Last Updated: May 27, 2020
Grab a red pen and get ready to whip your college application into shape.
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.
Really, 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 even make mistakes too! It’s up to you to make sure your college application is truly error free.
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 printed copy, set aside some time just for editing and find a quiet place to do it.
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 is actually being asked of you. Reread the questions to make sure you truly understand it. And if you’re unsure, ask for help. (That’s what your admission counselors are for.)
Keep an eye out for common grammar mistakes
Lots of people use the wrong “there/they’re/their.” Lots of people are 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 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 adjective used to describe possession. For example: They’re tired of taking their old car all the way over there to the repair shop.
- 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 and 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 example: He brought everything we needed for a road trip: snacks, snacks, and more snacks.
Change up how you read
Try at least one (if not all three) of these reading tricks to help you proofread better:
- Read slowwwwwly. Like, painfully slowly. It will feel weird, but it will help you catch more errors.
- Read aloud. This is one of my favorite editing tricks, because it’s so easy but so effective. You will hear when your writing sounds confusing, and you’ll pick up on missing words.
- 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.
Do it more than once
Go over your college application 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.) 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.
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.)
PS You can use these tips with all your writing, from blog posts to term papers. Eventually it will become second nature. Then, when you’re an editing guru, you can turn editing your friends’ papers into a lucrative side hustle. ;)
PSS This post originally appeared on The College Essayist blog. Check them out!