Do you struggle to communicate or express yourself in words? If so, you are far from alone—a simple internet search reveals hundreds of articles about how to overcome a strong aversion to the process, for students and adults alike. AI-based writing programs like ChatGPT garner attention for their potential to lighten the load. However, there’s no escaping it: for now, effective writing is a skill all high school students need to practice. Whether it’s a research paper for class or a personal statement for college applications, your language arts abilities will be tested in various settings throughout high school and beyond. Not only that, the expectations for quality tend to increase over time. Instead of struggling with writer’s block (or even passing up opportunities that require writing), it’s time to face this challenge head-on.
In the words of Daniel Herman, an English teacher for the last dozen years, “I believe my most essential tasks, as a teacher, are helping my students think critically, disagree respectfully, argue carefully and flexibly, and understand their mind and the world around them.” That said, he goes on to offer a potential comparison of the use of AI writing programs to “the invention of the calculator, saving me from the tedium of long division.” In other words, even as programs like ChatGPT and the like emerge, there’s plenty of evidence that strong writing skills will persist as necessary.
Hold up; how exactly are students supposed to master this elusive skill set? Acing English isn’t in the cards for everyone. However, here’s the truth: the best way to elevate your writing is through the process of revision. For those of you who groaned at the very thought of rereading your own work—this article is for you. We have tips on how to edit your own college admissions essays and statements successfully so you can have confidence in your writing!
We’ll focus on pragmatic, actionable tips that you can start using today to improve your writing process. Not only will this allow you to better express your ideas and stories, but it will also reduce your worrying. Keep it up, and I wouldn’t be surprised if your hard work is also reflected in your class grades.
- Who makes a good peer-editor
- What to do with a low word count
- Where spell-check tools are helpful
- When to practice
- Why it’s worth your effort
Who makes a good peer editor?
Work with someone who can provide constructive feedback and help you grow in your writing. Keep in mind that a college admissions counselor can provide writing support on both your academic and other writing tasks to build these habits long before the college application process begins.
- Ideally, a peer editor understands the assignment or prompt well enough to put your response in context—and therefore, provide holistic comments. This is vital when considering your overall flow and any potentially missing or forgotten details.
- However, you’ll also want to find someone that views your writing objectively (ie, they can be as unbiased, as a new reader would be). This aspect is important to ensure you benefit from a different perspective as opposed to an echo chamber.
- Finally, an ideal peer editor has training in writing, and potentially even in your subject matter. For the most targeted and pedagogical review, seek out those with qualifications and demonstrated skills so you can learn the most.
When you approach a peer editor, it’s a good idea to have a few questions or topics on which he/she can focus his/her time and effort. Being prepared makes the process more efficient for everyone involved.
Finally, beware of taking too much advice. Empowerly counselor Connie L. worked in Brown University’s Office of College Admission for 14 years, handling all facets of the admission process. Her work ranged from reading applications to making admission decisions, to serving as the liaison to different programs within the university. From her side of the table as a reader and counselor, Connie contributes a key insight about working with peer editors.
“Important as it is to have your essay reviewed by your peers, family members, or a trusted teacher, remember not to lose YOUR voice. Sometimes the suggestions and edits provided can tempt you to make changes that can dilute your authentic voice. Admission officers want to know who YOU are, so stay true to your original self.”Empowerly Counselor Connie
What can I do with a low word count?
If you’re not a natural Shakespeare, you may find yourself staring at a blank document every now and then. And if it’s not completely blank, then you might still have the age-old struggle of stretching out what you want to say into the required word count minimum… one that feels (for lack of a better cliche) like pulling teeth. Sound familiar?
Rather than give you questionable tactics like “expanding all your contractions,” what would you say if I told you that it doesn’t have to be this way? Seriously. The simplest way to expand your word count can have you dropping extra paragraphs here and there with ease. It’s time to reverse outline your writing.
It’s exactly as the name suggests: as opposed to outlining your ideas before you start writing (or perhaps, in addition), you go back over the actual sentences you’ve written and diagram what’s on the page.
With this skeleton in hand, ask yourself:
- Did I answer every part of the assignment or question?
