Red editing pen on a typed essay with words underlined using proofreading marks

College App Proofreading Tips From an Editor-in-Chief

Grab a red pen and get ready to whip your college application into shape! These are the best editing tips and grammar tricks from a professional word nerd.

You need to edit your college application—not just the essay but the whole thing. Because everyone makes mistakes, and those mistakes can cost you. Granted, if you use a comma when you should’ve used a semicolon, it’s not the end of the world. But a college application with multiple grammar errors, confusing answers, and a sloppy essay will hurt your chances of admission.

You need to show admission reps you’re college material. That means writing coherent sentences, using proper spelling and grammar, and answering questions fully and accurately. Editing your application for content and proofreading it for errors will help you do that. You’re not just checking your college application for poor punctuation—you’re editing for your future! (No pressure.) But I promise it’s not that hard to do. These tips should help.

Don't trust spellcheck

I repeat: Don't trust spellcheck! Don’t trust grammar check either. Yes, pay attention to those red and green squiggly lines when you see them, but remember they won’t catch everything—they make mistakes too! It’s up to you to make sure your college application is truly error-free.

Related: Steering Clear of College Application Essay Mistakes 

Come back later

Don’t edit right away. After you’ve finished filling out your application or a draft of your essay, take a break. (I’d give it at least an hour, if not a day.) You’ll come back with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective—which are better for catching mistakes.

Set the stage

Make sure you’re in the right editing mindset and environment before diving in. Whether you’re reviewing your application on a computer or reading a printed copy, set aside some time just for editing and find a quiet place to do it. Loud, distracting noises and editing just don't mix. 

Read and reread each question carefully

It’s easy to read a college application question—especially essay prompts and short-answer questions—one time and miss what's actually being asked of you. Reread the questions to make sure you truly understand them. And if you’re unsure, ask for help. (That’s what your admission counselors are for.)

Keep an eye out for common grammar mistakes

A lot of people use the wrong “there/they’re/their.” A lot of people also get confused about when to use a semicolon. Don't let these things happen to you! Instead, use this common grammar mistake cheat sheet:

  • Its/it’s: “Its” is an attributive adjective used to describe possession; “it’s” is a contraction of “it is.” For example: The car had lost its value. It’s 15 years old.
  • There/they’re/their: “There” is an adverb used to describe a place. “They’re” is the contraction of “they are.” And “their” is an attributive adjective used to describe possession. For example: They’re tired of taking their old car all the way over there to the repair shop.
  • To/too/two: "To" is a preposition with several meanings, usually expressing motion in a direction toward a point, action, person, place, or thing. "Too" is an adverb meaning in addition or to a higher degree than desired. And "two" is the #2, of course. For example: It costs too much to buy two new tires.
  • Your/you’re: “Your” is used to describe possession; “you’re” is a contraction of “you are.” For example: You’re talking too much about your car.
  • Then/Than: “Then” describes a place or sequence in time; “than” is used to make comparisons. For example: He got out of his car then said, “I’m happier than a NASCAR driver!”
  • Freshman/freshmen: “Freshman” is both the singular of “freshmen” and the adjective form. “Freshmen” is a plural noun. For example: I’m glad I can have my car on campus freshman year. The other freshmen will be so jealous.
  • Semicolons/colons: Semicolons (;) separate complete but related sentences or a series of items within a series. (This comic explains semicolons better than I ever could.) Colons (:) introduce a supporting thought or examples. For instance: He brought everything we needed for a road trip: snacks, snacks, and more snacks. 

Related: English Grammar Cheat Sheet for Students

Change up how you read

It doesn't really help if you just read your essay or application in your head the same way each time; it'll be harder to catch little mistakes because you're just reading what you think you wrote. Switch it up and use these reading tricks instead. 

  • Read slowly. Like, painfully slowly. It'll feel weird, but it'll help you catch more errors.
  • Read aloud. This is one of my favorite editing tricks, because it’s so easy but so effective. You'll hear when your writing sounds confusing, and you’ll pick up on missing words too.
  • Read backwards. Your brain will see the words differently. This isn’t a good tactic for editing for content or overall “flow,” of course, but you may see missing punctuation and other oddities.

Review it more than once

Go over your college application materials multiple times, and look for different things each time. For example, review your application one time for content, making sure you sound as smart and college-ready as you are, and another time for nitty-gritty grammar mistakes.

Get a second opinion

Even if you’re the rock star of your English class, you should still have someone else edit your application. (Even editors need editors, trust me.) This is important not just so they can catch any spelling or grammar errors you missed but because they can give you an overall critique of your application, ensuring you answered the prompts correctly, are representing yourself well, etc.

Related: Who Can Help Me Write My College Application Essay? 

There you have it—a few easy steps and your college applications will be as polished as...something that’s really shiny. (Okay, just because I can do grammar doesn’t mean I’m good at metaphors.) You can use these tips with all your writing, from blog posts to term papers. Eventually it'll become second nature. Then, when you’re an editing guru, you can turn editing your friends’ papers into a lucrative side hustle.

Read the original post on The College Essayist blog, and find even more helpful application advice in our College Admission—Ask the Experts section.

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About Jessica Tomer

Jessica Tomer

Jessica Tomer is the Director of Communications at the Commonwealth School in Boston. You can follow her on Twitter @JessicaTomer


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