The Final Countdown: The Final Essay Checklist

December 20, 2013

‘Tis the season to be jolly… ​but it’s also the season for making massive edits to your essays and supplements. We calculated that an average student applying to 10 colleges will have around 9,500 words to submit by his or her deadline—that’s 1 Common App essay, 2 supplements each for 6 schools, 2 non-Common App essays each for 2 schools, and 2 additional essays for specialized programs. And that’s just for final drafts!

We all know that good writing takes time, revision, and valuable feedback. If you haven’t had someone else to look over your essay drafts already, you should do so now. Having another person’s perspective can be illuminating – a family member or a close friend can give you some valuable, added insight into your own life that you yourself may have missed.

However, it’s still up to you to do you final revisions and hit that “submit” button right at the very end. It is cliché to say that every student has his/her own voice and you need to stay true to yourself to be successful in the college application process, but I firmly believe that it is true. Admissions officers can smell disingenuous applicants (read: applications who BS) from a mile away and it is your job to make your story as compelling as possible. Here is a quick checklist to ensure that your essays are written in your best, most genuine voice: 

1. Have you written about something that only you can write about, in a way that only you can write? Do not compare yourself to (or write from the perspectives of) individuals who a) live in other parts of the world, b) have accomplished so much more than you, or c) have undergone hardships that you have not. Stay away from using linguistically-challenging SAT vocabulary and from discussing world issues because they might seem impressive – this is not an academic essay, and you are not writing a statement to get Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon into college. You can’t sell yourself using ideas that are not personally relevant to you.

2. Are you being as specific as you can be? If you have sentences that say something like “I learned so much from this experience,” add more detail to say what exactly you have learned. These lessons can be anything from some simple skills like “how to pickle a cucumber” to a valuable quality like “the need to think before I speak.” If you are writing about how you solved a problem, say HOW you managed to do this – the process of problem solving tells the reader a lot more about you as a person than the outcome. Detailed, specific writing makes for a more compelling, believable read.

3. Are you being positive, constructive, and forward-looking? Going to college is the next stage in your life – it’s a chance to prove yourself, explore new things, and learn! All these things are very positive and colleges would like to see that you have a constructive outlook about both the past and the future to undergo these challenges. Strip out sentences that say “there was nothing I could do” and instead focus on the things that you actually can do – surely, they are numerous and exciting as well.

4. Have you highlighted the qualities you want to bring out? What do you want admissions officers to say about you when they read your application? Imagine one admissions officer saying to another, “I see that you’re reading Susie’s application—what do you think about her?” What adjectives do you want the latter to use? The easiest way to ensure that words describing good qualities come out of his/her mouth is to write them in your essays yourself. In other words, put the words into their mouths! I’m not talking about boring (albeit perfectly fine) qualities like “nice” and “cool” – instead, you want them to say that Susie is “fiercely competitive yet always puts her friends first” or that Susie is “a sensitive, critical thinker.” They can’t say these things, however, unless you put them into the text of your writing.

After all this is done, give your essays to someone who doesn’t know you very well and ask him or her to read it. Your main goal is to come off as intelligent, mature, and likeable. Just remember, you don’t need to be cosmopolitan, jaded, or a superhero to write a good essay about yourself. 

Good luck, and have fun!

Sarah is a consultant at Ivy Gate Learning Center in Hong Kong.

Browse Successful Application Files

Harvard ‘19

Accepted to Harvard, SD State, USD, Yale, Drake

Harvard '19. President's Interagency Task Force on Human Trafficking. Global Health and Health Policy Concentrator. Legal and political background.
USC ‘19

Accepted to UC Davis, UCLA, UCSD, USC, Emory, UMich, UNC, Pepperdine

Although very hardworking, I love to socialize with friends and make time to just relax. Also, I've always been interested in cars and working in the business aspect of the automotive industry.
Stanford ‘20

Accepted to Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Irvine

Technophile and Starbucks lover majoring in CS with a passion for STEM and the arts.
MIT ‘20

Accepted to MIT, Princeton, Duke, Stanford, UGA, GA Tech, UNC

I'm a current sophomore at MIT who loves all sorts of things: from engineering and biology to music and dance.

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