How to revise your college admissions essay

Revision and editing is essential to make your college essay the best it can be.

When you’ve finished your draft, first focus on big-picture issues like the overall narrative and clarity of your essay. Then, check your style and tone. Finally, when you’re happy with your essay, polish up the details of grammar and punctuation.

Remember to take a break after you finish writing and after each stage of revision. You should go through several rounds of revisions and ask for feedback on your drafts from a teacher, friend or family member, or professional essay coach.

Big picture: Check for overall message, flow, and clarity

In your first reading, don’t touch grammatical errors; just read through the entire essay to check the overall message, flow, and content quality.

Check your overall message

After reading your essay, answer the following questions:

  • What message do I take away from my essay?
  • Did I answer the prompt?
  • Does it end with an insight, or does it just tell a story?
  • Do I use stories and examples to demonstrate my values? Do these values match the university’s values?
  • Is it focused on me, or is it too focused on another person or idea?

If you answer any of these questions negatively, rewrite your essay to fix these problems.

Problem Solution
You tell a story without insight Add a lesson learned and actions taken as a result of this lesson.
You claim to have qualities without proof Add detailed stories that demonstrate these qualities.
You write mostly about another person or idea Elaborate on how this person or idea affected your perspective, actions, and future goals.

Check transitions and flow

Underline every paragraph’s topic and transition sentence to visualize whether a clear structure and natural flow are maintained throughout your essay. If necessary, rewrite or rearrange these topic and transition sentences to create a logical outline. Then, reread the entire essay to check it flows naturally.

Check for content quality

Highlight any parts that are unclear, boring, or unnecessary. Afterward, go back and clarify the unclear sections, embellish the boring parts with vivid language, and delete any unnecessary sentences or words.

Voice: Check for style and tone

To ensure you use the correct tone for your essay, check whether there’s vulnerability, authenticity, a positive and polite tone, and a balance between casual and formal. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the essay sound like me? Do my word choices seem natural?
  • Is it vulnerable? Does it demonstrate genuine self-reflection?
  • Is the tone conversational but respectful?
  • Is it polite and respectful about sensitive topics?
Problem Solution
Your essay doesn’t sound like you
  • Check your word choices and rewrite cliché expressions.
Your essay doesn’t show vulnerability
  • Share your genuine feelings, thoughts, and experiences surrounding a meaningful topic.
Your tone is too casual
  • Delete any slang or text abbreviations, and upgrade any basic words.
  • Rewrite as if talking to a teacher, mentor, or coach you respect.
  • Use more complex sentence structures.
Your tone is too formal
  • Replace any high-level vocabulary that sounds overly academic, awkward, or unnatural.
  • Use simpler sentence structures.

Read it aloud to catch errors

Hearing your essay read aloud can help you to catch problems with style and voice that you might miss when reading it silently. For example, you may overuse certain words, have unparallel sentence structures, or use vocabulary that sounds unnatural.

You should read your essay aloud several times throughout the revision process. This can also help you find grammar and punctuation errors. You can try the following:

  • Read it aloud yourself.
  • Have someone read it aloud for you.
  • Put it into a text-to-speech program.
  • Record yourself and play it back.

Details: Check for grammar and punctuation

After checking for big-picture and stylistic issues, read your essay again for grammar and punctuation errors.

Run spell check

First, run spell check in your word processor to find any obvious spelling, grammar, or punctuation mistakes.

Punctuation, capitalization, and verb errors

Spell check might miss some minor errors in punctuation and capitalization. With verbs, check for correct subject-verb agreement and verb tense.

Sentence structure

Check for common sentence structure mistakes such as sentence fragments and run-ons. Throughout your essay, ensure you vary your sentence lengths and structures for an interesting flow.

Check for parallel structure in more complex sentences. Maintain clarity by fixing any dangling or misplaced modifiers.

Consistency

Be consistent with your use of contractions, acronyms, and verb tenses.

Whenever you reuse an essay for another university, make sure you replace any names from or references to the previous university.

Feedback: Get a second opinion

You should get feedback on your essay before you submit your application. Stick to around two to three readers to avoid too much conflicting advice.

