Once you’ve brainstormed your options and decided which initial draft is your winner, the final step in writing a really strong college application is to read, rewrite, rework, and rethink your essays over and over again. This revision process can be a hard journey to travel alone.
Like any formal writing project, it helps tremendously to have someone read your work and comment on where the writing is clear and where it isn’t, where the language is strong and memorable, and where it is weaker. Aside from the usual writing help, a college-essay coach can and should also help you stay mindful about the specific genre of writing this essay falls into. This essay is different from any other essay you will probably write in your life. You not only want your essay to display the usual hallmarks of good writing–lively word choices, sustained focus on a central idea, correct use of grammar, clarity, coherence, and structure–but you want your essay to succeed at convincing the reader that you would be a valuable addition to your dream college’s incoming class.
I help students who are at all different stages of drafting their college application essays. Some are having trouble figuring out what to write about, while others come to me with a draft they’ve been reworking for weeks or months. No matter where they are on their journey through the adventure of college essay-writing, I hear myself saying one thing to all of them: be more specific. Even when briefly describing a passage of time leading up to an event that might be the essay’s main focus, a student should make sure that her language is fresh, lively, and more vivid because it has a splash of sensory details.
In that sense, writing the college essay is similar to other creative writing projects. In an upper-level poetry-writing workshop I took at Duke as an undergraduate English major, our teacher was constantly reminding us to narrow the scope of what we were writing about. As with a poem, the college essay requires us to zoom into a particular story and relate aspect of ourselves. Many students write early drafts that are full of generalizations about themselves and their life experiences that benefit from more detailed storytelling that show us those ideas instead of telling us those ideas. When transforming an early draft into a better essay, it helps to choose one thing, and force yourself to examine that one thing in a detailed, extended way.
Like any good piece of writing, a successful college essay exhibits sustained focus on one central message, idea, or thing that ties everything together. Often, students think they have to have a big, impressive story to tell–how they climbed the tallest mountain in the Alps or how they spent the summer feeding orphans in Mongolia. Instead, I’ve found that some of the best college essays I’ve read are built around a single mundane task. (An example of a successful essay that focuses on a mundane task can be found here.)
Powerful essays can emerge when a student slowly relates a seemingly everyday experience, such as shoveling snow out of a driveway, painting a wall, or helping a parent clear and clean out the garage, when the student leads us through a potential revelation that he or she experienced while struggling with a monotonous chore. So, I tell students not to limit themselves by brainstorming only about obviously extraordinary international experiences – a meaningful, yet ordinary, experience you had in your backyard can become the backbone of a strong college admissions essay.
Once a student has revised a series of drafts, how does she know when her essays is truly done? After making sure the essay has the right content, one of the best ways to know if your essay is done is to read through the whole thing out loud and make sure you are happy with your word choices. Often at the very end, students are making small-scale changes and double-checking their language for any overlooked weirdness or grammar rule violations.
Also, it is important not to get hung up on the word limit until the very end. As you write and revise your essay, your essay will naturally expand and contract, and obsessively counting the words every time you change something only distracts you from the content you are trying to build. In my experience, students often need to shave off anywhere from 50 to 100 words after they’ve secured the content they want, and these students are sometimes horrified at the idea of cutting anything out. Luckily, there are a lot of ways an experienced tutor can help a student condense and simplify their writing to conform to the word limit and actually become stronger and more clear. As we teach students when we cover the English section of the SAT and ACT, concision is one of our 3 C’s of Effective Communication and often goes hand-in-hand with using active voice and strong verbs. You’ll know your essay is done when you–and your coach–can read through your essay out loud without hesitating or stumbling over any troublesome language!