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Getting College Essay Help: Important Do's and Don’ts

Posted by Dr. Anna Wulick | Jan 9, 2016 7:00:00 PM

College Essays

 

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If you grow up to be a professional writer, everything you write will first go through an editor before being published. This is because the process of writing is really a process of re-writing – of rethinking and reexamining your work, usually with the help of someone else. So what does this mean for your student writing? And in particular, what does it mean for very important, but nonprofessional writing like your college essay? Should you ask your parents to look at your essay? Pay for an essay service?

If you are wondering what kind of help you can, and should, get with your personal statement, you’ve come to the right place! In this article, I’ll talk about what kind of writing help is useful, ethical, and even expected for your college admission essay. I’ll also point out who would make a good editor, what the differences between editing and proofreading are, what to expect from a good editor, and how to spot and stay away from a bad one.

 

Table of Contents

What Kind of Help for Your Essay Can You Get?

Editing

Proofreading

What Do Colleges Think Of You Getting Help With Your Essay?

Who Can/Should Help You?

Advice for Editors

Should You Pay Money For Essay Editing?

The Bottom Line

What's Next?

 

What Kind Of Help With Your Essay Can You Get?

Rather than talking in general terms about "help," let's first clarify the two different ways that someone else can improve your writing. There is editing, which is the more intensive kind of assistance that you can use throughout the whole process. And then there's proofreading, which is the last step of really polishing your final product.

Let me go into some more detail about editing and proofreading, and then explain how good editors and proofreaders can help you. 

 

Editing

Editing is helping the author (in this case, you) go from a rough draft to a finished work. Editing is the process of asking questions about what you're saying, how you're saying it, and how you're organizing your ideas. But not all editing is good editing. In fact, it's very easy for an editor to cross the line from supportive to overbearing and over-involved.

 

What’s Good Editing?

Ability to clarify assignments. A good editor is usually a good writer, and certainly has to be a good reader. For example, in this case, a good editor should make sure you understand the actual essay prompt you’re supposed to be answering. 

Open-endedness. Good editing is all about asking questions about your ideas and work, but without providing answers. It's about letting you stick to your story and message, and doesn't alter your point of view. 

Objectivity. It's usually better for an editor to not be emotionally involved with what you’re writing. For example, if your essay is about a parent, that parent should probably not edit your work. Good editing can also be a preview of how a reader will respond to what you’re writing, pointing out potentially confusing or offensive moments in your work.

 

 

body_landscape.jpgGreat editors show you the many available paths, but don't tell you where to go.

 

What Should an Editor Do For You?

Think of an editor as a great travel guide. It can show you the many different places your trip could take you. It should explain any parts of the trip that could derail your trip or confuse the traveler. But it never dictates your path, never forces you to go somewhere you don't want to go, and never ignores your interests so that the trip no longer seems like it's your own. So what should good editors do?

 

Help Brainstorm Topics

Sometimes it’s easier to bounce thoughts off of someone else. This doesn’t mean that your editor gets to come up with ideas, but they can certainly respond to the various topic options you've come up with. This way, you’re less likely to write about the most boring of your ideas, or to write about something that isn’t actually important to you. 

If you're wondering how to come up with options for your editor to consider, check out our guide to brainstorming topics for your college essay.

 

Help Revise Your Drafts

Here, your editor can't upset the delicate balance of not intervening too much or too little. It's tricky, but a great way to think about it is to remember: editing is about asking questions, not giving answers

Revision questions should point out:

  • Places where more detail or more description would help the reader connect with your essay
  • Places where structure and logic don’t flow, losing the reader's attention
  • Places where there aren’t transitions between paragraphs, confusing the reader
  • Moments where your narrative or the arguments you're making are unclear

But pointing to potential problems is not the same as actually rewriting – editors let authors fix the problems themselves.

 

body_questions-4.jpgA good editor's favorite punctuation mark.

 

What Kind of Editing Should You Avoid?

