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College Essay Editing Checklist

Editing Your Essay

Article Type: Checklist

You’ve put the finishing touches on your essay, and it feels oh-so-good. Now you want nothing more than to close your laptop, throw on a pair of flip-flops and head to the beach (or, if you live in the Midwest, throw on a pair of galoshes and head to the movie theater). Deep sigh… your work is done here.


Despite all the time and effort you’ve put into the thing, it’s only half done. There’s too much riding on this baby to stop now. It’s revision time. Ooh yeah.

You doth protest too much, we thinks. Yeah, it’s tempting to just hit that button that will send your essay hurtling into cyberspace as is, but turning in a sloppy essay communicates a clear lack of interest. Admissions officers will think that if you don’t put in the time to refine your essay, you don’t really care about going to their school. And… they’re kinda right.

Keep in mind how badly you want this. Don’t just talk a big game – if you really want to put your best brain forward, give it everything you have to give. Tackle the challenge like it’s fourth and goal with one second left on the clock. Or, if you’re not into sports analogies, like it just stole your wallet.

However… you are allowed to take a break after completing your first draft. Let it sit for a while. Step away from your desk. Shut down your computer. Go do something fun. Okay, so maybe you do have time to take in that movie/beach volleyball tournament.

Sleep on it. Wait a few days, even. Then, come back and hit those revisions like they talked smack about your mother.

Get Some Help

Seek the advice of a trusted friend, mentor, or teacher. Or, if you don’t have one of those, maybe talk to a pet fish who’s a really good listener.

Outside help is often the way to go. However, you have to remember to keep your own voice and stick to your ideas—it’s your essay, not theirs. So get feedback, but don’t channel anyone else in your essay. If you’re suddenly rattling off British colloquialisms and you’re not a teeny bit British… they’ll know something is afoot.

You can also turn to Shmoop for Essay help.

Read It Out Loud

Aw… it’s like you get to read a bedtime story to yourself! Go ahead… get all snuggly under the covers… maybe even bring a flashlight and make a fort. Whatever makes it fun for you.

If you find yourself cringing when you read your essay aloud because the tone is forced (did you use too many $5 words?) or the essay feels choppy, that’s a good thing—it means you’re catching your goof-ups now, rather than later. Or rather than… never.

If your essay sounds awkward when reading it aloud to yourself, that’s exactly how it’s going to sound to the reader. And they’re not as forgiving of your mistakes as you are. You’ll let yourself get away with practically anything.

On the other hand, once your final product flows as smoothly as Michael Jackson’s dance moves, even when put to the ultimate test of being read out loud, you can rest assured that your reader will give you brownie points for style and tone. If it’s spectacular enough, they may even give you actual brownies. You should probably let them know if you have a gluten allergy.

Five Steps To Beautifying Your Essay

1.     Craft an exquisite first sentence. Ms. Mary Admissions is on her 453rd application essay and fourth cup of coffee of the day. Her eyes are blurring. You need to leap off the page, across time and space, and grab her attention. How do you do that? Write a first sentence that makes her sit up and take notice.

2.     Craft an exquisite first paragraph. You don't have a lot of space in this essay to tell your story, which means you hit 'em fast and hard. By the time Ms. Mary Admissions reaches the end of your first paragraph, not only will she have experienced a mental reveille, but she'll know exactly where your essay is going to take her and why she should care about what you have to say.

3.     Show, don't tell. If we had a dollar for every time an English teacher threw this one at us, we'd be able to buy a steak dinner at Ruth's Chris. Don't slap your reader across the face with facts and feelings; draw them in and make them feel like they're right there, fighting malaria in Africa with you.

4.     Let your personality shine. This is your essay; this is your opportunity to show your dream school's admissions office who you are, beyond the test scores and your GPA and your litany of extracurricular activities.

5.     Aim for personal, but not casual. Your essay isn't a diary entry. You're not sharing an experience with a BFF. You're telling your story to a stranger...a stranger who's going to decide whether or not you get into Northwestern. So, keep it about you, but the classy, intelligent, adult you.

The Nitty-Gritty: Checklist

Did you do all of this stuff?

___ Spell-check your essay

___ Spell the college's name correctly

___ Stick below the character limit

___ Write in paragraphs instead of one huge block. Think ice cubes, not icebergs.

___ Vary your sentence length and structure

___ Use the active (not passive) voice

___ Avoid using big $5 SAT vocab words

___ Include a personal anecdote about yourself

___ Use specific details

___ Avoid clichés like the plague

___ Open with an engaging first sentence

___ Finish strong

We actually use the same checklist when we’re on a first date. Works like a charm.

Do some self-exploration.

Your college essay is all about showcasing yourself. Think about which of your strengths and interests you would most like colleges to know about you. What are you passionate about? What’s most important to you? What are you best at?

If you need to pick the topic, be focused and specific.

Writing about a single experience is usually a good idea: Your essay should prove a single point or message. Try to avoid clich� topics like ‘winning a big game’, ‘taking a trip’ or even dealing with a death, these will not help your application stand out from the group.

Show your thoughtfulness.

Be thoughtful in both your topic choice and the tone of your writing. Colleges look for students who have dealt with adversity, have overcome challenges and continue to grow from their experience. Admitting shortcomings is a sign of maturity and intelligence, so there is no need to portray yourself as a superhero, they will see through it.

Get started early.

Self-exploration can be fun, but don’t procrastinate on the actual writing. You don’t want to rush or be up against a tight deadline; it will affect your work.

Create an essay outline.

Sometimes creating an outline for your essay can help you get started. It will also help you organize your thoughts and develop a framework.

Read the instructions and follow them.

Be conscious of any length limits, and, if the topic is provided for you, analyze the question carefully. You want to be aware of everything they ask and answer everything thoroughly.

Use your own voice.

Don’t use big words just for the sake of using big words. They can distract from the essay when misused. Remember, this essay is about you, so use words you would use.

Use quotations and examples to show personal detail.

Instead of just stating your point of view, you want to make your reader feel the experience. Adding detail will help convey your stance. But don’t use quotations simply to use them; make sure they make sense.

Try to be concise.

While adding personal detail is good, you don’t want to be wordy or long-winded; short sentences can be more powerful.

Don’t use slang words.

Generally speaking, slang words conjure the feeling of someone being unpolished, uncaring or not that serious. These are three things you don’t want your admissions reader thinking about you. Likewise, avoid clich�s and overuse of contractions.

Be honest.

The point of this essay is to show who you are, not who you wish you were. Stick to what you know and your true personality will shine through.

Don’t be afraid to use humor if it’s part of who you are.

Admissions officers can have a sense of humor too, and, when used appropriately, humor can make you stand out. However, don’t make being funny one of your top goals in your college essay.

Step away from your essay and come back later.

Sometimes it helps to take a break from your work and come back in a few days. Review what you’ve written and make sure it still makes sense and conveys what you want it to.

Write multiple drafts.

Sometimes you need to write a couple of drafts to get your essay right where you want it.

Type your essay.

No matter how good your essay, if people can’t read your handwriting they won’t appreciate the work.

Proofread your essay.

You want to make sure you’ve used proper spelling, grammar and punctuation, so ask an expert to proofread your essay.

Get feedback from others.

Ask your friends and family to read your essay and tell you what they think. Be open to suggestions and ways to improve it, even if this means going back to the drawing board.

Revise if necessary.

You want to edit your essay down to what is important. Make every word count!

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