Tips to Review College Essays

By Kim Lifton
President
Wow Writing Workshop
Get a college essay review now
The November deadline is just around the corner.

It’s October, and the early college application deadlines are just around the corner. What do you do when your students show you application essays that just don’t seem ready to go?

This is the point in the process when professionals and other well-meaning adults can overstep their roles. No worries. We’re going to share our simple approach to reviewing essays on a tight deadline.

This time of year, we get countless requests to review essays before students submit them as part of their applications. We know students have poured a lot of time into the essays; we know they want to be done; we also know there is limited time to make any major revisions.

How to Review a College Essay

Begin by letting go of any preconceived notions about what makes a good essay. In fact, we suggest replacing the word “good” with the word “effective.” It’s important to let each student write their story in their own voice using their own words.

There is no rubric for an effective college essay, but the ones that stand out all share a few common features. Regardless of the prompt, they:

  • Answer the question.
  • Showcase a positive trait or characteristic.
  • Sound like a high school student.
  • Illustrate something meaningful about the student.
  • Demonstrate reflection.

You will know if an essay is effective if it has a theme, which answers these two questions:

  1. What happened?
  2. Why does it matter?

We recommend reading without a red pen in hand, and without your hands on the computer keyboard. Just read. Make sure you know what the essay is about and why the student chose this topic. Then ask two key questions:

  • Is anything missing?
  • Is the college essay’s purpose clear?

Double-check the prompt. If the prompt asks the writer to reflect on an experience and its influence on them, be sure your child has talked about both the experience and its effect.

Use the checklist below to evaluate a traditional personal statement, such as the Common Application essay, the Coalition application, the University of California personal insight questions, ApplyTexas or any primary prompt from schools that use their own applications.

College Essay Review Checklist

College Essay Review Checklist

Content Review
  • Does the essay answer the prompt?
  • Can you tell why the writer chose this topic?
  • Is the essay about the student, or is it really about the place, person or experience featured in the essay?
  • Does it illustrate a trait the student wants to share with colleges?
  • Does it tell colleges something meaningful about the writer that is not clear from the rest of the application package?
  • Does the essay sound like the person who wrote it?
Structure Review
  • Does the first paragraph make you want to keep reading?
  • Does the essay move smoothly from beginning to end?
Polish Review
  • Does the essay use the same verb tense throughout?
  • Has the writer avoided sentence fragments and run-on sentences?
  • Is the punctuation correct and consistent?
  • Is every word spelled correctly?
  • Does the student feel confident and proud of the work?

That’s it. No magic. No special tricks. If you have more questions, let us know. We have more good information, and we’re always happy to share.

want more insight to help you inspire your students?

Wow’s third book is out, and we wrote this one for you! Have you ordered your copy? How to Write an Effective College Application Essay, the Inside Scoop for Counselors  ($9.99 on Amazon.com) is full of resources that speak directly to the needs of counselors and other professionals who work with students from all sorts of schools – large and small, public and independent, well-funded and those struggling to make ends meet – from all across the US.

Kim Lifton can get a story out of anyone writing an effective college application essay
Wow President Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication company staffed by experts who understand the writing process inside and out. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the industry with our unique approach to communicating any message effectively. The Wow Method helps business and nonprofit leaders create better blogs, manage social media, develop websites and create other communication materials. It also helps students write college application essays, grad school personal statements and resumes that get results. If it involves words, Wow can help.