Revise, Revise, Revise: Approaching Your College Admissions Essays

The revision process puts a refined polish to your essays and application in total and ensures thoughtful responses. With the right mindset, these essays and the revision can be game-changing in the admissions process.
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December is a critical month for high school seniors around the world as they prepare their college admissions essays and submit college applications. Most applications are due December 31, and virtually all are due by mid-February. First, I will explain how I view the applicant today and then I will offer suggestions on the essay revision process based on my experiences at Stanford University and those of my peers at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

The Applicant

There are three main aspects of the applicant in today's competitive world:

1. The Base

Academics form "the base" of the applicant -- GPA, SAT I, SAT II and the rigor of high school curriculum. Without this base, even extraordinary and thoughtful essays can make only so much of a difference. If you are aiming for Ivy-League schools and equivalents, try to take the hardest courses (AP/IB) and score as well as you can in each of them. Your cumulative GPA is the first checkpoint that admissions officers look at. Then the SAT I and SAT II Subject Tests are analyzed, the SAT having the 800-800-800 scaled score for each section: Math, Critical Reading and Writing. Most schools require or "recommend" two SAT II Subject Tests in different subject areas. I always tell my students to take these tests and to study hard for them -- they are proven indicators of college academic success and are an important differentiator in the admissions process. Admissions officers do view applicants as a holistic package: They do see your GPA, SAT I, SAT II and AP/IB scores together along with explanations if necessary. At the same time, there is a starting point of academic achievement needed, which is different for every candidate. This base is developed over four years of high school, and it is a continuous effort. Usually students take the SAT I and SAT II Subject Tests in 11th grade, and by that time your cumulative GPA also has been relatively established, so the early years of high school are very important contrary to some popular beliefs.

2. Your Theme and the Essays

The essays form the middle part of the applicant pyramid. After a solid base of academics is made, your extracurricular theme and the admissions essays are most important. This theme and your essays are becoming more and more important as increasing numbers of applicants have a solid base and they become the differentiating factor.

First, what do I mean by an "extracurricular theme"? During your four years of high school, try to develop a string of related activities, in-school or out-of-school. These activities can link together to form prominent trends over time. I call these trends "threads." The more threads in a story, the tighter your theme. In my experience, developing this story is the most overlooked aspect of the essay writing and admissions process in general. The best way to approach this theme-building process is to be aware of it early on and try many activities, eventually scoping down to a few important ones. Often times, students in the 11th and 12th grade approach me, and we must work with what they have already done. In this case, I recommend students to think hard about what they did in their past, often the seemingly "meaningless" events or activities in life can make profound impacts on who we are today. If you have questions on this scenario, please ask me in the comments below.

For me, the essay process was a time of discovery and development of self, but I realized that halfway through writing my essays, as most applicants do. I recommend now that students flip that approach: realize why essays exist for colleges and why you are applying to college before you start the whole process. For each student these answers will be different, which is exactly how it is supposed to be. This approach I call the "Perspective Approach."

Once an applicant has a solid understanding of their theme and why they are applying to college, the essay process can begin. Now, putting these thoughts onto paper becomes easier and the essay process can almost be cathartic. Making sure that you are showing instead of telling is important.

3. Vision

The top of the applicant pyramid is vision -- the ability to analyze situations with individuality and have perspective on your identity and life in general. The first step is being honest with yourself and being honest in your essays -- let your personality shine through. Showing vision and perspective is unique for every student; it shows our personality and how we think. Being clear in admissions essays helps with demonstrating vision.

In my opinion, every student at a top university has vision going into the essay process, and that is because at some point or another they thought about why they are going to college. They thought about why they are studying so hard in high school and learned the value of discipline. Through high school classes, I learned how to overcome failures and obstacles, I learned how to focus, and most importantly I learned how to think broadly about complex issues.

With essays, colleges are seeing not only the content of your essays, but how you are thinking and writing -- this second part is where vision is shown. Vision cannot be taught, it has to be learned and sought after by the student. And for seniors, recognizing that this awareness is important to a successful applicant is the first step to gaining this perspective on yourself and the world. Then carefully consider the questions I have posed above and the Perspective Approach and you should start to develop this vision. It will show in your essays.

The Revision Process

After reviewing the applicant pyramid above, the next step is to actually write your essays. This is much harder said than done -- trust me, I know. I will write another article on how to avoid roadblocks when you are writing, stay tuned. Once you have finished your initial drafts of many essays, it is time to revise. Submitting due to a lack of time, motivation or focus on first or second draft is one of the most common mistakes, and essay readers can easily tell how thoughtful a draft is. Here are some tips on how to start the revision process.

Tip #1: Reality Check

One of the most effective and easy revision processes is the reality check. Is my essay conveying who I am to my audience? Is it realistic? Most of the time, the answer probably is "sort of." In this case, we have work to do. Read the prompt again and see what it is asking you to consider. Are you answering the question? In two sentences in your introduction paragraph, there should be a direct answer to the prompt no matter how long or complicated the prompt actually is. Most essay readers spend a few minutes on each essay, so directness is important. If the essay answers the prompt but does not feel like it is conveying you, try to see where the voice or tone of the essay becomes inconsistent. Are there sentences that just stick out or that you know are false? Remove them, if they are untrue to you, they will stick out to the reader. Finally, use this tip to help you reach a final draft of your essay. If you feel satisfied that each essay truly shows who you are, and the portfolio of essays to each university represents your unique personality, then you are ready.

Tip #2: What's the Point?

Does your essay show a specific characteristic about who you are? In one sentence, what is that characteristic or personality trait? If you cannot answer this question, then your essay is too broad in scope. Try to address the prompt directly, but also point to how that shows something about your personality -- it is a delicate balance. When looking over all of your essays, see if they prove a different aspect of your personality. You want to convey the multi-dimensional person that each of us is! Enthusiasm throughout is very important -- nobody likes to read dry, monotonous work. Also, when reading through your application, make sure that your theme is shining through, instead of just an enthusiastic, multi-dimensional person. Through your activities and the way you answer each prompt, show who you are as a person.

Tip #3: Line Edits

Probably the most boring, but very important revision method is line edits: reviewing every line of your essay near the end of your revision process. Because essay readers spend a few minutes on each essay, every line they read should convey something about you and pull the reader in to read more. In addition, there should be no grammatical or stylistic errors in the essays -- this is a showcase of who you are and all of your hard work over the last four years! From my experience, most students write between 50 and 100 essays for the admissions process. Making sure each of these essays is grammatically sound is a task that should be planned for. It was one of the most rewarding experiences looking back now and taught me so much about writing and about myself. Approaching the process at the start with this perspective can help, especially with the line edits.

Revising is more than just editing an essay, as it is commonly believed. It is about understanding what the prompt is asking, what you are trying to convey, and then making necessary changes. Above, I have proposed a three-step applicant pyramid to help you visualize how the different parts of the application link together and where the essays come into play. Then, I suggested three important revision techniques high school seniors can use in their applications. These techniques are also applicable to any essay writing process, and the high school admissions rollercoaster helps every student who takes it seriously become a better writer.

View these essays as a window into who you are and all of the hard work you have put into your high school years. The admissions process as a whole is a showcase of your talent and achievements, and more importantly, a process of development. The revision process puts a refined polish to your essays and application in total and ensures thoughtful responses. In an ideal world, students should spend at least a one-fourth of their time revising essays. With the right mindset, these essays and the revision can be game-changing in the admissions process.

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