I know, I know… the college essay process is stressful! However, learning to appreciate, surrender to, and respect the art of revision as a high school senior will be terrific experience for your future writing (which will also require respecting and surrendering to the art of revision). You will be revising resumes, activity sheets, personal statements, supplementary essays and email notes to your regional admission officers all during senior year. Now is the time to learn what it means to successfully “revise.”
Firstly, “to revise” is not the same as to “proofread.” Proofreading happens at the happy completion of a work– incorporating grammar checks for correct punctuation, catching contractions, and doing rigorous spelling checks. In fact, revising is not the same as editing, either. When we edit, we not only look for errors, but we think again about our word choices, whether or not our meaning is understood clearly, and whether the piece has the tone we want to present. Revising involves an intellectual process—a possible redirecting of focus, point of view and motivation. The process of revising causes us to ask the question: “Am I telling the story I started out wanting to tell?”
It’s not the high school student’s fault that revising seems like such a frustrating process. Students from elementary school age and up should have the revision process built into their language arts lessons. If revising becomes part of the act of writing, imagine how much less stress there would be in the actual college essay process. Teachers would expect a student to write an organized series of thoughts on a particular theme; then go through the story again, looking for that wonderful, focused thread that could grow up into a proper essay. The teacher would then request a re-write, using that topic as the core; and then, perhaps, a final revision to ensure a compelling point of view and narrative structure. This skill would become like breathing by the end of sixth grade. In fact, within a year, students would begin asking the right questions as they write the first draft of a short assignment: Am I staying on point? Do I have a clear thesis? Do I draw in my audience with the first paragraph? Do I build my story clearly and with examples? We would be graduating highly skilled writers from high school if we gave our young people the chance to learn writing in such a relaxed, but meticulous format in elementary and middle school. Every creative skill requires daily practice before it becomes part of a student’s muscle memory. After two or three years of guided essay revision in the classroom, the act of writing and editing begins to feel natural.
If your teacher does not engage in this process of inviting revision, perhaps you can ask your teacher if you can have a chance to revise an essay assignment and then bring it in for review. Teachers want to help—they do not always have the time in a classroom with continuously evolving curriculum and testing standards. If you are the one doing the asking about revision opportunities, I promise you that the teacher will be delighted to oblige—perhaps not for a grade change, but certainly for its instructional value.
If, as seniors, you think that revising means only cutting your essay word count to the requested college word limit, you won’t be successful at creating the level of creative writing expected. You must ask yourself: Have I succeeded in presenting a well-thought out argument? Have I supported that argument robustly? Do I have extraneous information in my essay that slows the rhythm of my story? The more economical the writing, the stronger the piece. It’s not easy to write an introspective piece about a passion or thread in your life within a 650 or 250 word count. As Henry David Thoreau said: “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.”
It’s always nice to see a completed example of a revised work. The best place to look is at a short essay in an anthology. The essay has a point to promote—a message and literary devices at its command through which it can get that message across. Read a sample from such a work, and ask the questions: “Did the introduction grab me and make me want to read further? Was the thesis statement or main point explicit? Can you find segments that could use clarification? Are certain sentences weak or unnecessary?”
Once you go through this kind of exercise, you will see that revision is not about criticizing your hard work, so it shouldn’t be taken personally. It’s a normal, academic process required to strengthen your line of reasoning, make an argument more accessible and eloquent; and learn patience with the writing process. That patience and acceptance for revision will also open you up to new concepts and big ideas. Learning to revise your work is the gateway to mature, compelling global communication. Your college essay gives you a running start.
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