One of the toughest parts of applying to college is actually hitting that “Submit” button at the end of the application and sending it off to admissions readers. Even if you want to be done, application nerves can make it difficult to commit to being done. In this two-part post, I’ll give you a list of things to look for in your college application essay so that you can feel confident that you have put your best work in, and that it’s ready to send out to colleges. For this first part, we’ll focus on big-picture revisions.
Does your college application essay have a main point that answers the essay prompt?
Reread your first paragraph or two—can you highlight a sentence that expresses the main point of your essay? This is similar to the thesis statement you’d write in a paper for English class, except that instead of making an argument, your main point sentence should set forth the central idea or story of your college application essay. If you don’t have one in your essay’s introduction, you should add it.
Once you’ve found a sentence in the introduction that expresses the main point, reread your essay’s conclusion. Does it make the same point? Your conclusion should not only repeat your introduction, but it should still address the same topic. It’s not uncommon for essay topics to shift as you write and revise, so double-check that claim you ended up with by the conclusion matches the main point you laid out in your introduction. (This is why people often wait to write their introduction until they’re almost done with an essay, rather than starting with it. Ideas change!)
After you’ve double-checked that your entire essay is focused on one main point, reread the college application essay prompt. Does your main point respond logically and specifically to that prompt? If not, you may need to continue revising. If this is your Common App essay, check if it would better fit any of the other prompts instead—sometimes an essay about an identity turns into an essay about an accomplishment, or an essay about overcoming an obstacle.
Does your college application essay flow in a logical order?
Order and flow in an essay are best achieved through topic sentences and transitions. First, check the beginning sentence of each of your body paragraphs. Does it clearly explain what the paragraph is about and how it relates to your essay’s main point? If so, great! If not, you need to revise to give it a real topic sentence. Be vigilant for topic sentences that are mostly about dates or ages—as in, “In ninth grade, I joined the soccer team,” or “Three days later, I scored my first goal.” These time markers don’t really tell us the content of the paragraph, and they should be revised to provide more substantial information.
Next, read the last sentence of one paragraph followed by the first sentence of the next paragraph. Do these sentences make sense next to each other? Can you easily identify the connection between them? If not, write a stronger transition. Rather than using transition short-cuts like “Next,” or “Finally,” try to help your reader connect the content of one paragraph to the next. One trick for making a content-based transition is to repeat information (or even specific words) from the end of the first paragraph at the beginning of the second paragraph. For example:
… Weaving potholders has become an important way for me to relax and relieve my anxiety.
Because weaving potholders has helped me relieve my own anxiety, I decided to found a Craft Club at my high school to share my interest with other students who also need a break from the stresses of senior year. …
Repeating the words “weaving potholders” and “relieve…anxiety” in both the last sentence of one paragraph and the first sentence of the next paragraph helps your readers to transition smoothly to the topic of the second paragraph. (This is a trick that lots of professional writers use—try looking for it the next time you’re reading a published essay or article!)
Does your college application essay sound specific to your voice?
Voice is something many admissions readers (and high school English teachers) ask for, but it can be hard to pinpoint when you’re writing—how do you know if your own writing sounds like you? One strategy I learned at an admissions info session was to imagine dropping your essay, without your name on it, in the middle of your high school cafeteria. If one of your classmates found the essay and read it, would they recognize that you wrote it?
If you want to strengthen your own voice in your essay, focus on adding specific details. For example, if you are writing about your experience learning to play the saxophone, think about what makes your particular story different from another student’s story about learning to play an instrument. What specifically motivated you to learn the saxophone? Was it hearing a particular musician as a child? Or was it your goal of joining the marching band in high school? Or did you secretly hate the saxophone when you started, but learn to love it after you realized you could play your grandparents’ favorite big band songs for them when they visit you? Use these details to turn generic or common statements into specific ones:
Generic: Although I didn’t like the saxophone at first, I worked hard and eventually learned to enjoy playing it.
Specific: Although I only started learning the saxophone because I could rent the instrument from my band teacher, learning to play songs like “Take the A Train” has been a surprising way to connect with my grandparents.
Working through these questions may mean you need to do some substantial revisions, and that’s okay! They are asking you to think about your essay on a big-picture, or global, level. Most strong essays are produced through many rounds of revision—it takes time and effort to turn an initial thought into a compelling piece of writing. Once you can answer the three questions above with a “yes,” you’re ready to move on to more local revisions, which I’ll cover in part two!
Are you interested in getting support from one of our coaches on your college application essay?
Are you craving more on the subject? Feel free to browse some of our previous blog posts on the process of applying to college: