“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”Mark Twain
Writing concisely is hard. It’s even harder to do when you’re writing a personal statement for a college application with word limits- every word can feel crucial in explaining to the reader who you are and why you deserve to be admitted to their university. In this post, I will share the framework I use to edit down words in an essay. The guiding principle is this: Each word and sentence should have a purpose.
(Side note: As an example text, I am using the last paragraph of Kwasi Enin‘s application essay. You may remember how Mr. Enin was accepted to several Ivy League schools in 2018 for his academic and personal achievements, and the essay he wrote was distributed by news outlets. Here, I offer some stylistic critique to the fourth paragraph of his essay and suggest ways that I would improve the writing.)
Let’s get started! Here’s the fourth paragraph of Mr. Enin’s essay.
This paragraph has a clear topic sentence which helps us understand what the paragraph is about: how leadership, teamwork, and friendship have overlapped in his experience as a musician. Below, I explain how I would improve this piece of writing.
Transitioning Between Ideas
In this paragraph, the author has many good concepts (highlighted in red below) that he wants to mention that vaguely tie back to his theme of leadership. The challenge he faces is that there isn’t a clear storyline to link all of these ideas together. There are moments of clarity, but no strong flow between the ideas. Additionally, there is a missed opportunity to take advantage of words like “balance” and “harmony”, which have important meanings in both music and leadership.
Intentional Writing – Show, Don’t Tell
Leadership is the main theme of this paragraph. As I’ve highlighted in red, the author uses three sentences to explain his leadership philosophy. However, the author never identifies his leadership position nor explains how he tried to apply this philosophy in music. Simply put, what has the author accomplished in his leadership role?
Repetition can create a poetic feel to a piece of writing. When essays have word limits, I discourage students from using repetition as a literary tool because it’s rarely concise and rarely well-executed. In the text below, I’ve marked in red and blue the points of repetition that I believe inflate the word count unnecessarily.
Minimize Flowery Language (for the Word Count)
When writing my high school essays, I had the inclination to write with the creative metaphors and analogies that I had carefully analyzed in high school English classes. Ten years later, my advice is to avoid this flowery language if you’re struggling with the word count. In the paragraph below, the writer uses several phrases that give a “literary” vibe to his writing. While I always encourage students to write in an elevated form of their authentic voice, these would be the phrases that I cut down on first to write concisely.
Applying the Feedback: The Rewritten Paragraph
Working through the notes on linking ideas, showing experiences, and avoiding repetitive language and prose, I was able to rewrite the paragraph while retaining some of the original language and concepts in blue. Below are my comments on why I made certain writing choices.
In the first sentence, I wanted to put the three main theme of leadership, friendship, and team work in context of one another, rather than simply listing them. Then, I added a specific leadership story that would help show the leadership philosophy. Now, the author is directly addressing how he worked with his peers as a leader and as a friend to overcome adversity, “struggling” through difficult music together. The idea of social bonds is reworked as “section culture”, which is a better buzzword for the college reader. Finally, the concepts of harmony and balance are reintroduced figuratively with respect to team dynamics and leadership and literally as musical terms.
Using this framework and some creative rewriting, I was able to remove almost 30 words when rewriting this paragraph while still maintaining the intention and power behind the words. If I wanted to cut this paragraph even more, I would delete the sentence about section culture.
For more college application essay writing tips, check out these other posts.
The College Application Essay Basics
The Five-Step Guide to the College Application Essay
Authentic and Unique Storytelling with the 50 Words Activity
Avoiding Cliches and Taking Risks for Your College Application Essay
Writing Rules for the College Application Essay
Writing a Concise Personal Statement