"Once and done" doesn't cut it with the college essay. Essays need to marinate and be reviewed, revised and edited again. Word or character length of college essays is critical. Fine-tuning an essay so that it says exactly what you want to communicate in as few words as possible is a developed skill.

Writing professionals recommend an editing process with five stages of revisions. That sounds like overkill to me. Here are my recommendations on the art of essay editing.

*Print your essay and read it aloud. Hearing your essay will allow you to pick up on awkwardly constructed phrases and help you identify when to use commas and semicolons that are easily missed with an on-screen read.

*Don't "try" to sound smart. Word choice is important. It is a window into who you are and how well you write. Strong action verbs give an essay life and demonstrate your analytical abilities. Make sure you are communicating exactly what you want. Don't settle for "close enough" and by all means, don't use words from a thesaurus that you aren't sure of. Selecting "$10 words" inappropriately does more harm than good. Focus on your message and don't use big words because you think they'll impress the readers

*Don't talk in generalities. Be precise in the words you choose and be specific in your content. "I now see the world differently." Tell them how you see the world differently.

*Skip the cliches. I once had an admissions representative tell me that he cringes every time he reads the word "plethora," as in "high school offered me a plethora of opportunities." He went on to say that he's never met a teenager that would ever use that word without a sarcastic eye-roll. Other common words or phrases to avoid: "expand my horizons," "from the bottom of my heart," "at the end of the day," "be able to give back to the community."

*Check your essay structure. Make sure your introduction is concise and responds directly to the essay prompt. Your introductory paragraph sets the tone for the remainder of the essay. Draw readers in; make them want to read more. Review your transitions between paragraphs and ask yourself if there is a natural flow. Effective segues are a sign of a sophisticated writer.

*Run the spell-checker and then review the essay. Reread the essay for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. Focus on subject/verb agreement, verb tense consistency, plurals and possessives and run-on sentences.

*Create bookends and tie your essay together. In the best essays I've reviewed, the conclusion references something in the introductory paragraph.


Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit