Even the greatest writers often go through several drafts before finally being satisfied with their work. Similarly, college application essays should go through multiple edits and revisits. You should not under any circumstances submit your first draft to college admissions officers, nor should you submit your second or third drafts. In order to present your best, most polished writing sample, it is critical that you go through at least four iterations before submitting.
The Importance of Rereading and Revision
The first thing you should do after completing your essay is to read it aloud. This will force you to read more slowly and catch more of your mistakes. After making the necessary changes, you should reread your essay. After every reread, you will likely find something with which you are unsatisfied—be it the order of your paragraphs, the content, the word choice, etc.—and tweak your essay accordingly. After several revisions, be sure to give yourself some time away from your essay to clear your head.
Look at the Big Picture: Developmental Editing
When revising, begin by improving the more general aspects of your essay. Make it immediately obvious where your thesis is, where your topic sentences are, what your supporting evidence is, and where your conclusion is. Most importantly, your essay must successfully answer the prompt and depict you in the best possible light. You must present yourself as an excellent candidate for the university.
Every aspect of your essay should be deliberate, so check that every one of your points is well-supported and clearly stated. Also, ask yourself if your paragraphs are arranged in the best possible order. Think about the best way to have your points complement and build upon one another to create the best possible impression on your reader.
Your essay should also flow. Make sure your transitions are smooth from one point to another. Poor flow can often come from poor word choice, so make sure to know the definition of every word that you use. Be especially careful that you know the connotation of a word if you choose to use a thesaurus.
Next, examine your essay section by section. Consider the purpose of each section: the introduction, the body, and the conclusion. Try to judge the success of each of these components. The introduction should be gripping, while aptly introducing the main idea of your paper. Each body paragraph should include one main argument and present it in a clear and cohesive way. Each topic sentence should support the thesis that was presented in the introduction. Finally, the conclusion must offer some sort of resolution without sparking new, never-to-be-addressed issues.
Break It Down Now: Line Editing
Next, focus on correcting the smaller details. Check sentence structure—there should not be any excessively long sentences (more than two lines) in your essay. The information that you are presenting should be as accessible as possible; long sentences are too difficult to read. That being said, make sure that you do not have too many short choppy sentences—these are unpleasant to read because they force the reader make frequent stops. Additionally, scan your essay for passive voice. Your entire essay should be in the active voice, which will give it a more confident and personal tone. Also, make sure to have noticeable diversity in your vocabulary by varying the adjectives that you use as much as possible. As a general rule of thumb, never use the same adjective in two sentences that are close together.
Check your grammar. Microsoft Word will pick up some grammar errors, but not all of them! You can use the MLA or Chicago Manual of Style for anything that you are not sure about. Look out for subject-verb agreement, comma usage, and homophone misuse (e.g., to vs. too, principle vs. principal, etc.) If you do not feel confident about your grammar, do not hesitate to turn to a friend or professional for help. Because of the vast, easily-accessible resources available to young adults, there is no excuse for bad grammar on college essays; grammatical mistakes will certainly be a red flag for a college admissions officer.
Do not forget about spelling! Again, do not rely on spell check. If you are unsure about the spelling of a word, it is always best to double-check Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary—both of which are accessible online.
The Power of Peer-Review
Always let at least one other person read your essay. Even if they have no knowledge of your topic or your dream school, a fresh set of eyes is always helpful. You will often find that there are some ideas that you meant to get across in your essay that, in fact, do not come across to the reader. Once a peer reviewer has read your essay, ask him or her about the information he or she has gathered. This will help you realize which information you conveyed successfully (or unsuccessfully).
The best way to ensure that you submit well-edited work is to use a professional feedback service (like Prompt), and have someone with expertise on admissions applications read your essays. After receiving feedback on structure, content, and grammar, you will feel confident that you have submitted your best possible work.
After you have gone through the entire revision process with your essay, give yourself a day of rest before you submit it. Once you have had some time away from the paper, give it one last read and send it off!
Hopefully, these instructions were helpful. Here is a checklist based on the main points of this chapter to help you:
Have you reread your essay aloud? Have you answered what the prompt is actually asking? Have you answered the question in the subtext (i.e. why are you a good candidate for this university)? Is your supporting evidence impressive? Have you eliminated all negative statements about yourself? Is it structured? Can you quickly locate your thesis, topic sentences, and conclusion? Does each paragraph focus on one argument? Is your hook gripping (i.e. does it entice the reader to keep reading)? Do you transition well from one thought to another? Does the order make sense? Have you double and triple-checked any facts that you use? Are they from credible sources (nothing from Wikipedia or blogs!)? Does your essay have any sentences that are too long (more than two lines)? Is your essay free of spelling mistakes? Is your essay free of grammar mistakes? Is your essay free of repeating adjectives? Have you had it peer reviewed? Have you used a professional feedback service (Prompt, perhaps)? Have you reread one last time before submitting?