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College 101

Editing Your Essay
Article Type: Checklist

You’ve put the finishing touches on your essay, and it feels oh-so-good. Now you want nothing more than to close your laptop, throw on a pair of flip-flops and head to the beach (or, if you live in the Midwest, throw on a pair of galoshes and head to the movie theater). Deep sigh… your work is done here.


Despite all the time and effort you’ve put into the thing, it’s only half done. There’s too much riding on this baby to stop now. It’s revision time. Ooh yeah.

You doth protest too much, we thinks. Yeah, it’s tempting to just hit that button that will send your essay hurtling into cyberspace as is, but turning in a sloppy essay communicates a clear lack of interest. Admissions officers will think that if you don’t put in the time to refine your essay, you don’t really care about going to their school. And… they’re kinda right.

Keep in mind how badly you want this. Don’t just talk a big game – if you really want to put your best brain forward, give it everything you have to give. Tackle the challenge like it’s fourth and goal with one second left on the clock. Or, if you’re not into sports analogies, like it just stole your wallet.

However… you are allowed to take a break after completing your first draft. Let it sit for a while. Step away from your desk. Shut down your computer. Go do something fun. Okay, so maybe you do have time to take in that movie/beach volleyball tournament.

Sleep on it. Wait a few days, even. Then, come back and hit those revisions like they talked smack about your mother.

Get Some Help

Seek the advice of a trusted friend, mentor, or teacher. Or, if you don’t have one of those, maybe talk to a pet fish who’s a really good listener.

Outside help is often the way to go. However, you have to remember to keep your own voice and stick to your ideas—it’s your essay, not theirs. So get feedback, but don’t channel anyone else in your essay. If you’re suddenly rattling off British colloquialisms and you’re not a teeny bit British… they’ll know something is afoot.

You can also turn to Shmoop for Essay help.

Read It Out Loud

Aw… it’s like you get to read a bedtime story to yourself! Go ahead… get all snuggly under the covers… maybe even bring a flashlight and make a fort. Whatever makes it fun for you.

If you find yourself cringing when you read your essay aloud because the tone is forced (did you use too many $5 words?) or the essay feels choppy, that’s a good thing—it means you’re catching your goof-ups now, rather than later. Or rather than… never.

If your essay sounds awkward when reading it aloud to yourself, that’s exactly how it’s going to sound to the reader. And they’re not as forgiving of your mistakes as you are. You’ll let yourself get away with practically anything.

On the other hand, once your final product flows as smoothly as Michael Jackson’s dance moves, even when put to the ultimate test of being read out loud, you can rest assured that your reader will give you brownie points for style and tone. If it’s spectacular enough, they may even give you actual brownies. You should probably let them know if you have a gluten allergy.

Five Steps To Beautifying Your Essay

1.     Craft an exquisite first sentence. Ms. Mary Admissions is on her 453rd application essay and fourth cup of coffee of the day. Her eyes are blurring. You need to leap off the page, across time and space, and grab her attention. How do you do that? Write a first sentence that makes her sit up and take notice.

2.     Craft an exquisite first paragraph. You don't have a lot of space in this essay to tell your story, which means you hit 'em fast and hard. By the time Ms. Mary Admissions reaches the end of your first paragraph, not only will she have experienced a mental reveille, but she'll know exactly where your essay is going to take her and why she should care about what you have to say.

3.     Show, don't tell. If we had a dollar for every time an English teacher threw this one at us, we'd be able to buy a steak dinner at Ruth's Chris. Don't slap your reader across the face with facts and feelings; draw them in and make them feel like they're right there, fighting malaria in Africa with you.

4.     Let your personality shine. This is your essay; this is your opportunity to show your dream school's admissions office who you are, beyond the test scores and your GPA and your litany of extracurricular activities.

5.     Aim for personal, but not casual. Your essay isn't a diary entry. You're not sharing an experience with a BFF. You're telling your story to a stranger...a stranger who's going to decide whether or not you get into Northwestern. So, keep it about you, but the classy, intelligent, adult you.

The Nitty-Gritty: Checklist

Did you do all of this stuff?

___ Spell-check your essay

___ Spell the college's name correctly

___ Stick below the character limit

___ Write in paragraphs instead of one huge block. Think ice cubes, not icebergs.

___ Vary your sentence length and structure

___ Use the active (not passive) voice

___ Avoid using big $5 SAT vocab words

___ Include a personal anecdote about yourself

___ Use specific details

___ Avoid clichés like the plague

___ Open with an engaging first sentence

___ Finish strong

We actually use the same checklist when we’re on a first date. Works like a charm.

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