- This is most important. Don’t lose out twice on points that you could have included, and would have also helped you lengthen your page count.
- Have I provided enough evidence for my point?
- If your argument isn’t quite bulletproof, you need to cite specific examples. On the plus side, including evidence tends to build up your word count organically. (Just don’t overdo it and cite a whole chapter!)
Would a reader be left with questions? If so, what are they? Naturally, it’s hard to know what you haven’t answered, so this is a perfect instance to reach out to a peer editor.
- What aspects or elements of your ideas need to be better fleshed out? Are you connecting the dots between your ideas?
Instead of “decorating” your language with filler words and unnecessary adjectives, aim for quality content. Not only will you find it easier to write when you have an objective in mind, but you’ll also improve the sophistication of your arguments.
Where are spell-check tools helpful?
I’m not here to demonize spell-check; after all, the majority of work that students and employees complete these days is digital. So, like a calculator, spell-check and similar programs will likely be accessible to you for most of your writing, throughout school and beyond. Rather, let’s talk about when these editor tools are (and aren’t) useful.
Generally speaking, spell-checking is:
- Helpful – If you tend to make typos, spelling mistakes, and simple grammatical errors. Spell-checking is also helpful for catching patterns that tend to reappear throughout a given piece of writing.
- Hindrance – If you are quoting primary sources or anything with antiquated spelling. Autocorrect suggestions can be incorrect. Spell-checking is also a hindrance since it cannot check the accuracy of facts, writing style, or provide big-picture analysis.
These rules of thumb apply to similar editor programs like Grammarly, and even translation or transcription software like Google Translate. Apply these tools critically and remember to check their suggestions – they are not infallible! With that in mind and a clear ethical conscience, you’re good to go.
Looking for alternatives or supplemental exercises?
- Read your writing out loud. This practice forces you to slow down and hear each word (and sentence) together, so you can easily identify if the wording is unclear or awkward. As a bonus, reading personal essays out loud also helps you make sure your writing still sounds natural in your voice.
- Read your writing backward. Read the last word first, and then tracing along, read each word all the way back to the beginning. This tactic helps you see the small proofreading mistakes that the human brain tends to gloss over.
- Of course, the best thing you can do is to take a break and come back with fresh eyes! Do your best to carve out time after you complete the first draft to return and edit before the deadline.
When should I practice?
Any time you can! For any assignment that asks for a writing sample, research paper, personal statement, persuasive essay, or written explanation, practice your writing the best you can. Over time, this becomes a habit, and your writing can—and will—improve exponentially.
Most of all, find ways to continue a practice that will stick. You can try keeping a journal or blog. Search for daily prompts to answer, or record thoughts you had that day. It can even be as simple as reading other writers you admire or particularly enjoy. Doing so will improve your own vocabulary and writing over time.
Why is all this worth the effort?
Maybe you’re like me: I find that if I don’t understand the point of an assignment, it’s really hard to feel motivated—let alone expend effort to create a draft that I like. In high school, there will almost always be assignments that you don’t understand. At least, at first. The key is to think about why you’re writing, and a reason to put in the effort.
Consider the following:
- Why did the teacher want you to learn this?
- What skills are being taught or tested here?
- What kind of response would you be excited to read?
- How does the prompt (or subject matter) relate to your life?
- Can you choose your own topic or theme?
- What are the stakes of your argument?
- Who are you writing to (ie, your audience)?
- Where can you include your personal voice?
Once you find your own angle or relationship to the assignment, you might find it’s not so bad. And, you’ll have an extra push when the time comes to revise your work until it meets your standards or expectations.
Today, we discussed how to edit your own writing successfully. Your language arts skills will improve over time with these tips in mind! From sourcing constructive feedback to developing your ideas, the writing process doesn’t have to be painful. Hopefully, you’ll feel less trepidation when important writing projects come your way.
For more advice from the Empowerly community, enroll in Empowerly College Counseling. You can schedule a complimentary consultation to discuss our programs and options at your convenience. When you become an Empowerly student, you have access to a team of professionals, including research experts, essay editors, and much more. Our goal is to help students become the best version of themselves—and we would love to work with you.