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Revision and Editing: What Makes A College Essay Work?

So you have written a first draft of your college essay, and deep down you know it needs work. However, you are feeling a bit stuck because you find it really embarrassing to write about yourself. Plus, everyone keeps telling you that your essay must be personal, that it needs to SHOW not TELL, and that it needs to be interesting and grammatically correct. You know you need help, but where do you turn?

writing on paper with a pen

Working closely with a writing coach or trusted professional can help your writing become more detailed and specific.

If you are not working with a college consultant with expertise in teaching essay writing, then your first step is to find a teacher or family friend who understands the college essay to be your writing coach. The criteria for a good coach is someone who is patient and reassuring, understands not only what good writing entails, but also knows the purpose of a college essay and how it is used in the admissions process. The coach should also be conversant with the rules of grammar. There are three key phases of working with your writing coach on your college essays—Idea Development, Sentence-Level Improvement, and Grammar and Mechanics. Let’s take a close look at what should happen in each phase.

Idea Development and Content—Phase I

Positive Feedback The purpose of the first phase of feedback is to help the student further develop the ideas of the essay. Before writing the first draft, students should already have identified the qualities or characteristics about themselves that they want to convey in the essay and why those qualities matter. It is not to fix spelling and grammar mistakes, or to criticize ideas. Schedule a writer’s conference with your coach after she has read your first draft. Ask her to make notes about the positive aspects of your essay prior to the meeting, and to make a list of questions about any of the ideas that were difficult to grasp. In the example that follows, the coach asks the student two questions to clarify the meaning of the passage where she describes practicing choreography for an important dance audition:

My music comes on, and my coach walks to the front of the room. “Young girl don’t cry,” by (artist name)? blares out from the stereo system as I attempt my first turn. What is a turn in this case?

The coach can pose questions that help you clarify points that may be confusing to the reader, and allow you to think about your ideas in a new way: “What does it mean to be a dancer? How much work goes into learning a new routine? What are the joys, the frustrations? Discussing these comments in a meeting or phone conference is more apt to help you convey your desired message in an interesting way than if you are simply told that your message is confusing. Your goal is to find your own voice in your writing and the  conference is the first step.

Books on college essay writing

Use writing resources to help guide your writing process.

Structure and Sentence-level Improvement—Phase II

Once your ideas and your main point are in place, it is time to look over your essay and consider its organization. Is there a better way to start your essay? Sometimes a fantastic introduction is buried in paragraph three. Try opening a new document and crafting the essay with an alternate introduction. Consider your ending as well.

This is also the time to make your sentences more finding places where you could SHOW rather than TELL. Remember that college admissions officers read hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of essays each year. Any essay that leads with a sentence such as, “I spent the last four years taking hip hop dance classes, and I really enjoyed it” will not grab anyone’s attention. Here is the lead to the essay that the dancer referenced above wrote:

Beads of sweat slowly move down my full-body tights as I extend my right leg back, up, and to the side, all from the push up position. This is just the beginning of a long night in the dance studio.

She could have used TELL and simply said, “One night I worked really hard on my dance routine for an important audition.” Instead she helps the reader visualize her motions because she is SHOWING the process through her writing. It is almost as if we are in the dance studio with her.

Take a few moments to review your sentences, and make your language more colorful with metaphor or simile. Review your verbs and replace “to be” verbs (am, are, was, were) with more powerful action verbs wherever possible:

Change “It was hot in the room.” To “The room burned like an oven.”

Revise “The boy ran fast” to “The boy ran like a cheetah.”

Some essays may benefit from having another voice besides your own represented through dialogue, quoting someone relevant to your story, or incorporating a famous quote that puts your message in context.

Polish: Grammar and Mechanics—Phase III

Once your ideas are in place, your intended message is clear, and you have made your sentences blossom, you will be ready to tackle grammar and punctuation. The essay serves as a writing sample and allows the admissions committee to see your writing ability. Consequently, it should present your thoughts in an organized way and be grammatically correct with no spelling errors or typos. Although the essay should be your own work, we suggest asking someone to review it for grammar, organization and spelling. However, you should make the corrections yourself under the watchful eye of your coach so that you understand the concept behind the corrections.

Writing is a revision of ideas, so don’t expect to get it right in the first draft. Enjoy exploring your ideas and finding your voice by taking the time to polish your college essay. An essay that shines can help you stand out, and, hopefully, get in.

For Further Reading

A Writer’s Reference with Help for Writing in the Disciplines by Diana Hacker. This excellent resource book is one that students can take with them to college and graduate school. It not only provides easy-to-understand explanations for grammar, usage and sentence structure, but also offers detailed explanations for writing research papers and organizing references and citations across academic disciplines.

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