of whether or not your phrasing is awkward, or your sentences are too wordy. Simply put, if it doesn’t sound right, it usually isn’t.

Treat reading your college essay aloud like a process. The more you do it, the more chances you have to evaluate particular phrases and sentences.

Proofreading Requires Taking a Step Back

For most writers, time can be incredibly valuable when drafting their work. Tired eyes often miss simple mistakes, and the more we look at something we have written, the more immune we are to its flaws. That seems counterintuitive, but it’s true.

There is simply no substitute for taking a break from your writing and coming back to it later.

When you approach your essay with a fresh look, it will seem like a totally new piece of writing. It’s not always the best writing, but that gives you the opportunity to make the necessary changes.  

Print Your Essay

Like taking a break from your work, printing your writing allows you to see it in a completely different way. Most of us are used to only working on a computer, and we rarely print work out to edit.

However, there is no substitute for marking up your writing with a pencil or pen.

Many people say that when they print out their writing, it seems like someone else wrote it. This is exactly the perspective you need to be a good judge of what’s on the page.

Proofreading With Different Eyes

Having another person proofread your work might not always be your favorite option.

Many of us aren’t very comfortable showing what we’ve written to other people, but having another person edit your work is incredibly helpful.

This person could be a teacher, friend, or anyone else whose knowledge and writing expertise you trust. Your current or former teachers have the advantage of knowing your writing well, so they are often the best people to consult.

Teachers have likely read many college essays in the past, so they are experts in correcting errors.

While your English teacher might be the obvious choice, consider showing your essay to a college counselor. They, too, have read many personal essays, and they can help you with any stage of your editing process.

While your teachers know your writing, friends know you personally. They can be the best judges of whether you’re saying something in exactly the right way.

Of course, you are the writer, and it is entirely your choice which suggestions to take or leave, so consider the legitimacy of the advice you get before making any changes.

Save Multiple Drafts

Occasionally, you might proofread your college essay, making some changes to the original document without saving an original.

Sometimes, those changes might not be what you want out of a final draft. In writing, it’s always helpful to see where you started.

If you scrap something, keep the original version so you can remember how you expressed your thinking originally.

Make sure, when saving your drafts, that they are clearly marked to prevent confusion. You don’t want to make the mistake of sending the wrong draft in; there might not be any going back from that step.

Proofread Multiple Times

There is simply no substitute for putting the time and effort in to review your college essay.

To maximize your editing skills, you need multiple opportunities to use them.

By taking a break, printing your work, or reading aloud, you are automatically providing opportunities for multiple readings.

You will probably find that when you do this, you will have opportunities to correct different types of errors. Keep going until your editing is complete.

Create the Ideal Setting

While this may sound obvious, minimizing distractions while proofreading allows for a sharper eye and better-focused attention on your work.

If you are easily bothered by noise from other people or from music and television, find a quiet place where you can devote all of your attention to the task of editing. If music helps you focus, try that, too.

Editors thrive in the settings that make them feel comfortable and focused, so make sure to find yours.

Recap: College Essay Revisions, Edits & Proofreading

Plan, write, revise, and edit your college essay using this checklist, and you’ll be able to submit an engaging, precise, and polished final product. These items ensure the entire process of revisions is implemented in an even-keeled manner.

And if you’re interested in gaining an edge in college admissions, check out our college essay boot camp.