5 Easy Ways to Trim Your College Application Essay

President, Wow Writing Workshop

Nov   2016



This time of year, we get pretty busy giving application essays a final edit before they’re sent off to all those dream colleges. But we’ve noticed an unfortunate trend with many of the essays when we get them: they’re not done. Sometimes the essay doesn’t answer the prompt, and sometimes it doesn’t offer any insight into the student’s personality. But often it simply doesn’t stick to the word limit specified in the instructions…

Rule #1 in your college applications: follow the instructions! The word count is no exception. Colleges give these directions not just to make admission counselors’ lives easier, but they also act almost like a mini test to see if you’re taking the time to read and follow them. And if you don’t appear to respect admission counselors’ time or directions, it can reflect poorly on you as a candidate.

Recently, I reviewed a student’s personal statement for a big state school that required each applicant to submit a short essay of up to 400 words. The draft he assumed was ready for a final edit was 751 words—almost twice as long as permitted. Furthermore, the student didn’t think he could shorten it!

Nonsense, I told him. We’ve never seen a personal statement or supplemental essay weakened by the editing process.

Nearly doubling the length of your application essay is a mistake, to be clear. But even though some people may say a few extra words will not matter, I say it’s not worth the risk. Just answer the essay prompt or question within the specified word count, and you won’t need to worry.

Here are five simple tips for trimming personal statements and supplemental college essays without destroying content:

  1. Circle or highlight all adverbs—then take them out! These include “very” and many “ly” words, such as really, extremely, completely, and absolutely.
  2. Look for nonessential words and short phrases, often set off by a comma. These include things like “because of this,” “in fact,” “first,” “last,” “hopefully,” “to be frank,” “quite frankly,” and “in conclusion.” Highlight the words or phrases, and then read the sentences without them. Take out the ones that do not enhance your story.
  3. Tighten up helping verbs. For example, replace “I am going to be attending” with “I will attend.”
  4. Use “active voice” and swap out “to be” verbs. For example, rather than saying “I am a voracious reader,” try “I read voraciously.”
  5. Turn some nouns into verbs. For example,  “I concluded” is better than “I came to the conclusion.”

If these little fixes don’t tighten up your admission essay sufficiently, take a break, come back to your writing with fresh eyes, and read through it a couple of times. Really think about what you’re trying to say in your application essay, and ask yourself how each example and sentence helps you tell your story. Are there phrases or even paragraphs you could cut or condense? You almost certainly will be able to find some. (Remember, some of the best and most effective writing is the shortest!) Finally, don’t be afraid to have someone else review your essay and give feedback.

Related: College Application Proofreading Tips from an Editor–in–Chief 

Following this advice will not only help you shorten your essay; it’ll inevitably end up clearer, more succinct, and easier to read. This also demonstrates that you’re ready for college-level writing, which is exactly what admission counselors are looking for.

For more tips to make sure your essay is ready to submit, you can sign up for free resources from Wow Writing Workshop.

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About Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is the President of the Wow Writing Workshop, one of the nation’s premier resources on the college application essay. Sign up for WOW and stay in the loop!  You’ll find out what University of Michigan Assistant Director of Admissions Kim Bryant wants to read in a college essay, plus get expert blogs, video, and other tips from many other top admission experts, including Johns Hopkins, Michigan State, Brown, Middlebury, Rice, Santa Clara, University of Miami, Cornell, Vanderbilt, and Yale. Using a 10-step online system, we teach college-bound students how to write application essays that stand out so they get in! Our students get exclusive access to videos, articles, and writing activities to streamline the essay-writing process.

A journalist and communications consultant, Kim has been teaching college-bound students how to tell their own stories in their college essays for two decades. She started her career as a reporter for the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel. Since then, Kim’s work has appeared in The Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, Crain’s Detroit Business, and a variety of regional and trade publications. She also has managed print and online communications for corporate and nonprofit clients nationwide.

Kim is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she was a reporter for The State News and covered campus news for United Press International. She served as a research/writing fellow for the Youth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. and spent a summer honing her journalism skills at Northwestern University.

For more tips on mastering your college application essays, sign up for free resources from Wow Writing Workshop. Wow students get into their dream schools year after year. Find out more at www.wowwritingworkshop.com.