Bad editing is usually very heavy-handed editing. Instead of helping you find your best voice and ideas, a bad editor changes your writing into their own vision.

You may be dealing with a bad editor if they:

  • Add material (examples, descriptions) that doesn’t come from you
  • Use a thesaurus to make your college essay sound "more mature"
  • Add meaning or insight to the essay that doesn’t come from you
  • Tell you what to say and how to say it
  • Write sentences, phrases, and paragraphs for you
  • Change your voice in the essay so it no longer sounds like it was written by a teenager

Colleges can tell the difference between a 17-year-old's writing and a 50-year-old's writing. Not only that, they have access to your SAT or ACT Writing section, so they can compare your essay to something else you wrote. Writing that's a little more polished is great and expected. But a totally different voice and style will raise questions.

 

Where's the Line Between Helpful Editing and Unethical Over-Editing?

Sometimes it's hard to tell whether your college essay editor is doing the right thing. Here are some guidelines for staying on the ethical side of the line.

  • An editor should say that the opening paragraph is kind of boring, and explain what exactly is making it drag.  But it's overstepping for an editor to tell you exactly how to change it. 
  • An editor should point out where your prose is unclear or vague. But it's completely inappropriate for the editor to rewrite that section of your essay.
  • An editor should let you know that a section is light on detail or description. But giving you similes and metaphors to beef up that description is a no-go.

 

body_ideas.jpgWith a good editor, these things will always only come from the author's head.

 

Proofreading

Proofreading (also called copy-editing) is checking for errors in the last draft of a written work. It happens at the end of the process and is meant as the final polishing touch. Proofreading is meticulous and detail-oriented, focusing on small corrections. It sands off all the surface rough spots that could alienate the reader.

Because proofreading is usually concerned with making fixes on the word or sentence level, this is the only process where someone else can actually add to or take away things from your essay. This is because what they are adding or taking away tends to be one or two misplaced letters.

 

What’s Good Proofreading?

Laser focus. Proofreading is all about the tiny details, so the ability to really concentrate on finding small slip-ups is a must.

Excellent grammar and spelling skills. Proofreaders need to dot every "i" and cross every "t." Good proofreaders should correct spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar. They should put foreign words in italics and surround quotations with quotation marks. They should check that you used the correct college's name, and that you adhered to any formatting requirements (name and date at the top of the page, uniform font and size, uniform spacing).

Limited interference. A proofreader needs to make sure that you followed any word limits. But if cuts need to be made to shorten the essay, that’s your job and not the proofreader's.

 

body_detective-2.jpgProofreaders are like entomologists, hunting for tiny specks amidst a vast landscape.

 

What Kind of Proofreading Should You Avoid?

A bad proofreader either tries to turn into an editor, or just lacks the skills and knowledge necessary to do the job.

Some signs that you're working with a bad proofreader are:

  • If they suggest making major changes to the final draft of your essay. Proofreading happens when editing is already finished.
  • If they aren't particularly good at spelling, or don't know grammar, or aren't detail-oriented enough to find someone else's small mistakes.
  • If they start swapping out your words for fancier-sounding synonyms, or changing the voice and sound of your essay in other ways. A proofreader is there to check for errors, not to take the 17-year-old out of your writing.

 

body_spill-1.jpgDoes your proofreader's desk look like this? Maybe not the right person for the job...

 

What Do Colleges Think of Your Getting Help With Your Essay?

Admissions officers agree: light editing and proofreading are good – even required! But they also want to make sure you’re the one doing the work on your essay. They want essays with stories, voice, and themes that come from you. They want to see work that reflects your actual writing ability, and that focuses on what you find important.

