Editing College Essay

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by Sophie Herron

Hi everyone! I’m filling in for Dr. Barash today and tomorrow as she goes out and about in the world, working with students, meeting important people, and fighting dinosaurs, etc. I’m excited to talk about one of my favorite parts of the process: editing. The terrible, wonderful process out of which you carve a hot mess into an excellent piece of writing.

So, you have a draft, or a transcript. How do you know it’s done? How do you know it’s good?

Ach, well. It’s a process. I’m going to take you through the same steps I take with classes and individual students. So get out your draft, a pen or pencil, and a piece of paper or Word doc.

Seriously. Get them out.

Okay, now that you’re ready. The first thing you need is to know what you’re aiming for.

Your story needs three things:

  1. To be short.  –You’ve got 650 words. End of the road.
  2. Energy.  – Tension, drama, conflict, whatever you want to call it.
  3. To reveal your character.  – Who are you when the chips are down?

Those should sound familiar by now. Today, we’re going to work with a form of radical revision we at Story To College call “Mapping.” It’s revising, as necessary, the structure of your essay to make sure it is energetic and reveals your character within a very short form. We’re going to focus on finding the most important moment of your essay, the Pivot. We call it this because that means the turn, but you might know it as the “climax” from English class.

I’ve seen this technique help students who had floundering, bloated essays, students who weren’t sure what their essays were about, and even those who didn’t have a subject.

There are three steps.

1. Answer the question: what do I want colleges to know about me from this story?

This can be hard to answer, but that’s okay. It’s extremely important. Maybe you know right away–I’m intellectually curious, say. Or I take initiative.

But maybe you don’t.

Reread your essay. Why is this story important to you? Why did you think to tell it? Feel free to be creative in the way you answer this question–maybe you want to show you’re cheerful on purpose, that you take the time to do the little things well, or that you make your own decisions.

Take the time to figure out your answer. Enlist help if you need. (You could even post questions in the comments, and I’ll try to help!)

If you are totally lost for an answer, or start to have a sinking feeling that this story isn’t important to you–well, at least you figured it out now. Choose another element of your character that you want to reveal, and let’s go on to step 2.

2. Identify where in the story you needed this quality in order to succeed.

By this, I mean: when do you prove you have this quality? You can say you’re responsible until you’re blue in the face, but if you don’t show us you being responsible when it was difficult, we’re not actually going to believe you.

So think of where in your story you prove yourself. When you’ve got it, mark the place on your draft, or write it down. (This is another moment where you may feel panicked about not having one. Take a deep breath, first. Second, ask yourself if you can maybe think of another story—one that actually shows you needing to be a great negotiator, or a dedicated problem-solver, or a cheerful friend, or, or, or.)

Great. You’ve got your moment marked or written down. Time for step 3.

3. What exact action(s) do you take?

You need to show the exact. thing. you. did, so that we can watch it and connect to it. This one’s hard to explain, so let me give some examples:

I looked up and met Luis’s eyes. “Yeah,” I said. “What about it?”

— This student wrote about coming out, and responding to the harassment he received at school. Here, we see two actions that show he’s done being afraid and chooses to live bravely: he looks his harasser in his eyes, and responds.

She placed her finger over the shadow and tapped the photo four times. She smiled. She folded the color image in half and put it in her drawer; she placed the photo of the woman in a protective folder and placed it in her bag.

— Some of you might recognize this from “Success Stories,” our compilation of four essays that got their authors into their top colleges. In this moment, Michael chooses the photo she’s going to submit to a contest, proving she can make her own, unique decisions, and she uses four actions to show that decision. She taps the photo, smiles, folds the “color image” and places the “photo of the woman” in a protective folder.

Each action in these examples is loaded with extra meaning. These are the actions that show someone taking a stand, making a decision, giving something up, taking a risk. Neither student has to say anything like “And that’s how I learned to stand up for myself,” because we already know. That’s the power of storytelling.

Now it’s time to write yours. Think about movies. You know how they can make someone making eye contact the biggest deal? Or closing a door, or putting a phone down, or taking a deep breath? Your action can be small. It can be simply deciding to get up in the morning.Or to smile. It just needs to mean you’ve made a decision, change, or risk.

Take 5-10 minutes to come up with your action. Underline it in your essay, or write it down.

Congrats! You have a Pivot. It’s the emotional heart of your essay, and going to do the majority of the work of revealing your character–that’s why it’s so important.

This post is already super long, so we’ll look at how to begin and end your essays in the next couple days. If you’re fiery and ready to keep revising, here’s a teaser: tell only this moment, and stay in the action. Try starting or ending with dialogue.

 

 

 

 

In the meantime, check out these great resources:

 

NEW: College Application Organizer

 

Stay on task and never miss a deadline.

 

Keep track of each school’s deadlines, supplements, recommendations.

ADDITIONAL TIME SLOT

Breaking Down Supplements

 

Due to demand, we’re having another webinar this Tuesday. Register for our FREE webinar October 22, from 7-8 pm.

Build supplement essays that connect powerfully with admissions officers.

Success Stories

Get ideas from four essays that got their authors into their dream colleges.

Learn techniques, how to improve, and what to aim for in your own essays.

 

Sophie Herron taught high school English in Houston, Texas, at KIPP Houston High School through Teach For America. Since then, she received her MFA in Poetry from New York University, where she was a Goldwater Fellow, instructor of Creative Writing, and Managing Editor of Washington Square Review, the graduate literary journal. She continues to teach as an instructor at Story To College and as a teaching artist with the Community-Word Project. She is a poet and podcaster.

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