You did it! You wrote your long-dreaded college application essays (most likely your UC Personal Insight questions), and you’ve found a way to eloquently tell your story. You’ve done multiple drafts and a thorough job at rephrasing, reworking, and rethinking your paragraphs. Maybe you had some family members, peers, or Study Hall College Consulting team members to read over your words and give feedback, or maybe you kept it to yourself to make sure that your words felt completely your own.
Now that you are close to submitting those essays, it’s important to do a last readover to catch any sort of smaller edits that you may have missed in the larger “rephrasing” and “rethinking” stages of your editing process. These edits can be helpful to catch mistakes that you weren’t necessarily focused on, and they can help make your writing style sound even more professional, coherent, and polished. Try doing each of these steps as separate read-throughs so that you can completely focus on each one without getting confused in the process:
1. Word Choice: Read through your essays and circle every word that is repeated in your essay (i.e. if you say the word “research” 7 times in your essay, circle all of those instances). Then, you can visually see how repetitive you’ve been, and try to find either another word to substitute for “research” in some of those cases, or rephrase your sentence to use an article instead of repeating the noun (“While conducting my research, it became clear that my research was more groundbreaking than I initially thought it would be → While conducting my research, I realized that my findings were more groundbreaking than I initially thought they would be…” OR While conducting my research, it became clear that it was more groundbreaking than I initially thought it would be…”)
This exercise should be used mainly for anything other than “the,” “a,” “is,” or other common words that can’t easily be replaced. Focus on nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs, and try not to repeat them too often in order to sound like your ideas are more expansive and well-thought-out. In addition, you can use this step to circle any “conventional” or “boring” words that could benefit from a more exciting word choice. However, be CAREFUL here: do not just go to a thesaurus and start randomly picking out words to sound smarter or more exciting. Words used without the right context can really harm your essay, and show that you don’t totally know what you’re doing when using those words. Choose words that you know, or research them (and how they are used) before plopping them into your essay.
2. Verb Tense: Do another read-through in which you underline all of the verbs that you used in your essay, ensuring that they stay in the same tense (make sure you don’t switch back and forth between past and present tense, or make sure there is a logical reason for doing so. Generally, your essays should remain in the same tense, unless you are deviating from your story for a moment to recall a memory or past even that informs the present information you are sharing. Or, if your essay is primarily in the past tense, you can likely keep it in that tense unless you are relating a current epiphany or lesson that carries into your present day life. Change and reword these sentences as needed, and you’ll find that they sound more put-together and polished.
3. Punctuation, commas, apostrophes: In a separate read-through, make note of all of the different punctuation you use: make sure that commas, dashes, periods, colons, semi-colons, apostrophes, etc. are used correctly, and that exclamation points and question marks are used liberally (you don’t want to be screaming or asking a million questions for the entirety of your essay! These will have more impact when used sparingly). Each of these have their own rules for when they can be appropriately used, so if you have questions, please email us! We’ll be happy to respond quickly with some advice on how to best edit these instances.
a. When used on a singular noun, add an apostrophe followed by an “s” to indicate a possessive (i.e. Amy’s cat).
b. When used on a plural noun or a word ending in s, just add an apostrophe to the end (no additional “s”) to indicate a possessive (i.e. Jess’ cat, or the pumpkins’ seeds).
c. The apostrophe in “it’s” indicates a contraction of “it is” rather than a possessive. To make a possessive of it, simply add an s with no apostrophe.
Above all, commas will likely be the most important thing to master. Here are some common errors made with commas:
1. Do not use a comma before “that” in a clause:
4. Contractions: Whenever possible, I would avoid using contractions because they tend to sound less professional, which is not a quality that you are striving for in a college essay. If you really find yourself tight on words and cannot find a way to reword any other part of your essay, they may be able to be used sparingly, but I would not recommend using them if it can be avoided. Go through and highlight each contraction you used, and check to see how it impacts the professional aspect of your essay. If it does not catastrophically affect your word count, go ahead and expand those contractions (it’s → it is, don’t → do not, can’t → cannot, etc.).
5. Numbers: If you mention any numbers in your essay, note that numbers from one to nine should be written out rather than expressed in numerals (write one rather than 1). For larger numbers, they can either be written as a word or numeral depending on the context and what fits better, but I generally tell myself to use numerals for larger numbers for ease of reading (I co-founded a club of 100 members, eight of which were named as an “executive branch.”).
Note that these edits are much smaller than what goes on in your initial editing process, when you should be thinking about ways to rephrase and reword sentences to make the actual content clearer and more concise. Make sure that you thoroughly edit your essays for content BEFORE moving onto the “polishing” stage in order to avoid having to do the process all over again. Happy essay editing!
Sarah is a Consultant on the Study Hall College Consulting Team. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley in the Class of 2020 where she majored in Architecture and minored in Spanish Language and Literature. For more college application and essay tips, check out our Study Hall College Consulting website at shcollegeconsulting.com.