10 steps to completing your college essay before school starts

college admissions Common Application personal statements

It’s that time of year:  you’re probably working on your college essay. You might even have a first draft.  Great job!  Take a breather and enjoy some of your favorite summer activities.  When you’re ready to confront your document again, take a look at these revision tips that I’ve put together over years of helping students make their essays into great ones.  

STEP ONE:  Take a break

Guess who knows you best and can give you the most valuable perspective on your essay?  You!  Trust yourself:  you can make your essay meaningful and personable.  Take a break, and then get in there and be willing to rearrange. 

STEP TWO:  Print it out

I’m a big believer in switching back and forth between typing and handwriting.  When you alternate these processes, it helps you make the switch into editor mode.  When you print out your essay, you can cross out parts that seem redundant or unclear, but you can still see what you previously wrote.  You can write new ideas in the margins.  You also have a great record of your ideas.  

STEP THREE:  Investigate the main idea

So… you’ve printed out your essay, and you’re ready to edit.  Where do you even start?  First, get into the right mindset.  Imagine you’re reading this essay for the first time, all the way through.  What’s the main takeaway? Does every part of the essay contribute to this focused idea?  After you’ve taken that break (remember Step One!), you should be able to tell if any key parts of the story are missing or if you need to work to link one idea to the next. 

STEP FOUR: Revise the beginning

The real essay often begins part-way down.  When you wrote your first draft, you probably stumbled around, trying to figure out where and how to begin.  Where does your story really start?  Could it be improved by jumping in at a more relevant and exciting point of the narrative, and then going back later in the essay (if even necessary) to fill in those earlier details?

STEP FIVE: Consider your audience

Imagine your essay in an office, in the hands of a reader.  This person wants to get to know YOU.  So… does your personality come through in this essay?  Are there enough details for that reader to be able to picture you?  And is this essay highlighting a critical part of your life that might not be evident in another part of your application?  

STEP SIX:  Make the essay fun to read

Although some successful personal essays use highly creative formats, most do not.  They’re simply written well, with a clear story.  That said, you can definitely find ways to bring your essay alive.  If you’re describing a family dinner, for example, could you add in a line or two of dialogue?  Could you add details to let us picture the table, like the weird brand of pickles your mother always buys or the half-finished crossword puzzle your stepfather pushed to the center?  

STEP SEVEN:  Make it longer

BUT, you say, my essay’s already hit 650 words!  For now, forget that.  Just go ahead and write in everything you think you need to tell this story, even if the essay doubles in length.  Once you’ve added in those spicy details, add more reflection.  Why, for example, was this experience of working outside in the field with a research scientist so important to you?  How are you different because of having that experience? You don’t need to write down that you want to become that specific kind of scientist, if you don’t or if you’re not sure.  But you do need to explain how that time transformed what you’ll seek out in future experiences.

STEP EIGHT:  Type it up

Once you’ve added these new details and reflections to your paper draft, return to your computer.  As you type, you may think of even more cool ideas, and that’s awesome. Don’t be alarmed as your draft keeps growing.  Type it all out and press print again.  Hooray!  You have a much more interesting essay with a whole lot more reflection.  Now it’s time for fine tuning.  Sharpen the scissors.

STEP NINE:  Check the transitions and chop the details

With your second paper draft, have your favorite purple pen ready. Reread the essay, top to bottom.  Again, are your thoughts written in a logical order?  Once again, eliminate redundant ideas.  Chances are that in some places, you’ll have described something in two ways.  If you already shared an idea, it’s there.  You don’t need it again.  You also don’t have room for too many stories, so choose your best ones.  Try leaving just one in a paragraph and then shrink the others from full-blown anecdotes down to a simple list.  Which examples show YOU best and show your main idea, too?  

STEP TEN:  Make the most of your words

At this point, you’ll probably still be over your word limit.  So, once you’ve typed in those edits from the purple pen draft, press print for your final working draft. Are there places where you string together verbs or adjectives? Rather than describing someone as “tall and awkward”, you could write “gangly”.  Instead of talking about a “really awesome, spectacular summer”, write about a “life-changing summer”.  Try eliminating words and phrases and see if your meaning survives without them.  Chances are, your paragraphs will hold up— and they’ll even be more memorable for your reader, because they’ll be simpler.

And then…  650!  You’re done! It’s a good idea, of course, to share your essay with a trusted mentor for a final reading.  But you’ve made it happen on your own steam - it’s your essay, about you.  And you should be excited to send it out into the world!

Jenny currently teaches English literature at St. Johnsbury Academy. She holds degrees from Dartmouth College, Trinity College at the University of Oxford, and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.


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