A step-by-step guide for revising your college essay

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s 30 College Essays That Worked

You’re been diligently working on putting together your college application essays, and now you’ve finally sat down and typed out a full, 650-word Common App essay. So… you’re done, right?

Alas, not quite. 

The good news is you’ve done the hardest bit–the first draft. 

The bad news? If you’re seriously planning to wow college admissions officers at top schools with your application essay, you’ve still got a lot of work to do on the personal essay itself. 

At PrepMaven, we’ve helped countless students perfect their admissions essays and earn acceptances to some of the most selective colleges. What did all of those successful college applications have in common? The application essay always went through many, many revisions and redrafts. 

In this post, we’re going to break down the process by which you can revise the early drafts of your college admissions essay, turning it into a successful, polished essay that’ll convince admissions committees that you deserve a spot. 

In the free link below, you can find 30 real sample essays: all finished products that have undergone the rigorous revision process we’re going to outline for you later in the post. 

Jump to section:
How big a deal is revision, really?
The five stages of revision
Stage 1: Big picture and content
Stage 2: Organization
Stage 3: Style and language
Stage 4: Pruning
Stage 5: Proofreading
Next steps


How big a deal is revision, really?

No beating around the bush: when it comes to the college admissions process, essay revision is basically mandatory. 

We’ve never–not once–seen a first draft that wouldn’t benefit from being redrafted, tweaked, or polished. Even if your first draft is really, really good, revisions will help make it great, maybe even perfect. 

And when we say revision, we don’t just mean going through and changing a few words or catching some grammar mistakes. Revision means significantly rewriting or reorganizing portions of your essay. It might mean cutting whole paragraphs and replacing them; it might mean taking what you thought would be an introduction and making it part of the body; it might even mean keeping the basic ideas but changing just about everything else. 

Revision will also always mean working on things like sentence structure and word choice, but these are actually more like the finishing touches. Much of your earlier revision work is going to include making big changes, and our guide will walk you through how to do exactly that. 


The five stages of revision

We think it’s most helpful to think about college essay revision/editing in five stages: 

  1. Big picture/content
  2. Organization
  3. Style/language
  4. Pruning
  5. Proofreading 

Each of these stages means looking at different elements of your essay, and each stage involves asking specific questions about what’s working and what isn’t. 

This all presumes you have a first or rough draft already. If you’re just starting the college application process or the essay,then be sure to check out our posts on brainstorming and topic selection, essay structures, and essay beginnings and endings. 


Stage 1: Big picture/content

When people think of revision, they often jump right to looking for grammar mistakes or messing around with word choice and sentence structure. Usually, that ends up being a big waste of time. 

Why? Because, if you’re doing revision right, you’ll be rewriting large portions of your essay to ensure that the fundamental pieces (the content and the organizations) are perfect. There’s really no reason to waste time making all the sentences sound pretty when, odds are, you’ll be totally changing lots of those sentences anyway. 

So, the first stage of revision should always mean looking at the big picture–by which we really just mean the actual content of your essay. 

Here are the key questions to ask yourself in the first stage of revision: 

  1. What do you want this entire essay to tell the admissions committee about you?
  2. What parts of this essay are absolutely necessary to get that central idea across? 
  3. What parts of this essay are unnecessary to that central idea?

It’s only three questions, but these are big questions that deserve careful attention. If you want to understand what kinds of topics are good responses to question 1, we’d really recommend you consult our post on topic selection here. 

Once you’ve concretely identified the answer to 1, identify what in your essay is fundamentally necessary for it to work. These ideas will be the backbone of your essay; you will likely still edit and reorganize them in further drafts, but you won’t cut them out entirely

Say, for example, the central idea is that your experiences growing up in a town marked by gross wealth disparities have made you determined to combat economic inequality. In that essay, the “backbone” you identify in the first editing stage might be a vivid example of this wealth disparity, a narrative of your understanding of it developed as you grew, and a final discussion of how and why it has shaped your current goals. 

These are things that probably need to be kept for the story to make sense. 

You’ll next want to identify anything that doesn’t connect meaningfully to the central idea. 

In the hypothetical example above, maybe the student had a paragraph or two about athletic struggles or their passion for some extracurricular. If those ideas aren’t necessary for the essay’s main takeaway, they should be cut. You only have, in most cases, 650 words: if you want to put together a detailed, polished personal statement, you just won’t have room for any ideas that aren’t necessary. 

We want to be clear that when we say “necessary” and “unnecessary” here, we’re talking about ideas and large elements of your draft, not any individual sentence or detail. Obviously, there’s lots of details that aren’t “necessary” for the main story, but the purpose of this stage isn’t to focus on those. 

Instead, your goal should simply be to find your essay’s backbone, and ensure there aren’t large sections of your personal statement dedicated to discussing something tangential. 

