Editing Your College Essays
Your college essay is complete. You've poured your heart and
soul into it ... but it's too long by 100 words, and could use a
bit of polishing before it goes out into the world. It's time to
change from being an author to being a copy editor, and to drop
the emotional attachment to your words. Remember ABC: Always Be
Concise. Consider the word limit to be analogous to a speed
limit--you don't have to reach or even exceed it and it's
definitely not a race to see how many words you can use.
Many of us that do some form of copy-editing professionally use
a series of editing passes, each concentrating on a specific
type of problem or problems. Doing so lets you distance yourself
from your essay - and copy edit your own work more effectively.
1. Begin by reading the essay out loud. Doing so uses a
different neural pathway than reading silently. If the
application deadline is looming, this step will probably catch a
great many errors in a short amount of time.
2. Consider the tone of the essay, and avoid pretentiousness.
Showcase yourself without bragging. Don't be shy, don't hide
behind formal and ornate prose...let the adcoms see *you* as a
person. Write as if you were telling the story or having a
conversation with a respected adult you don't know too well. If
you think your essay sounds egotistical and pompous, chances are
your intended audience does, too.
3. Remove tangential paragraphs. If a paragraph is not integral
to your essay, it will lead the reader down a dead-end path and
just leave them there. The flow of the essay will be disrupted,
and the reader won't be so eager to see what's next.
4. Check to see if there is too much setup and explanation in
your essay. It's natural to go into great detail when first
explaining or describing something. These passages can be
frequently shortened or deleted without loss of clarity. The
adcoms, though adult, are not stupid.
5. Go through the essay and remove every - or almost every -
instance of 'to be.' Using the active voice will almost always
shorten and improve your essay.
6. Next, remove redundant phrases. You don't have the luxury of
repeating yourself for emphasis in a 500 or 250 word essay.
7. Finally, remove redundant words. If a sentence is equally
clear without a word, then it should be cut.
8. Make sure your essay makes grammatical sense. Check your
tenses. Trace each modifier (adjective, prepositional phrase,
etc.) back to the item it's describing; match each subject with
its predicate. Check specifically for misplaced modifiers and
singular subjects with plural predicates, e.g., "none of them
9. Check your spelling and word usage. Catch all the common
errors like "noone" for "no one." Do not rely on spell checking
software; it will not catch misused homonyms ("their" for
"there") or misspelled words or typos that are other words "hat"
instead of "that", "to" instead of "too").
10. Look at your word choices carefully. Don't use the
ten-dollar word when the fifty-cent one will do. Using
ostentatiously literary words usually leads to problems of tone.
11. Good writing is not the result of a democratic process; it
requires a unified vision and execution. When seeking the
editing advice of others, don't let their suggested changes
change the overall "voice" of your essay unless the voice needs
changing. By incorporating too many "editing suggestions" for
word changes, sentence structure, etc., the essay can quickly
fall apart and lose the sense that it's coming from you.
12. Wait at least a day (if you can), and then read the essay
again - OUT LOUD - and really listen this time! With all the
deletions and changes you have made, chances are good that you
introduced a few errors or typos in the process. This last pass
is needed to correct your corrections.