Writing college essays can often be the most stressful part of the application process for students. Crafting a compelling piece of writing is time-consuming, from selecting the best-fit essay topics to coming up with the most appropriate examples and anecdotes to include. There is also the challenge of telling a story or expressing an opinion within very tight parameters, often a 250 to 500-word limit. Once you start writing, you will find it exceedingly easy to surpass the limit.

Colleges set word limits for several reasons, the most relevant being, firstly, to test the student’s ability to write clearly within defined boundaries, and secondly, to manage the workload for admissions officers, who are tasked with reading hundreds of applications each cycle. Most colleges are strict about word limits, and in the case of the Common Application, any writing beyond the prescribed word count will not be accepted. Some schools will set out a page limit, rather than a word limit, allowing applicants a little more latitude with how much they write. In all cases, it is best to meet and not exceed the limits. This means once you have the bulk of your essay written, you will likely need to edit. It may sound simple enough, but can editing be done without ruining the essay?

If you are done with your initial writing and are ready to tackle the editing, here are nine tips to guide you through the process:

1. Say no to redundancies!

A redundancy in writing is either repeating what has already been said or including information that can be inferred from the context of the sentence. You can confirm that words or phrases are redundant if their elimination does not change the meaning of the sentence or affect the context of the writing.

  • Consider this sentence: “It was a simple and easy task to tutor my new classmates on the complexities of the advanced economic concepts.”
  • You can easily remove the redundancies without changing the meaning of the sentence and get rid of seven unnecessary words: “It was easy to tutor my new classmates on the advanced economic concepts.”

2. Where possible, use an active voice.

There are a few benefits to choosing an active voice. Aside from using fewer words, in most cases, active voices clearly state who or what the subject is, making the writing more precise.

  • The following sentence demonstrates the use of a passive voice: “The competition for the architectural designs of a space school was won by me.”
  • Changing it to an active voice – “I won the space school architectural design competition.”– is not only easier to understand but also uses six fewer words.

3. Choose your verbs wisely.

Opting for the right verb to express an action avoids the need for unnecessary descriptive words, reduces the word count and makes your writing more vivid and specific. In the following example, notice how the second sentence uses a specific verb and fewer words:

  • Original: I was hesitant to audition for the female lead role.
  • Edited: I hesitated to audition for the female lead role.

Additionally, where nouns have been created using verbs (the nominalization of nouns), use the verb instead:

  • Original: The sacking of our team leader was detrimental to the well-being of our group. (14 words)
  • Edited: Our group suffered when the team leader was sacked. (9 words)

Lastly, when it comes to phrasal verbs, like “get back” and “break down”, replace them with their one-word version, “return” and “destroy” respectively.

4. Use fewer fillers and qualifiers.

Your essay may be brimming with fillers and qualifiers. Fillers are often unnecessary and take up valuable space.

  • The most common offenders are versions of “There is… that…”, like in the following sentence: “There was a group of seventeen students that volunteered with me at the animal shelter.”
  • It can easily be changed to “Seventeen students volunteered with me at the animal shelter.”

The information shared is exactly the same despite the second sentence using six fewer words.Qualifiers are selected to enhance or diminish the meaning of an adjacent word. While editing, ask yourself if the message changes if you remove the qualifier. For example, in the sentence – “I was bone-weary tired after the competition.” – you can test the necessity of “bone-weary” by assessing the meaning of the sentence with and without it. In this case removing the words will not affect the meaning.

5. Watch out for prepositions.

By themselves, prepositions and prepositional phrases, unlike nouns and verbs, don’t have an inherent meaning in a sentence but using them can help define the context. However, writers often run the risk of overusing them, making the written piece more complicated than it needs to be. Consider these:

  • Original: In the haunted house by the river, during the meeting on the full moon night, the team decided to capture the giant crocodile that had been menacing the local people and eating their sheep. (34 words)
  • Edited: The team met at the house by the river to capture the giant crocodile that had been attacking the local people and eating their sheep. (25 words)

6. Combine sentences with similar meanings.

When speaking, it is natural to build on previously stated ideas or concepts by clarifying the gist of the concept before expounding on it. This allows our verbal language to flow more smoothly but is detrimental to our word count if we write the way we speak. Take a look at these sentences:

  • Original: Many of my contemporaries find it difficult to speak in public. I also struggle to speak coherently in front of an audience. (22 words)
  • Edited: Like many of my classmates, I find it difficult to speak in public. (13 words)

The edited version conveys the same message but uses fewer words. When you are editing, look for sentences with common concepts and compress them together.

7. Shorten your examples.

Many students use examples to provide evidence to support arguments or illustrate a point. While this is a very effective communication tool, there is a risk of over focusing on the example and providing too much detail. Try to limit the space allocated to your stories/examples and if you struggle with this, consider replacing them with other examples that may be easier to work with.

8. Avoid “previously mentioning.”

Many writers rely on previously mentioned points or arguments to tie a written piece together, especially when it comes to writing a conclusion. When you have a strict word limit, it is best to avoid doing this. It is a waste of space so strike out anything synonymous with “as I previously mentioned” or “in the last paragraph”. When it comes to writing the conclusion, instead of reiterating your points, consider providing a broader context to your piece.

9. Read your essay out loud.

Last but not least, reading your essay aloud is a great way to hear the edits required. Have someone read it to you or use the Google Translate “listen” feature. You may discover you have chosen words that look great on the screen but are actually awkward-sounding and ineffective. While listening, consider all the above-mentioned tips and pay special attention to any sentences that are overly long and any areas where you have included too much detail or strayed from the point.

Editing your own writing is challenging. However, the following online tools can help:

  • Grammarly can help you identify fillers and qualifiers.
  • OneLook reverse dictionary can help you replace long winded concepts with one or two words as well as avoid repetition.
  • ClicheFinder will help you identify and replace cliché phrases with shorter equivalents.
  • Smmry can help you summarize text but requires proofreading the results.

If you are working on your essays and would like some support with your writing, please do not hesitate to contact us.