How to Help Your Students Get to the Finish Line

By now, many of your students have probably written multiple drafts of at least one application essay.

But how do you get to the finish line with minimal stress?

Step away from that proverbial red pen.  

At Wow, we don’t edit. Rather, we review. We respond to first drafts with detailed questions, not marked-up essays. We don’t look for perfect grammar and spelling after first drafts because we don’t know if the words from the first draft will even make it into the final product.

A first draft is not supposed to be ready to submit. Your job is to guide and ask questions.  

Throughout the process, think review, rather than edit! Keep this in mind: the best way to move the essay along is to read with a few questions in mind:

  • Is anything missing?
  • Is the essay’s purpose clear?
  • Does the essay answer the prompt?

When you and your students understand that revision involves “re-seeing” an essay, it feels less like fixing something that is broken and more like a process of discovery.  

And when that happens, it’s not so daunting. Sounds good, right?!

You’ll know your students have made it to the final draft once the content is in place, the structure has emerged organically, the essay clearly responds to the prompt, and the writing flows from beginning to end.  

That’s your cue that it’s time to polish, which does not mean aiming for perfection. Just check to see if they crossed every t and dotted every i. Don’t try to fix all of the spelling and grammar either. Rather, circle errors and make a note for the students to fix them.

Here is our checklist to evaluate a traditional personal statement, such as the Common Application essay, the Coalition application, the University of California personal insight questions, ApplyTexas or any primary prompt from schools that use their own applications.  

We hope it helps!

Content Review (after the first draft)

  • Does the essay answer the prompt?
  • Can you tell why the writer chose this topic?
  • Is the essay about the student, or is it really about the place, person or experience featured in the essay?
  • Does it illustrate a trait or traits the student wants to share with colleges?
  • Does it tell colleges something meaningful about the writer that is not clear from the rest of the application package?
  • Does the essay sound like the person who wrote it?

Structure Review (after the second draft)

  • Does the first paragraph make you want to keep reading?
  • Does the essay move smoothly from beginning to end?

Polish Review (after the final draft)

  • Does the essay use the same verb tense throughout? 
  • Has the writer avoided sentence fragments and run-on sentences?
  • Is the punctuation correct and consistent?
  • Is every word spelled correctly?
  • Does the student feel confident and proud of the work?

That’s it. No magic. No special tricks. If you give your students time and space to write, then recognize that your role is to coach as much as time and resources allow, you will be able to step back.  

When that happens, your students will be well on their way to writing effective essays that represent them well.


Kim Lifton is a MACAC Board Member and President and Co-founder of Wow Writing Workshop, which teaches students and educational professionals a simple, step-by-step process for writing effective college essays, so students can stand out and tell their stories. Kim leads a team of writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the college admissions industry with our unique approach to communicating messages effectively through application essays, including personal statements, activity and short answer essays and supplements.  We teach students – and we train professionals.

Coming Up 

We cover a new topic in our Pro Chats each month – Wednesdays at 1:00 p.m. Eastern! Click here to register!

September      9/15/21 (3rd week)    Everyone’s an expert: Helping students manage unwelcome advice

October           10/13/21         University of California Personal Insight Questions

November       11/10/21         Manage student procrastination without stressing out

December       12/8/21           2021 wrap-up: Take a deep breath! What we can do at the end of the season, and what we need to let go of

Let your students know we have a free class for them, too!

If you wants to help students with the basics, encourage them to sign up for our monthly free student class, or listen to the recording.