 

On the Importance of Editing

Get feedback. Have a fresh pair of eyes give you some feedback. Don’t allow someone else to rewrite your essay, but do take advantage of others’ edits and opinions when they seem helpful. (Bates College)

Read your essay aloud to someone. Reading the essay out loud offers a chance to hear how your essay sounds outside your head. This exercise reveals flaws in the essay’s flow, highlights grammatical errors and helps you ensure that you are communicating the exact message you intended. (Dickinson College

 

On the Value of Proofreading

Share your essays with at least one or two people who know you well – such as a parent, teacher, counselor, or friend – and ask for feedback. Remember that you ultimately have control over your essays, and your essays should retain your own voice, but others may be able to catch mistakes that you missed and help suggest areas to cut if you are over the word limit. (Yale University)

Proofread and then ask someone else to proofread for you. Although we want substance, we also want to be able to see that you can write a paper for our professors and avoid careless mistakes that would drive them crazy. (Oberlin College)

 

On Watching Out for Too Much Outside Influence

Limit the number of people who review your essay. Too much input usually means your voice is lost in the writing style. (Carleton College)

Ask for input (but not too much). Your parents, friends, guidance counselors, coaches, and teachers are great people to bounce ideas off of for your essay. They know how unique and spectacular you are, and they can help you decide how to articulate it. Keep in mind, however, that a 45-year-old lawyer writes quite differently from an 18-year-old student, so if your dad ends up writing the bulk of your essay, we’re probably going to notice. (Vanderbilt University)

 

body_thumbsup-3.jpgSo, basically, a big old thumbs up on the whole "get someone to look at your essay" situation, as far as colleges are concerned.

 

Who Can/Should Help You?

Now let's talk about some potential people to approach for your college essay editing and proofreading needs. It's best to start close to home and slowly expand outward. Not only are your family and friends more invested in your success than strangers, but they also have a better handle on your interests and personality. This knowledge is key for judging whether your essay is expressing your true self.

 

Parents or Close Relatives

Your family may be full of potentially excellent editors! Parents are deeply committed to your well-being, and family members know you and your life well enough to offer details or incidents that can be included in your essay. On the other hand, the rewriting process necessarily involves criticism, which is sometimes hard to hear from someone very close to you.

A parent or close family member is a great choice for an editor if you can answer "yes" to the following questions. Is your parent or close relative a good writer or reader? Do you have a relationship where editing your essay won’t create conflict? Are you able to constructively listen to criticism and suggestion from the parent?

One suggestion for defusing face-to-face discussions is to try working on the essay over email. Send your parent a draft, have them write you back some comments, and then you can pick which of their suggestions you want to use and which to discard.

 

Teachers or Tutors

A humanities teacher that you have a good relationship with is a great choice. I am purposefully saying humanities, and not just English, because teachers of Philosophy, History, Anthropology, and any other classes where you do a lot of writing, are all used to reviewing student work.

Moreover, any teacher or tutor that has been working with you for some time, knows you very well and can vet the essay to make sure it “sounds like you.”

If your teacher or tutor has some experience with what college essays are supposed to be like, ask them to be your editor. If not, then ask whether they have time to proofread your final draft. 

 

Guidance or College Counselor at Your School

The best thing about asking your counselor to edit your work is that this is their job. This means that they have a very good sense of what colleges are looking for in an application essay.

At the same time, school counselors tend to have relationships with admissions officers in many colleges, which again gives them insight into what works and which college is focused on what aspect of the application.

Unfortunately, in many schools the guidance counselor tends to be way overextended. If your ratio is 300 students to 1 college counselor, you’re unlikely to get that person’s undivided attention and focus. It is still useful to ask them for general advice about your potential topics, but don't expect them to be able to stay with your essay from first draft to final version.

 

Friends, Siblings, or Classmates

Although they most likely don't have much experience with what colleges are hoping to see, your peers are excellent sources for checking that your essay is you.

Friends and siblings are perfect for the read-aloud edit. Read your essay to them so they can listen for words and phrases that are stilted, pompous, or phrases that just don’t sound like you.

You can even trade essays and give helpful advice on each other's work.

 

body_goats.jpg"I loved that part when you wrote Baa-aaa-baaa. But I feel like you should add some more details to that Baaa-baa-aaa section." "Oh, thanks, man. You're the baaa-est."

