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Your Common App essay has the ability to make or break your college application. You’re informed by your teachers, counselors, and peers that these 650 words will be read and scrutinized by an assortment esteemed individuals who have the ability to grant or deny you admission to your desired colleges. Obviously, it’s in your best interest to ascertain that words have been meticulously selected and crafted to perfection. In other words, you should spend as much time as possible editing your essay.


Well, maybe not. In fact, this attitude may do more harm than good.

Over-Editing: It’s a Thing

When you’re writing the first draft of your essay, your main concern is not perfect grammar or syntax. Your goal is to get your ideas out of your brain and onto the page. While this first draft may be clunky or awkward or just a plain mess, it does have one distinct merit: it is authentically your voice. You are following the sage advice of John Mayer and saying what you need to say. These initial words are uniquely yours—they’re something that excites and interests you (or, at least, they should be). The goal of editing, then, is to refine this personal voice into a well-structured, polished piece. It’s like the old phrase, “write drunk, edit sober” (though you shouldn’t actually be drunk at any point in the college application process).

Trouble can arise, however, when you place too much emphasis on the second half of this idiom. In lieu of crafting your essay into something perfect, you can end up editing out your personal voice. Hyper-scrutinizing each sentence can cause you to inadvertently eliminate the originality and flow of the story you are trying to tell, and turn your essay into something dense, mechanical, and convoluted.

Obviously, some editing is in order for any essay; in fact, a lot of editing may be necessary to allow your writing to truly shine. It’s hard too determine where the line exists between productive editing and over-editing. Here are some indications that you’ve crossed that line:

You’ve asked more than three or four people to read your essay

Asking teachers, counselors, and friends to look over your essay can be a great way to hear different perspectives and find typos that you otherwise would have missed. It’s important to remember, though, that these people are all looking at your essay with their own opinions and ideas. If you try to reshape your words to fit everyone’s critiques, you could end up overshadowing your own voice. I think three is a good benchmark for how many people you should have read your essay. Any more than that and you’re in danger of receiving an excess of outside opinions. Remember, this essay is about showing yourself off, not trying to please others.

You’ve referenced about 500 times

Using lots of big words may seem like an effective way to make your writing appear more mature, but it can actually be a detriment. If you’re using SAT vocabulary just to sound smart, admissions officers will be able to see right through your scholarly facade. Moreover, using ostentatious language can be distracting and cloud the actual meaning of your essay. It’s more important to be clear and concise than to seem flashy and impressive. In the words of George Orwell, “never use a long word where a short one will do.”

Looking at your essay makes you so sick that you actually want to vomit a little

You’ve been working on this thing for months. You’ve written and rewritten and re-rewritten every single sentence. You can recite the entire thing verbatim at this point. And yet, there’s something stopping you from hitting that submit button– some sense that, if you just put a little more time into it, you can make it perfect. Well, here’s the truth: it’s never going to be perfect. You’re in high school. This is not going to be your magnum opus. By working towards that impossible goal, you’re really hurting yourself by over-editing. It can be hard to give up control and put the fate of your college decisions into someone else’s hands. But eventually, you’ve just got to bite the bullet and decide that your essay is finished. There will be pajamas and Netflix waiting for you on the other side.

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the author

Celeste Barnaby is a senior at a tiny private school in Reno, Nevada, also known as the Neon Babylon. She has committed to attend Wesleyan University and plans to major in film studies (but she's keeping an open mind). When she’s not stressing out over her schoolwork or procrastinating said work, she enjoys horseback riding, writing macabre short stories, and shopping for flannels. You can observe her attempts at humor and various television-related obsessions on her Tumblr.

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