Ask for feedback from people who know you well, such as teachers or family members. It’s also important to get feedback on the content, tone, and flow of your essay from someone who is familiar with the college admissions process and has strong language skills.

You might want to consider getting professional help from an essay coach or editor. Editors should only give advice and suggestions; they should never rewrite your essay for you.

Have your readers or editors answer these feedback questions:

  • Is the introduction catchy and memorable?
  • Do I include specific stories that demonstrate my values?
  • Are there smooth transitions between paragraphs?
  • What message did you take away from my essay?
  • What parts were unclear, boring, or unnecessary?
  • Does the essay sound like me?
  • Is it vulnerable? Does it demonstrate genuine self-reflection?
  • Does it have the appropriate tone?
  • Is my humor (if any) funny?

Everyone needs feedback—asking for help doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. A fresh pair of eyes might notice things you have missed.

Get help from a teacher, guidance counselor, or mentor

You can ask for feedback from a teacher who is familiar with your writing, preferably your English teacher, who can help you with narrative, flow, and grammar:

  • Familiar with your writing
  • Has good knowledge of narrative essays, grammar, and style techniques
  • May be overwhelmed with other students asking for help
  • May not be familiar with the college essay writing style

You can also ask your school’s guidance counselor, who should have specialist knowledge of what admissions officers look for in a college admissions essay:

  • Has good knowledge of the college application process
  • Most likely overwhelmed with other students asking for help
  • May not be familiar with your writing or personal background

Ask your teacher or guidance counselor for help at least one to two months before the submission deadline, as many other students will also want their help. Give them at least three weeks to review your essay.

You can also ask another adult, such as a mentor or coach who supervises your extracurricular activities:

  • Knows your background well
  • May not be familiar with the college essay writing style
  • Might not be a strong writer

Ask family or friends to check for authenticity

Family and friends can be a good resource for checking that your essay sounds like you. However, for more comprehensive feedback, seek help from family with a strong writing or English educational background. You can also ask older siblings or cousins who have successfully completed the college admissions process.

  • Familiar with your background, personality, and key life moments
  • Can help you identify whether your essay has authenticity and vulnerability
  • May be unqualified to edit your essay
  • May give subjective advice to avoid hurting your feelings
  • May be difficult for you to receive unfavorable feedback from someone close to you

Hire an essay coach or editor

After receiving feedback from your close network, you can also get help from an essay editor who can give you objective expert feedback.

  • Has specialized knowledge of college admissions essays
  • Can give objective, high-quality feedback on your content, tone, and grammar
  • Unfamiliar with your background and personality

Explore our essay editing service

Incorporate feedback after a break

After receiving feedback, take a break for a few hours or get a good night’s sleep. Then, come back refreshed to incorporate feedback.

Depending on your writing, you may undergo multiple rounds of revision. Save each draft of your essay in a separate document, in case you want to borrow phrases or ideas from a previous draft.

Frequently asked questions about college application essays

What should I check for when revising my college admissions essay?

When revising your college essay, first check for big-picture issues regarding message, flow, tone, style, and clarity. Then, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors.

Whom should I ask for feedback on my college essay?

Teachers and guidance counselors can help you check your language, tone, and content. Ask for their help at least one to two months before the submission deadline, as many other students will also want their help.

Friends and family are a good resource to check for authenticity. It’s best to seek help from family members with a strong writing or English educational background, or from older siblings and cousins who have been through the college admissions process.

If possible, get help from an essay coach or editor; they’ll have specialized knowledge of college admissions essays and be able to give objective expert feedback.

How many times should I revise my essay?

Depending on your writing, you may go through several rounds of revision. Make sure to put aside your essay for a little while after each editing stage to return with a fresh perspective.

Is this article helpful?
Kirsten Courault

Kirsten studied political economy at U.C. Berkeley and has seven years of experience as a writer, editor, and English teacher. She cherishes helping students unearth their unique stories for college admissions essays.

1 comment

Kirsten Courault
Kirsten Courault (Scribbr Team)
September 24, 2021 at 4:52 PM

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