 

Advice for Editors

If your editor hasn't worked with college admissions essays very much, no worries! Any astute and attentive reader can still greatly help with your process. But, as in all things, beginners do better with some preparation.

First, your editor should read our advice about how to write a college essay introduction, how to spot and fix a bad college essay, and get a sense of what other students have written by going through some admissions essays that worked.

Then, as they read your essay, they can work through the following series of questions that will help them to guide you.

 

Introduction Questions

  • Is the first sentence a killer opening line? Why or why not?
  • Does the introduction hook the reader? Does it have a colorful, detailed, and interesting narrative? Or does it propose a compelling or surprising idea? 
  • Can you feel the author's voice in the introduction, or is the tone dry, dull, or overly formal? Show the places where the voice comes through.

 

Essay Body Questions

  • Does the essay have a through-line? Is it built around a central argument, thought, idea, or focus? Can you put this idea into your own words?
  • How is the essay organized? By logical progression? Chronologically? Do you feel order when you read it, or are there moments where you are confused or lose the thread of the essay?
  • Does the essay have both narratives about the author's life and explanations and insight into what these stories reveal about the author's character, personality, goals, or dreams? If not, which is missing? 
  • Does the essay flow? Are there smooth transitions/clever links between paragraphs? Between the narrative and moments of insight?

 

Reader Response Questions

  • Does the writer’s personality come through? Do we know what the speaker cares about? Do we get a sense of “who he or she is”?
  • Where did you feel most connected to the essay? Which parts of the essay gave you a "you are there" sensation by invoking your senses? What moments could you picture in your head well?
  • Where are the details and examples vague and not specific enough?
  • Did you get an "a-ha!" feeling anywhere in the essay? Is there a moment of insight that connected all the dots for you? Is there a good reveal or "twist" anywhere in the essay? 
  • What are the strengths of this essay? What needs the most improvement? 

 

body_fixer.jpgEditing is just like fixing a guitar. Except, you know, without a screwdriver. And you don't need to know anything about guitars.

 

Should You Pay Money for Essay Editing?

One alternative to asking someone you know to help you with your college essay is the paid editor route. There are two different ways to pay for essay help: a private essay coach or a less personal editing service, like the many proliferating on the internet.

My advice is to think of these options as a last resort rather than your go-to first choice. I'll first go through the reasons why. Then, if you do decide to go with a paid editor, I'll help you decide between a coach and a service.

 

When to Consider a Paid Editor

In general, I think hiring someone to work on your essay makes a lot of sense if none of the people I discussed above are a possibility for you.

If you can't ask your parents. For example, if your parents aren’t good writers, or if English isn’t their first language. Or if you think getting your parents to help is going create unnecessary extra conflict in your relationship with them (applying to college is stressful as it is!)

If you can't ask your teacher or tutor. Maybe you don’t have a trusted teacher or tutor that has time to look over your essay with focus. Or, for instance, your favorite humanities teacher has very limited experience with college essays and so won’t know what admissions officers want to see.

If you can't ask your guidance counselor. This could be because your guidance counselor is way overwhelmed with other students.

If you can't share your essay with those who know you. It might be that your essay is on a very personal topic that you’re unwilling to share with parents, teachers, or peers. Just make sure it doesn’t fall into one of the bad-idea topics in our article on bad college essays.

If the cost isn't a consideration. Many of these services are quite expensive, and private coaches even more so. If you have finite resources, I’d say that hiring an SAT or ACT tutor (whether it’s PrepScholar or someone else) is better way to spend your money. This is because there's no guarantee that a slightly better essay will sufficiently elevate the rest of your application, but a significantly higher SAT score will definitely raise your applicant profile much more.

 

Should You Hire an Essay Coach?

On the plus side, essay coaches have read dozens or even hundreds of college essays, so they have experience with the format. Also, because you'll be working closely with a specific person, it’s more personal than sending your essay to a service, which will know even less about you.

