Bonus Material: Essay Polish Worksheet

The college essay is one of the most important components of your application. It carries even more weight this fall as schools drop or modify their standardized testing requirements. 

One of the most common questions we receive from our essay students this time of year is the following:

How can I improve my college essay?”

Perhaps you’ve written a first rough draft of your college essay. Or maybe you have already begun the difficult process of revising. 

In either case, we have 9 great tips for quickly bettering your essay. We also give readers access to our Essay Polish Worksheet, which asks all the questions you need to make your college essay shine.

Grab this free worksheet below.

Here’s what we cover in this post:

9 Ways to Improve Your College Essay

1. Be specific

This is by far the one tip we consistently offer our college essay students. The more specific you can be in your essay, the better!

The college essay is your opportunity to showcase your distinct voice outside the other elements of your application. Your distinct voice is more likely to emerge if you write specifically.

How can you be more specific? Focus on the following:

  • Description
  • Anecdotal details
  • “I” statements
  • Sensory details & imagery

Here is a selection from one of 11 college essays that worked that showcases excellent specificity:

It started small: just myself, Avery, and Sam and a problem set that didn’t take us long enough. Appropriately enough, we were working on one of Newton’s problems: differential equations describing cooling curves. His solution is fairly simple, perhaps overly simple, which prompted me to ask Avery what he thought. We had both taken Chemistry the year before, and Newton’s equation didn’t take into account thermal equilibrium; (to be fair to Newton, adding thermal equilibrium doesn’t appreciably change the solution at normal conditions). Since we were slightly bored and faced with an empty hour ahead of us, we started to modify the equation. We had learned in Chemistry that both the surroundings and the actual cooling object both change temperature, which Newton had ignored. We wrote up a first attempt on the infamous whiteboard, paused a second, and then started laughing as we realized that our inchoate equation meant a hot cup of coffee could plummet Earth into another Ice Age. This disturbance in an otherwise fairly quiet classroom drew the attention of Sam. He too was amused with our attempt and together we began to fix the poor thing. Huddled around the back of the classroom, we all pondered. It wasn’t an important problem, it wasn’t due the next day, it wasn’t even particularly interesting. But we loved it.

2. Lose the formality

Many students feel pressured to adopt a formal tone when writing their college essays. Yet this can actually obscure a student’s voice and personality on the page.

The college essay is not an academic essay. While students should write with eloquence and professionalism, they should prioritize clear and authoritative writing that gives space for creativity and voice.

Notice how this excerpt from a successful college essay is authoritative (using higher level words like “tome” and “cultivating”) but still clear:

She handed me my magnum opus when I got home from school that day. I ran my fingers across the shiny laminate over the cover page, caressed the paper as if it were some sacred tome. After more than fourteen months fleshing out characters and cultivating mythologies, I was ready to publish. With the copy in hand I ran to my dad. “Read it and tell me what you think!” I said, imagining the line of publishing companies that would soon be knocking down my door.

3. But don’t be too casual!

Yes, you can write a relatively conversational college essay to great success! Yet be careful of sounding too casual in your writing. 

Your college essay should be free of slang, cliches, and grammatical errors. When possible, opt for higher-level word choice and avoid “throwaway words” like stuff, get, good, bad, and thing

Remember: college admissions officers are looking for potential in your application–and that means they are also likely on the lookout for strong writing.

We ask in-depth questions in our Essay Polish Worksheet to guide you closer towards a successful final draft. Download this worksheet below.

4. Be concise

Students have only 650 words to tell their story, so concision is vital. Try to convey your ideas using as few words as possible, no matter where you are at in the revision process.

Trust that your reader can make intelligent inferences. This means spending less time on backstory or context and “getting to the point” sooner. It doesn’t mean taking away meaning, but it does mean making sure that every word is essential.

Notice how this college essay plunges right in, without wasting any time:

Simply put, my place of inner peace is the seat of that 50 foot sliver of carbon and kevlar called a rowing shell, cutting through the water in the middle of a race. 

5. Prioritize your takeaways

College admissions officers are most interested in what a specific story says about you as an individual.

For this reason, make sure your essay spends most of its time discussing the following:

  • What you’ve learned from an experience
  • Your beliefs and/or specific opinions
  • Your aspirations and dreams and/or
  • What this all says about YOU

Many students find that their first college essay draft contains mostly backstory as opposed to these vital takeaways. That’s fine! Just make sure that future revisions involve reducing this backstory.

Here’s an example of a “takeaway” paragraph from an essay that worked:

I’m still questioning, and I think the process does not end, which is part of what makes my religious practice important to me – it urges me to constantly reflect on my values and the moral quality of my actions. I’m not sure if I’ll ever finish that “experiment,” but by experiencing and valuing the practices and lifestyles of other people, I also got to reflect on my own. That summer showed me that the questions themselves proved my practices were valuable to me, and left me with a stronger commitment to my religious faith than I had before.

6. Be precise

Because of the college essay’s word limit, every word really does matter. Make sure that you are using the right words by writing precisely.

We love this excerpt from a successful college essay for this reason:

Despite the current lack of certification offered for the profession which I am seeking, I am unquestionably qualified. I can tell you that a cayenne pepper sauce infused with hints of lime and passion fruit is the perfect pairing to bring out the subtle earthy undertones of your microwave ramen. I can also tell you that a drizzle of full-bodied Louisiana habanero on my homemade vanilla bean ice cream serves as an appetizing complement. For the truly brave connoisseur, I suggest sprinkling a few generous drops of Bhut Jolokia sauce atop a bowl of chili. Be warned, though; one drop too many and you might find yourself like I did, crying over a heaping bowl of kidney beans at the dining room table.

7. Use transition words/phrases

Many students struggle with organization when first writing their essays. An easy way to make your essay more coherent immediately is to utilize transition words or phrases.

This is especially important if you are telling a story that spans several weeks, months, or years.

Here are a few of our favorite college essay transition words:

  • For example / instance
  • Over the years
  • Thus
  • Yet / but
  • At first
  • Simply put
  • In the end
  • Ultimately
  • Initially
  • Finally
  • However
  • In addition
  • Similarly
  • While / despite / although

8. Ask: Could anyone else have written this?

If your answer to this question is “yes,” it’s time to bring the following into your essay:

  • Specificity
  • More “I” statements

Your goal should be authenticity and originality, and you guessed it–more specifics and “I” statements can help you accomplish this goal.

9. Bring in more “I”

Many English teachers tell their students not to use “I” in their academic essays. When it comes to the college essay, however, it is critical to use “I” all the time!

Doing so will ensure that your essay contains active reflection and productive sentences.

Notice how many times this applicant uses “I” in the following paragraph:

But not only did I learn linguistics, Python, and philosophy with Avery and Sam, I learned a little more about myself. I never want to lose what we had in that corner. Our interplay of guessing and discovering and laughing seemed like paradise to me. I looked for other opportunities in my life to meet brilliant and vivacious people, to learn from them, and to teach them what I loved. I co-founded a tutoring program, participated in original research, and taught lessons in Physics and Chemistry as a substitute.

Download Our Essay Polish Worksheet

Need help editing your college essay? Start by downloading our free College Essay Polish worksheet.

Here’s what you’ll get:

  • A checklist for the 9 tips discussed in this post
  • Targeted, in-depth questions that will help you improve your college essay
  • Examples of actionable revisions

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.