Shaping the College Application Essay

ABSTRACT: In this four-part series on the college application essay, we consider how to select a topic, some common topic pitfalls, the elements of a great essay, and the writing process in order to help students navigate this under-emphasized portion of the college application process. This is part four: Shaping the College Application Essay.


I know that editing is a rushed process for most peoplea quick read-thru to make sure there are no glaring spelling errors and voila! Done!

No one likes to hear that a good essay takes six or more drafts.

In this section, I will explain the ten steps and introduce the questions that a writer can ask to help focus the editing process.

By the way, in this process, save every draft, every sheet of free-writing, every note you take. Do not save over documents, but save each draft as a new document. I still use the numbering system from the publishing company where I worked, so that I can always find that sentence from an earlier draft that I deleted and now need again (Gen App Essay-d1, Gen App Essay-d2, etc.). This will save you much frustration later on when you want that perfectly phrased thought from a month ago.

Step 1. Your original list of potential topics, as addressed in the first part of this series.

Step 2. Your expansion of the selected topic in great detail.

Step 3. Begin to organize your essay. Select which details about the topic are important; decide their order so that they lead to the conclusion of what you want to present about yourself; cut and paste information until it is ordered as you wish; write a sentence for things that are missing, that you have not described yet, so that you know what you need to include later. (This is usually my -d1.)

Step 4. Draft. Based on your plan, start writing all the information that is missing. Try to describe everything that you state. Later, you can make stylistic choices about when to punctuate descriptions with statements of realization, of growing awareness, etc. For now, describe, describe, describe. There is nothing you cannot describe, only things you have never tried to describe before. At the end of this process, most find that they have somewhere between 1200 and 1800 words.

Step 5. Refine. At least 72 hours after youve written the first draft, return to it and highlight only those phrases (not full sentences) that ensure the story is coherent. Do not highlight full sentences, because too many sentences are long and include superfluous information. Identify elements that you think add key characteristics about who you are in bold. These may be one sentence, but not a series of sentences. Copy (not cut) and paste these highlighted and bold items into a new document by themselves. Yes, they will be incomplete sentences, and disjointed elements. This allows you to see the skeleton of your essay. What is missing? Are elements missing because you have not described them or because you are vague in your descriptions? What minimal elements can you incorporate from the full draft in order to get the full panoply of the experience you are discussing? You may need to rephrase elements that took a whole paragraph in your previous draft. You can shorten or eliminate back story. How important are descriptions of secondary figures? Can their role be simplified, alluded to, or eliminated? Use a thesaurus to find words that can replace wordy phrases.

Step 6. Find fresh eyes. At this point, you will be sick of your essay. You will be confused about what you are saying now, versus what you said in a previous draft. This is normal and how all writers feel about their work. For that reason, you probably want someone with fresh eyes to take a look. You do not want to find someone sympathetic. You need someone who will give you a lot of harsh truths about how the work is organized, whether it is actually saying anything interesting about you, and make suggestions for how to improve. Many, many people get angry and depressed at this stage. Especially if it seems like they might need to start all over again with a new topic; this is more common than people like to think. Be aware of common defensive reactions, as these will only keep you from necessary improvement:

1. My work is autobiographical. This event really happened this way.

2. It’s supposed to be vague.or Youre not supposed to get it.

3. I dont believe in revision. My writing comes out right the first time.

Ideally, at this point, you are still a month away from the due date. When you get the critical feedback, try to get it in writing, or make sure the person is willing to have the conversation recorded. If you are like most people, you will be so frustrated that you decide to take a week (or more) away from the essay to recover. You wont remember everything when you return, so you need to have the information available for your review when you do.

Step 7. Revise your draft. Reorganize, change the focus, bring new details into the essay. This is another writing stage and the essay can start to seem long again. Thats okay, you will edit later. Nevertheless, try to write simply and succinctly. This stage takes focused attention because you have a clear directive. This step can result in two new drafts as you try something out, then try it out in a different way. As always, keep every major change you make as a new draft.

Step 8. Edit again. Read your new essay aloud and restate anything that is awkward. You may wish to have the person who reviewed your essay before take another look and give you some pointers. Consider the organization and make sure that the introduction captures what you will address and engages the reader to keep reading. Does every point lead to the next? Is your ending abrupt or too long? All this, and aim for your essay to be around 500 words.

Step 9. A week later, edit for grammar and style. Revisit the introduction. This might be all they read. Does it make them want to read more? Edit, edit, edit. You should have a really good reason why your essay is over 600 words.

Step 10. Edit again at least 48 hours later, to try to catch any last typos or missed punctuation marks. If you are lucky, you have enough time to edit one last time, another 48 hours later.

Notice that I did not mention the introduction until the end. Who knows what your introduction will be when you start? You havent written anything yet to introduce! Some find it easier to start by writing the conclusion and then backtrack because that can help them focus on including elements that lead to the conclusion. No matter what, I have consistently found that just about everything changes from the beginning to the last draft. Thats how the writing improves. You became clearer about who you are, what you want to say, and how you will say it. Good luck!

AUTHOR BIO: Charlotte Kent, PhD. lives and works in New York City, where she helps people of all ages improve their writing. 

Have you or your kids struggled with this? If so, we'd love to hear about it and strategies you took to overcome it in the comments below!

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