Editing and Proofreading Checklist

Essay Prompt
Sample Essay

Whichever essay or essays you choose, make sure you can check off each of these boxes before you submit your application. You might have to suppress some habits or rules you learned about writing for other purposes or in other contexts, and that's OK! Following these rules here will make for a better application essay. If you want to see these tips in action, you'll see essay samples in just a bit, when you look our tips for the individual essay questions. In the meantime, print out this list if you have access to a printer (otherwise, just keep it open in another tab). We don't ask you to do much on paper, but this is an exception. Check off the boxes as you edit and revise.

1. Ditch the five-paragraph essay structure.

Yes, yes, it's how you've been taught to write essays, but this isn't a term paper; it's a personal story.

Here, you are under no obligation to have an introduction (paragraph 1), three supporting points (paragraphs 2-4), and a conclusion summarizing everything you just said (paragraph 5). It's only a few hundred words, not the Declaration of Independence. They don't need a preview of what's going to happen in the next four paragraphs, and they won't have forgotten what you said or need a summary by paragraph 5. Also? That five-paragraph structure is HORRIBLY BORING TO READ. Really.

What structure works for a story? A story has three parts: a beginning, and middle, and an end. So think about where you want your story to start, where you want it to end, and — this is really important — what changes in between.

  • My story has a beginning, and middle, and an end.

2. Have a voice.

Lots of well-meaning adults will try to strip your essay of your voice and make it sound fancier or more grown-up, but admissions officers can see right through that. Because guess what? A teenager doesn't sound like or write like or quack like a middle-aged person. I know, right?

  • This essay sounds like me on a good day. It does not sound like my mom, my counselor, or my best friend, as wonderful as they are.

3. Use the right tone.

You want to sound like you, but you'll still be expected to keep the context and the audience in mind. So you do need to capitalize, and do use punctuation. You don't want to sound like you're writing a Snapchat.

You also don't want to sound like you're writing a term paper or an opinion piece for your student newspaper. That is too formal for these purposes.

  • I have followed old-school conventions around spelling and capitalization and punctuation. My essay has a friendly and conversational tone that matches the level of seriousness of the essay question.

4. Respect the word limit.

Your essay will be better if you cut out unnecessary words. As painful as it might be, take out the interesting detour that isn't actually essential to the ending. Delete repetitive and unnecessary words. Cut the empty calories.

  • My essay is no longer than 650 words. I have not written fewer than 600. (It's true they let you write as few as 250 words, but that's just wasted opportunity.)

5. Show, don't tell.

It's not enough to say that you're passionate about something or good at something or worried about something. You need to back up those assertions with a thoughtful example or anecdote.

  • My essay isn't just a bunch of adjectives, but has a couple of rich examples that the reader will be able to picture in his or her mind.

6. Proofread.

Check for:

  • Paragraph breaks
  • Subject-verb agreement
  • Verb tenses
  • Pronoun-referent agreement
  • Pronoun-antecedent clarity and agreement
  • Punctuation
  • Spelling

7. Final gut-check: Is It Yours?

Don't hire out your essay. Don't copy or mimic someone else's essay. Admissions officers have software that can detect plagiarism, and there is no faster way to get rejected.

Also, don't let your mom or dad or anyone else "tweak" the essay to the point where it stops sounding like you.

If English is not your native language, don't ask a native speaker to make your writing sound native (because admissions officers won't consider that plausible, and will then question the authenticity of the entire application). You're allowed to sound and write like someone who is not a native speaker/writer.

Beyond plagiarism, don't try to be a different person than who you really are. If you're pretending to be a different kind of person, then your essay won't sound authentic, and that will count against you. Admissions officers have lots of practice reading essays; they can sniff out the phonies. You haven't submitted your application yet, so if your essay doesn't reflect you, your voice, and your work, you should ditch it and start over.

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