The draft-drain-refine approach for personal statements (and other writing)

College graduate admissions personal statements
By Amir P.

When I worked at Boston Consulting Group, my teams often produced 300-slide presentations within a few weeks of a client engagement. BCG had a mantra for producing detailed analysis efficiently that I find useful for all forms of writing:

"Draft, Drain, Refine"

By breaking your writing process into these three stages, you will (1) reduce writer’s block, (2) improve your ability to write a lot quickly, and (3) finish with your best writing. In this blog post, I will walk you through how I use the draft-drain-refine approach in working with students on their personal statements.


At the draft stage, the most important rule is to get words on paper. Some people use tools like a pen and notebook, forcing themselves to write their stream of consciousness continuously. I like to type, but I still force myself to ignore any imperfections at this stage. We will have time to refine later.

Students who are just starting their personal statements often face writer’s block. In these situations, I like to start with a casual conversation. I ask my students basic questions: “Why do you want to go to law school?” and “Where do you see yourself in five to ten years?” Then, I just let them talk. As they respond, I ask follow-up questions on interesting points, while taking notes in outline form. At the end of our conversation, I debrief with them on which pieces of their stories I found most interesting and turn over the outline for them to use as a springboard for their first draft.


The second step is to drain. Read through your draft and remove unnecessary words. If you can say the same thing in fewer words, do it. 

Students often assume complex sentences and vocabulary are good for style. In reality, such complexity usually falls flat and sounds clunky. Keep it simple and remember to be nice to your reader: don’t make them do mental exercise just to understand what you are trying to say.


Now that you have a concise draft, style it up. While everyone’s writing style is unique, here are a few principles to start you off:

  1. Long sentences, with multiple interruptions, that can be rephrased without those interruptions, can often be made much easier to read if you just move some things around and remove unnecessary words. AKA: Long sentences can often be clarified by moving things around and removing unnecessary words. 
  2. Flawless grammar and spelling will make your writing more enjoyable to read. Use Grammarly and Word to check your grammar and spelling.
  3. Do not use fancy vocabulary unless you are confident your usage is correct. If you do use a fancy word, try not to repeat it.
  4. Vary your vocabulary and sentence structure, but err towards simplicity.
  5. Be nice to your reader. This one is important enough to repeat. Don’t make your reader do mental exercise. Clearer writing is always more fun to read.


There you have it. Good luck and happy draft-drain-refining!


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