The college essay—also known as the personal statement—is one of the most challenging pieces of the college application process. It’s a student’s opportunity to demonstrate their individuality, interests, and values while showing that they can communicate complex ideas clearly and effectively.
In our Guide to the Essay, we lay out a 5-step process for writing the college essay, which includes brainstorming, outlining, drafting, revising and editing, and final review.
Each step is essential, but perhaps the most transformative one is revising and editing. Revision can turn a decent essay into a great one, and it’s impossible to overstate its importance.
Students must be prepared to write several drafts of an essay before arriving at a finished product. The revising and editing process allows them to shape and polish their writing so that it tells a compelling story and demonstrates a strong command of language—critical components of a top-notch college essay.
Guidelines for Revising and Editing a College Essay
Here are six general guidelines for revising and editing a college essay:
1. Fill critical gaps
Keep in mind that the audience for the college essay is admissions officers who are getting to know students for the first time. Students should use the revising and editing stage to fill any gaps in the experiences or areas of expertise they describe.
2. Use active, descriptive verbs
Show, don’t tell. Instead of writing, “I’m passionate about [insert activity],” students should use an example that illustrates this fact. When in doubt, choose active, descriptive verbs that tell a story clearly and concisely.
3. Don’t get lost in the details
Remember that the bulk of the essay should be about the student, not the plotline. It’s okay to sacrifice some of the setup for the sake of sharing more personal experience and reflection.
4. Focus on word count later
The Common App has a 650-word limit for college essays, and the Coalition App strongly recommends keeping essays under 550 words. That said, students shouldn’t get hung up on word count too soon. We recommend using the early stages of the editing process to capture ideas, then trimming the essay in the second or third round of revisions.
5. Show the essay to two trusted adults
Self-editing is essential, but students should also plan to engage two trusted adults for feedback on grammar, writing style, and the overall essay structure. Ideally, one editor will know them well and can verify whether the essay sounds authentic. The other editor should be more of an acquaintance who can offer unbiased impressions of the overall message. Both should have a strong command of language and be able to check for typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors.
6. Be open to starting over
In a best-case scenario, students finish revising and editing an essay and advance to the final review stage. However, some students will find that their material just isn’t working. In these cases, the best alternative is to go back to the beginning and start brainstorming again.