But, on the minus side, you’ll still be bouncing ideas off of someone who doesn’t know that much about you. In general, if you can adequately get the help from someone you know, there is no advantage to paying someone to help you.

If you do decide to hire a coach, ask your school counselor, or older students that have used the service for recommendations. If you can’t afford the coach’s fees, ask whether they can work on a sliding scale - many do. And finally, beware those who guarantee admission to your school of choice – essay coaches don't have any special magic that can back up those promises.

 

Should You Send Your Essay to a Service?

On the plus side, essay editing services provide a similar product to essay coaches, and they cost significantly less. If you have some assurance that you'll be working with a good editor, the lack of face-to-face interaction won't prevent great results.

On the minus side, however, it can be difficult to gauge the quality of the service before working with them. If they are churning through many application essays without getting to know the students they are helping, you could end up with an over-edited essay that sounds just like everyone else's. In the worst case scenario, an unscrupulous service could send you back a plagiarized essay. 

Getting recommendations from friends or a school counselor for reputable services is key to avoiding heavy-handed editing that writes essays for you or does too much to change your essay. Including a badly-edited essay like this in your application could cause problems if there are inconsistencies. For example, in interviews it might be clear you didn’t write the essay, or the skill of the essay might not be reflected in your schoolwork and test scores. 

 

Should You Buy an Essay Written by Someone Else?

NO!

Let me elaborate. There are super sketchy places on the internet where you can simply buy a pre-written essay. Don’t do this!

For one thing, you’ll be lying on an official, signed document. All college applications make you sign a statement saying something like this:

I certify that all information submitted in the admission process—including the application, the personal essay, any supplements, and any other supporting materials—is my own work, factually true, and honestly presented... I understand that I may be subject to a range of possible disciplinary actions, including admission revocation, expulsion, or revocation of course credit, grades, and degree, should the information I have certified be false. (From the Common Application)

 For another thing, if your academic record doesn’t match the essay’s quality, the admissions officer will start thinking your whole application is riddled with lies.

Admission officers have full access to your writing portion of the SAT or ACT so that they can compare work that was done in proctored conditions with that done at home. They can tell if these were written by different people. Not only that, but there are now a number of search engines that faculty and admission officers can use to see if an essay contains strings of words that have appeared in other essays – you have no guarantee that the essay you bought wasn’t also bought by 50 other students.

 

body_monalisa.jpgDon't be the guy trying to pass this off as your own original work.

 

The Bottom Line

  • You should get college essay help with both editing and proofreading
    • A good editor will ask questions about your idea, logic, and structure, and will point out places where clarity is needed
    • A good editor will absolutely not answer these questions, give you their own ideas, or write the essay or parts of the essay for you
    • A good proofreader will find typos and check your formatting
  • Colleges very much want to see your authentic self (your ideas, your insights, your writing ability, and style) on the page
    • All of them agree that getting light editing and proofreading is necessary
  • Look for admissions essay help from:
    • Parents, teachers, guidance or college counselor, and peers or siblings
    • If you can't ask any of those, you can pay for college essay help, but watch out for services or coaches who over-edit you work
    • Don’t buy a pre-written essay! Colleges can tell, and it’ll make your whole application sound false.

 

What’s Next?

Ready to start working on your essay? Check out our explanation of the point of the personal essay and the role it plays on your applications and then explore our step-by-step guide to writing a great college essay.

Using the Common Application for your college applications? We have an excellent guide to the Common App essay prompts and useful advice on how to pick the Common App prompt that’s right for you. Wondering how other people tackled these prompts? Then work through our roundup of over 130 real college essay examples published by colleges.

Stressed about whether to take the SAT again before submitting your application? Let us help you decide how many times to take this test. If you choose to go for it, we have the ultimate guide to studying for the SAT to give you the ins and outs of the best ways to study.

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 240 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Raise Your ACT Score by 4 Points (Free Download)

 

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Dr. Anna Wulick
About the Author

Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.



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