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AdmissionsMom’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Editing College Essays

December 17, 2019 • by AdmissionsMom

Let’s talk about editing college essays. 

You might have thought that we were done with essays when I talked about the personal and supplemental essays, but you were wrong. I specialize in college essay writing, which means I have a ton to share with you. First and foremost, if there’s one thing you take away from this post let it be this: no one can write the way you can. 

In a world where parents are paying ridiculous sums of money to hire tutors to completely rewrite their kids’ college essays, admissions officers are hungry for honesty and authenticity. As The Princeton Review put it, “This is your chance to tell your story…be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.”

HOWEVER, being honest and genuine isn’t an excuse to be sloppy. Editing college essays is something everyone needs to do, and you’re no exception. And you will need at least one other person to be your editor because their eyes will see mistakes you missed, tell you when the phrasing is awkward, and encourage you to pump up emotion when appropriate. Just make sure they enhance your voice instead of altering it. 

So as you write and revise and finalize your college essays, let your reader get to know you in as clear and precise a voice as possible. Make them feel like they need to meet you — whoever and whatever you are — the amazing, nervous, complex, simple, frustrated, excited, quirky, imaginative, crazy, funny, calm, serious, intelligent, beautiful you.

Let’s get started. 

Big Picture

Let your voice shine through…

Share what you believe and how that belief affects your life. 

…but don’t be messy.

This soul-bearing doesn’t mean that it’s time to air your dirty laundry or write a sob story. This is an opportunity to let admissions officers get to know all your positive things. If you wish to write about a particular difficulty or challenge you’ve faced in life, make your essay about how you’ve surmounted an obstacle, what you’ve learned, and how you’re a stronger person for it (and consider using that essay for the Additional Info essay and save your Personal Essay for another aspect of you. You are, after all, more than any hardships you’ve experienced, so let them see all sides of you.).

Structure/Content

Don’t start your essay with a quote.

You want to catch their attention and draw them into who you are as soon as possible with your words. Starting with a quote or even using a quote can be a waste of precious word space.

Do not rehash your activities list and honors.

Admissions officers learn about those in the designated section of your application. The essay is your only chance to connect with your reader in your words. Your activities list already presents one set of evidence for how great you are, so don’t repeat it in the essay. 

Avoid too much narrative.

Look, I know you hear again and again to “show, not tell,” but sometimes you just have to tell me what you’re feeling and thinking. An admissions officer wants your commentary because they want to know about what’s going on inside that amazing brain of yours. Instead of “show, not tell” let’s think more “show and tell” — like kindergarten.

Syntax

Slang is fine.

As long as it’s not inappropriate or disrespectful (no “fuccboi”), and you’re sure the readers will be familiar with the words, feel free to use your casual language. Your use of slang should fit your style as a writer, and it should make sense. 

Avoid overly complicated syntax.

Sometimes, complicated syntax works and that’s cool; it’s all about your comfort level and how you approach it. But complicated syntax can create a wall between you and your reader, and that’s the last thing you want. You want open, flowing communication streams. 

Don’t sound like you’ve swallowed a thesaurus.

It’s off-putting to read when it sounds like someone is choking. Like overly complicated syntax, thesaurus words can build barriers between you and your reader. We’re not looking for a Thesaurus-Rex here. 

Be playful with language — if that’s your thing.

Not so much that I have to figure out what you’re saying, but enough to deepen the intent behind your words.

Be sincere.

I love it when I can feel and hear the writer’s voice, and it’s not being hidden behind a barrier of overwrought words and syntax. 

Have fun!

As a reader, I’d rather read a million essays by an OK writer who is enjoying themselves instead of slogging through one essay by a talented writer who couldn’t care less. 

The Nitty Gritty Stuff

Use contractions.

They sound friendlier, more personal, and more casual. More genuine. And they save word space.

Eliminate most (read ALL, YES ALL) adverbs.

They muddy up your writing. 

Eliminate ALL verys, reallys, and trulys. 

‘Nuff said.

Eliminate most of your thats.

They’re just not necessary. 

The Joy of Editing

Edit. Edit. Edit.

Read your essay out loud at least ten times. Read it to yourself, to your mom, your dad, your teacher, and maybe a friend. Then, ask them to read it to you. 

Listen for bumps.

Feel for those bumps when you’re reading. That’s where you need your edits. 

Read the essay backward.

Read your essay sentence by sentence, backward, while you’re looking for typos and basic mistakes. Another trick is to print out your essay and read it for mistakes. Sometimes you find things on paper you couldn’t see on a screen.  

Make sure your essay sounds and feels like you.

THIS IS SO IMPORTANT. Do the thumb test: if you hold your finger over your name at the top of your essay, would your mom know who wrote it? Would your best friend? A close teacher? Would they recognize your special sense of humor or sarcasm? Your serious nature? If you come across sentences that aren’t teaching or sharing the lesson of Amazing You, consider deleting them. 

Now go forth and be true to yourself when you’re editing college essays! 

If you want to learn more about editing college essays, or if you need more advice, head over to Amazon and pick up a copy of my book, Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit

You can also find me on r/ApplyingToCollege, drop into the comments, or reach out to me on Twitter or Instagram. 

Good luck and stay awesome!

editing college essays

Posted on December 17, 2019 in Admissions Journey Timeline,College Essays

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AdmissionsMom started on the subreddit r/ApplyingToCollege and has grown into a full-blown college admissions adventure with a newsletter called "College Thoughts," a new book, and an app in the works. AdmissionsMom helps students and parents through the stressful college admissions process with tips on choosing the right school for YOU, learning to leave the pressure behind, and practicing mindfulness.