Your second draft should cut out all these unnecessary ideas while retaining the necessary ones. Reread this second draft (after taking some time away from it) and ask yourself the same questions. If everything in this second draft is necessary, proceed to Stage 2. If not, repeat what you did for Stage 1. 

Note: these initial drafts should be near or over word count. If you find you’ve cut out so much that you’re down below 600 words, that means you’ll also have to add more content to those necessary “backbone” sections. 

Click the link below for 30 essays that mastered the big picture elements, and see how every part of each essay works together. 


Stage 2: Organization

Now that you have the necessary parts of your essay all in one place, you want to organize them in the way that’s most conducive to telling your story to admissions officers. 

Check out our guides on intros and conclusions for some guidance that can help with those sections, and read through our collection of essays that worked to see what a well organized essay looks like. 

The fundamental questions you want to ask here:

  1. Does the essay start in a way that sets up the main idea without giving too much away?
  2. Does each paragraph flow smoothly from the preceding one?
  3. Does each paragraph clearly describe a specific moment or articulate a specific point?
  4. Does the first sentence of each paragraph make clear what direction the paragraph is going?
  5. Does the essay end in a way that captures the main idea without feeling repetitive or unnecessary?

As you can maybe tell by the increased number of questions, this stage is tricky, and will likely take multiple drafts. A poorly organized essay–no matter how good the content–will be basically unreadable, so this stage is worth taking your time with. 

Because good organization can be tough to pull off, it’s also probably a good idea to call in an expert at this point–our college essay coaches can read through your essay and tell you right off the bat if it’s organized properly or not. 

For questions 1 and 5, the best resources on what makes a good intro or good ending are our blog posts, linked above. 

For the body paragraphs, there are several techniques you can use to ensure proper flow:

  1. Short paragraphs are almost always best. Each paragraph should convey one crucial thing–a part of the story, a train of thought. If you see an opportunity to jump to a new paragraph, take it. Shorter paragraphs almost always help make things easier to read. 
  2. Each paragraph should begin with something like a “topic sentence,” though not a stiff, formal one like you’d have in English class. The first sentence of each paragraph should clue the reader in on what the paragraph will be about without summarizing
  3. Each paragraph should build on the previous one, developing your story and reflection. In other words, each paragraph should only make sense in one place–once your essay is well-organized, it should be impossible to move a paragraph without profoundly changing the essay. 

It’s not easy work, but it’s crucial. As usual, your best friends here are taking time away from the essay, reading it aloud, and getting a second opinion. After you take your first stab at reorganization, give the essay a day. Then, read it aloud to someone you trust (like a PrepMaven essay coach, maybe) and ask them whether the story it tells makes sense. 

As with Stage 1, don’t worry about pretty language or grammar here. The goal of this stage is to take the pieces you’ve settled on and arrange them in a way that works. 


Stage 3: Style and Language

Once you’ve gotten through stages 1 and 2, then you should start focusing on prettying up the language. 

It’s crucial that you lock down content and organization before getting to this stage, or you risk wasting a lot of time. So, to be safe, give your essay a few more read-throughs and ensure the fundamental story you’re telling makes sense and flow. If it does, then it’s time to make the thing sound good.

  1. Read it aloud. Does your essay sound like it has a distinct, personal voice?
  2. Does your essay use words that are formal, complicated, or unnatural to you?
  3. Does your essay use words that are unvaried, boring, generic?
  4. Are you showing, or telling?

These questions are crucial from a writing standpoint: if you want your essay to actually be a strong piece of writing that’s enjoyable to read, you need to get the right answers here. 

Of course, this can be difficult and feel subjective, especially if you don’t do much creative writing. Although by far the best way to work through these questions is with a writing expert by your side who can help you polish your writing, these questions can take you a long way. 

Most of these questions are really getting at the same thing: your essay needs to read and sound like something unique, something that captures your voice. It’s often easiest to get there by first identifying what you don’t want the college essay to be. 

It shouldn’t sound like the kind of analytical or formal essay you’ve written for English classes in high school. That’s why you don’t want to use any kind of stiff, thesaurus-y language and big, fancy transitions. 

At the same time, it shouldn’t sound like your stream of consciousness or a diary entry. You want the language to be interesting, compelling. You’re not just writing for yourself here, so you need to make it sound good. 

The best way to sum up the ideal tone for most college essays is something like this: imagine you’re trying to tell an interesting story to someone you don’t know very well, maybe at a party or something like that. You wouldn’t want to sound like someone from the nineteenth century, using fancy or old words for the sake of it. At the same time, you would want to keep the language engaging enough that you don’t lose their attention.

That’s where the now infamous advice of “show, don’t tell” comes in. You’ve probably heard that advice from just about every college counselor and English teacher, but we should break down what it actually means. What’s “showing” look like?

