So you’ve been working hard and now have a solid draft of your college admission personal statement in hand. Awesome! But after you’re done celebrating, you’ll start to wonder, now what? Coming up with the big idea and just writing it can be the toughest part of the process, but revision is also key. Students often ask how many times they should revise their essay. The answer will vary from student to student, but most of my favorite essays each year went through five to 10 drafts before we called them “done.”
5 steps to level-up your essay draft
Here are five steps you should take to level-up your personal statement draft—think of it as taking your work from a seven to a 10!
- Step 1: Go through your essay and highlight the first line of each paragraph in bold. This will set you up for the next step.
- Step 2: Read the bolded lines aloud. As you read, you’ll probably notice that some parts make sense and some don’t.
- Step 3: Write a new outline in which all the bolded lines flow together. Essentially, what you’ll be writing is the skeleton of the essay, which is like a mini version of your essay with only the most important points. Once you’ve written this new outline, paste the bolded lines into a blank document.
- Step 4: Rewrite your paragraphs so each one fleshes out the topic sentence. Why paste the new outline into a new document and start over? Because it’ll take longer if you don’t. Trust me.
- Step 5: Step away from the essay for at least 30 minutes. Go for a walk. Get something to eat. Do anything else to clear your mind. When you come back, put the first sentence of each paragraph in bold again. Read them aloud to see whether they tell a very short version of your overall essay.
If they don’t, rewrite them so they’re more transitionary and properly maintain the flow of your essay. If they do, you should have a solid revision, one that’s ready for feedback from a trusted counselor, teacher, or other supporter in your life.
Asking for feedback
When asking for feedback about your essay, don’t just ask someone what they think about it or if they like it. Help them focus on what your colleges of interest are looking for. Attach your essay in an email and ask:
- Is it clear what my topic is?
- Are the examples in each paragraph strong, specific, and visual?
- Is it clear what values I’m trying to show in each paragraph?
- Do you spot at least two or three moments where I answer, “So what?” in the essay?
Seeking this feedback with specific requests of what to focus on will get you more of what you're looking for without getting lost in choosing words to sound smarter or defaulting to a laundry list of activities that’ll just end up muddling your story.
The great college essay test
Once you get feedback, it’s time for what I like to call “the great college essay test.” Read your essay aloud—or have someone else read it to you—then evaluate the essay based on the following criteria:
- Core values: Can you name at least four or five core values present in your essay? Do you find a variety of values (autonomy, resourcefulness, healthy boundaries, diversity)? Or are the values redundant (hard work, determination, perseverance)?
- Vulnerability: Does the essay sound mostly analytical or like it’s coming from a deeper, more vulnerable place? After reading it, do you feel the admission reader will know more about and feel personally closer to you?
- Insight or “so what?” moments: Is your personal statement drawing important and interesting connections between different sides of who you are? Can you identify at least three to five “so what?” moments of insight in the essay? Are these moments predictable, or are they truly illuminating?
- Craft: Do the ideas in your essay connect in a logical but not too obvious (aka boring) way? Can you tell your essay represents a series of carefully considered choices and a lot of time revising several drafts? Is there anywhere you lose interest while reading? Where can words be cut? Which part isn’t revealing as much as it could be?
Polishing up your essay
You’ve made it to the end and there’s one last thing to do: It’s time to polish and proofread that essay until it gleams. For this step, it’s nice to get a little help, so here are two of my favorite resources for syntax and grammar:
- For phrasing and word choice, try Hemingway Editor, which will help you choose strong words for an impactful essay. Important note: You don’t have to agree with all their suggestions, but putting your text through their app is a great exercise.
- For editing and proofreading, Grammarly is a great tool to scan for spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors. You can even download it to your web browser for easy access. Another important note: No app is perfect, so be cautious to accept all of Grammarly’s suggestions as well.
And there you have it—after first drafts and more drafts, your personal statement is done. Check that off your college admission to-do list. Now, onto your supplemental essay responses—which can be equally as important when it comes to applying to specific schools. Good luck!