How to polish a college application essay

Early applications to college are in, and now many students are scrambling to finish personal statements and essay supplements for regular admissions, beginning Jan. 1.

Whether your students are writing personal statements for the Common App, or supplements for an Ivy, private liberal arts college or public university, make sure they follow the directions and stick to the word count!

Recently, I reviewed a student’s personal statement for the Common App that he assumed was ready for a final edit; it was 1,560 words –that is 910 words above the 650-word limit. He did not think he could cut his story, and he did not think it mattered. Yes, it matters.

We read and suggest cuts to our students’ essays every day, and that’s all anyone should do to help polish an essay. In all the years we’ve been working with students, we’ve never seen a personal statement or supplemental essay weakened by the editing process.

While some admissions insiders say limits are strictly enforced, others suggest a few words too many will not make a difference. In any case, it’s not worth the risk. At this point in the journey, all you need to do is make sure every student answers the question within the specified word count.

Here are 5 Tips to share with your students for trimming personal statements and supplemental essays without destroying their content:

  1. Circle or highlight all adverbs. Take them out. These include “very” and many “ly” words, such as really, extremely, completely and absolutely.
  2. Look for a single word or short phrase followed by a comma. These include because of this, in fact, first, last, hopefully, to be frank, quite frankly and in conclusion. Highlight the words or phrases, then read the sentences without them. Take out the ones that do not enhance your story.
  3. Delete helping verbs. Example: Replace “is going to be attending” with “will attend.”
  4. Delete to be verbs. Rather than saying “I am a voracious reader,” try “I read voraciously.”
  5. Turn some nouns into verbs: “I concluded” is better than “I came to the conclusion.”

We wrote the go to guide for parents and counselors who want to help students write meaningful college application essays. It’s $9.99 on; we’d like to gift one copy to each of you. Please E-mail me to get your copy at; put “Link free book offer” in subject line.

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a leading expert on the college application essay. Kim is a former journalist who has made it her mission to know everything about college admissions. She speaks with senior admissions officers from the nation’s most selective colleges almost every day. Wow works directly with students, and trains school counselors, English teachers and independent educational consultants who want to improve their essay-coaching skills.