Simply put, it’s about telling a story rich with detail before making any broad or abstract claims about yourself. “Telling” would look something like: “I’ve always loved spending time with my grandfather.” “Showing” would instead mean actually describing how you spent time with your grandfather, what you did together, and how you felt in the moment. 

Or, to take another example: “I felt incredibly nervous” is a classic example of plain old telling. But you can make that same idea much more engaging by “showing:” “I tried to wipe my clammy palms on my pant legs, hoping nobody would notice the tremor in my voice. Oh God, I was up next.

It’s not that you can never “tell” in your essay. But you can never just tell: anything you want to tell us, you’ve first got to show us. 

Stage 3 takes a while, but it can be fun. At this point, you shouldn’t be changing any ideas or organization in your essay. Each draft will just play around with the sentences, the word choice, and the details. And each draft should sound, when you read it aloud, just a little bit more interesting, more unique, more you than the last one. 

Take a look at the 30 essays below which worked to get students into schools like Princeton: each has a different style, but note how descriptive and vivid each essay is!


Stage 4: Pruning

Once you’ve finished Stage 3–meaning that now everything looks and sounds how you want it to–take a look at the word count. If you’re at or below 650, great; skip directly to Stage 5. 

If not, the next stage is all about simply cutting for length. While we don’t recommend worrying about word count much until this stage, you should do your best to keep a general eye on it through earlier stages to make sure your essay isn’t ballooning to crazy proportions. By the time you get to stage 4, you should really be at 800 words or less–anything over that means you’ve included too much content. 

This process will depend on just how much over word count your essay is. If you’re within 50 words, you’d be surprised at how much space you can save by simply cutting a word or two out of your sentences. It might sting a bit to get rid of an adjective you’ve fallen in love with, but remember that nobody but you will ever know that word was in there. 

Generally, you can cut anywhere from 50-75 words without actually getting rid of whole sentences. That being said, if you’ve tried that and are still over word count, that means it’s time to judiciously remove or drastically shorten a few sentences. 

Do you have a list of three examples? Cut it down to two, or one. Do you have two sentences that could be combined into one? Do it. Ultimately, this’ll come down to what details, words, and turns of phrase you really want to keep, and which you’re willing to sacrifice. 

The most important thing is really not to panic or worry too much about word count early on. Within reason, you should include everything the story needs to work and all the details you think make it unique. When you get to Stage 5, start by looking with a careful eye for any word or phrase you can get rid of, and you’ll usually be able to free up all the room you need.


Stage 5: Proofreading

Almost there: you’ve got your essay in beautiful, polished shape. Now, you just need to proofread for grammatical, spelling, or typographical errors. This very last stage can be a quick one, but deserves to be taken seriously. 

Our advice: 

  1. Identify and fix any grammar errors. 
  2. Print the essay.
  3. Using a pen or highlighter, identify any weird spacing, typos, misplaced commas, etc. 
  4. Fix those on your typed document.
  5. Repeat. 

Nothing stings more than submitting the perfect essay only to reread it later and find an embarrassing typo. One won’t sink your application–even college admissions officers misspell things–but a few can make you seem careless. 

That’s why we really stress printing out the document and going over it multiple times on paper. Once you get really used to seeing it on the screen, it can be hard to catch tiny mistakes. By printing it out and looking at it in a different medium, you’ll be far less likely to let something slip. 

A note on the grammar: this can be tricky, especially if you’re not a grammar expert yourself. While Google Docs and Word can be helpful and catch the occasional grammar mistake, they are absolutely not perfect. In fact, I’ve seen them suggest “revisions” that were grammatically incorrect. 

If you’re not 100% confident in your grammar knowledge, that’s another area where one of our essay tutors can be a huge help. They are grammar experts, and they’ll be able to make sure there aren’t any embarrassing mistakes tarnishing your final product. 


Next Steps

Revision is a tough, long process. But by following this step-by-step guide, you can maximize your time and efficiency. Each stage in this process is absolutely crucial if you want to create a successful college essay, which is all the more important given the stakes of the college application process. 

If you’re not quite at the revision stage yet, look at our other posts linked below, all of which tackle different elements of the college essay process. 

If you want to look at samples of final, fully-revised essays, click on the link below to download 30 free, real college essay samples. 

Happy revising!


Related College Essay Posts


Mike

Mike

Mike is a PhD candidate studying English literature at Duke University. Mike is an expert test prep tutor (SAT/ACT/LSAT) and college essay consultant. Nearly all of Mike’s SAT/ACT students score in the top 5% of test takers; many even score above 1500 on the SAT. His college essay students routinely earn admission into their top-choice schools, including Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth. And his LSAT students have been accepted In into the top law schools in the country, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Law.