7 Editing Techniques for the Personal Statement

Timothy Ellison

7 Editing Techniques for the Personal Statement

It’s a long road to the perfect personal statement. When it’s time to use editing techniques, you should have already written many drafts. You may have changed topics or directions several times. You could easily be on your tenth or fifteenth draft. I bet you’ve experienced a fair amount of writer’s block along the way! Reaching the fine-tuning phase is an accomplishment in itself.

Right about now, you are probably more or less happy with your choices, but don’t quite feel ready to hit “submit.” Here are 7 editing techniques for making it to the final stage.

1. Read Out Loud

Read your essay out loud, preferably several times. By now, your internal voice has become accustomed to the rhythms, intonation, and syntax of your current draft. You know exactly what you mean, and it may seem obvious to you that everyone else would. And that is precisely the problem.

If you read your work out loud (to yourself, but also to a trusted friend or teacher who has not seen any of your prior drafts), you may find yourself stumbling over sentences that seemed perfectly fluent in your head. You may find that the main point of your essay is lost in flowery or descriptive language, or that a joke you intended to be funny falls flat. When you read aloud, your spoken voice and your inner ear will be your best editors.

2. Take a Break From Your Essay 

An essay needs time to “cook.” While you don’t want to lose the momentum, it can often be helpful to put the essay in the refrigerator and reheat it later. You may have been working on your personal statement so feverishly that you have come to doubt every sentence. If you come back to your essay after a brief interval, you may recognize that you do not need to change it as radically as you once thought. When you return to it with fresh eyes, you may also see details that need adjusting that you had not previously discerned. Don’t be afraid to take a break!

3. Listen to Your Gut

Students often write essays and ask a counselor or mentor, “Is this cliché?” “Is this paragraph vague?” “Is this the wrong word?” The answer is almost always “Yes!” If you yourself suspect that a part of your essay is cliché, then it probably is. If you yourself think your paragraph is vague, it is unlikely that a reader will find it less vague. If you yourself think your word choice does not work, it is a safe bet that it should be changed. Your gut is one of the most natural editing techniques and will likely lead you in the right direction.

4. Stop Comparing Your Essay to Sample Personal Statements

There is no dearth of sample essays to read: 100 Successful Personal Statements, 50 Harvard College Essays that Worked, 50 Successful Stanford Essays, as well as resources online like those released by Johns Hopkins. While it is helpful to understand what made those essays successful, if you internalize the narrative of other people’s personal statements, your own essay runs the risk of becoming imitative. Usually what makes essays successful is that they have some hint of originality. If you religiously follow the structure and core message of other people’s essays, your own essay will sound forced and you will dim your own creative spark.

Students often follow an even more dangerous path when they start collecting personal statements from people who were accepted to top schools. You might know someone who got into Yale from your school last year, and request to read his or her personal statement. You might begin to compare your own essay to the current Yale student’s, assume it was successful, and fall into a spiral of doubt about your own. But don’t do that.

It is possible that your acquaintance got into Yale DESPITE the essay, rather than because of it. Plenty of students who get into Harvard write mediocre essays but have other qualifications that make them successful candidates. And plenty of students write beautiful essays and are denied admission to their top choices. A superb essay does not guarantee admission; a middle-of-the road essay does not automatically disqualify a student, either. Sample essays can deceive you more than you realize.

5. Grammar and Spelling Matter!

The SAT and ACT grammar sections ask you to recognize and to correct errors in usage, and you may feel like those tests will be the only moment in your life when you have to worry about things like parallel structure, semicolons, and subject-verb agreement. These topics, however, are not the frivolous imaginings of cruel test-makers. They are fundamental problems that plague all writers.

Be rigorous with editing techniques on your own text. Do you have a phrase rather than an independent clause after a semicolon? Do your plural subjects take plural verbs? Do your sentences contain several “-ing” participles that dangle at the beginning or the end of several sentences? While some admissions officers may be pickier than others, poor grammar and spelling mistakes are marks of carelessness and haste. These editing techniques make all of the difference!

6. Seek Feedback (But Not Too Much)

A trusted teacher, counselor, or editor can provide invaluable guidance in the writing process. There is a point, though, when too much feedback can be detrimental. Sometimes readers (especially parents or friends) know you too well to provide reliable guidance, and may hedge their criticisms for fear of upsetting you or lavish you with praise because they have a certain familial bias. Sometimes readers are not familiar with the peculiar genre of the college personal statement and will read your work with an inaccurate sense of what’s “good.”

There is also a funny thing about taste: some readers prefer different styles over others. That is a fact that you cannot avoid and cannot control. Admissions officers, like any other readers, will not all have a uniform reaction to your personal statement. If you get feedback from fifteen different readers, you will inevitably get at least one piece of advice that conflicts with another. This can be very confusing and disheartening. At a certain point, you have to take ownership of your essay and recognize that your essay may not please everyone.

7. Don’t Overthink It

Your essay does not need to be a masterpiece. Your essay does not need to be ready for publication in next week’s New Yorker. Your essay does not need to solve the mysteries of the universe. Your essay does not need to demonstrate extraordinary facility with rhetoric and figurative language.

Your essay needs to be well-written and give us a sense of who you are. Your personal statement contains the word personal for a reason: unlike your transcript, test scores, letters of recommendation, honors, and even your activities list, the personal statement is the one chance you have to speak clearly and convincingly in your own voice. Do not miss that opportunity. Try not to get bogged down, though, in a fierce competition with yourself to write an ideal essay. No one expects perfection in an essay written by a teenager!

If you use editing techniques 1-7 and feel comfortable with your essay, you should feel ready to hit “submit.”


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