Successful applicants often revise their essays many, many times before submitting their applications. Kait Hobson (’16), who will soon start her ETA grant in Thailand, recalls writing about 15 drafts of her personal statement and 20 drafts of her statement of grant purpose. Early drafts of your application essays should look significantly different from later versions.
The following tips will help you begin to revise and edit your essays.
While proofreading your essays is important, revision is not about checking for typos or changing punctuation marks. Of course fixing small mistakes along the way is fine, but revising a statement involves strengthening the story, restructuring sentences and paragraphs, narrowing or broadening the scope, and otherwise developing your argument.
Once you’ve finished a draft, it can be tempting to begin revising immediately. In some cases this may be appropriate, but it is often useful to distance yourself from your work for a few hours, or even a few days. The word “revision” means to “see again.” Try to approach revision in this spirit. Return to your essay with a fresh perspective and a willingness to make substantive changes, which can include reorganizing the structure of the essay and cutting sentences or whole sections that you may have spent a long time crafting. As painful as deleting work can be, it is essential to the revision process.
First steps in the revision process
- Go to the scholarship’s webpage and carefully reread the description of the specific program to which you’re applying.
- Reread your essay, attempting to inhabit the perspective of a reviewer who is reading hundreds of essays applying for the same program.
- Ask yourself whether your essay demonstrates that you are a safe and wise investment for this specific program. Does the essay make clear the ways your past experiences, your character and personal qualities, your future goals, and your expectations for the program are in line with the program description?
- Ask yourself whether the essay provides concrete and specific details that will set you apart from other candidates. Does your essay avoid overly general points or claims that anyone could write, about any scholarship?
- Look carefully at your transitions and ask yourself whether the information flow of the essay makes sense. Are you presenting information in a logical order? Does the essay build and develop a case for why you are a good fit for this program?
- Ask yourself whether every paragraph and every sentence contribute to the goal of demonstrating that you are a good fit for this scholarship program.
If you find that you are not satisfied with your responses to the questions above, consider specific ways to strengthen and focus your essay. Think about parts of the essay you can condense or delete, and generate ideas about information that needs to be expanded upon or added. You might begin by:
- Focusing on how to make the essay “show” rather than “tell.” Search for places where you feel you are relying on adjectives to make a point and rewrite so you tell your story with declarative sentences, active verbs, and concrete nouns. Make sure you’re relying on specific examples, concrete details, and compelling anecdotes to give substance to your essay. Watch out for empty adjectives or overly general claims. Rather than writing something like “I am passionate about cultural exchange”—a claim so unspecific that any candidate could reasonably include it—provide an example of a time you demonstrated passion for cultural exchange: “Working as a conversation partner with Bhutanese refugees has taught me a great deal about the importance of nonverbal communication.”
- Search out clichés and delete them. Think about what you were really trying to convey when you wrote that cliché and consider how to say it in a way that will reflect your individual experience.
- If the organization of the essay isn’t working, make a “reverse outline.” A reverse outline moves in reverse from a complete draft to an outline. Construct the outline by listing the main ideas of each section of the essay in a blank document. Don’t construct an outline of what you think the essay ought to say; instead, force yourself to make an outline of what your essay is actually saying in this draft. This process can sometimes make organizational problems, repetition, and gaps in logic very visible.
- Pay attention to word choice. You need to be very succinct in a scholarship application essay so it’s essential that you use appropriate and clear language. Don’t resort to a thesaurus—it will rarely lead you to the right word and can sometimes result in infelicitous word choices. Trying to sound “fancy” generally has the effect of making sentences feel wordy, stilted, or unsophisticated. To return to the earlier example, “My dedication to a volunteer position endeavoring to engage in meaningful discussion and colloquy with Bhutanese refugees has resulted in an epiphany about the centrality of extravocal expression” is much less engaging than the statement “Working as a conversation partner with Bhutanese refugees has taught me a great deal about the importance of nonverbal communication.”
When you edit and proofread, you are reviewing the mechanics of an essay, searching for and correcting mistakes. These techniques are more effective in later drafts, after you’ve made your major revisions. As with revising, you will want to take a break from your essays before editing. It can be especially difficult to find technical mistakes after reading the same piece multiple times in one sitting.
Some techniques to try while editing include:
- Reading your paper backwards. This divorces the statement from its meaning and allows the reader to focus on technical issues.
- Reading each sentence alone. Ignore the overarching plot or the argument and focus on the mechanics of each sentence.
- Reading your statement aloud. Listen for a natural rhythm to your sentences and rewrite any clumsy or clunky sentences. Reading aloud can also help you to identify run-on sentences.
You should hunt for the following common problems:
- Inconsistent tenses. Ensure that you do not switch between tenses in the same story or narrative.
- Unnecessary words. Most essays have strict space limits so remove unnecessary words. This will make for clearer phrasing. For example, “in order to” can be trimmed to “to” without losing any meaning. Tighten up language whenever you can.
- Too much punctuation. Be careful not to use too many commas when a new sentence may be appropriate.
- Too little punctuation. Run-on sentences will detract from your argument.
- Repetitive diction. Unless you’re using repetition as a literary device, be careful not to use the same word multiple times, particularly in a short essay.
- Passive voice. You should avoid passive voice in most cases. Make your sentences active.
These guidelines should be helpful as you revise and edit your essays independently. However, you’ll certainly want many other readers to critique your statements before you submit. Syracuse University has a number of resources available to get help revising and editing your application essays:
- CFSA is available to all applicants. You can talk with an advisor in person or on the phone, and you can share drafts by email. Make an appointment with Jolynn by email (email@example.com) or by phone (315-443-2759).
- CFSA holds writing workshops for applicants to major scholarships preceding the deadline. Check our events page for the latest workshop schedule.
- Emily Luther is a professional writing consultant and instructor from the SU Writing Program who frequently works with Honors students and scholarship applicants. She holds office hours on Fridays in the Honors Library (306D Bowne). You can book an appointment online here, or you can email Emily directly at firstname.lastname@example.org a consultation.
- Your mentors, particularly those writing letters of recommendation on your behalf, may be excellent editors. They are familiar with you, so they’re able to recognize whether your narrative properly reflects you and your reasons for applying to this award. Ask your mentors if they would be willing and able to help you revise and edit.