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19th November 2020

With college essay season approaching, it’s once again evident that most students have never been taught how to make meaningful changes to their writing. For most of these students, working on application essays is the first time someone asks them to write multiple drafts to clarify their thoughts and views.

If you are an educator who is already asking students to do major revisions to their writing, thank you for your work. They are the exception, however, and we as educators need to do a thoughtful revision of the rule.

A major revision must be required throughout a student’s education, not just college admissions essays. Many students who had difficulty writing their essays also said it was the first time they felt their voices matter.

This importance stems not only from the high usage of college applications, but also from the fact that for many it is the first time anyone – a teacher, parent, or counselor – pays attention to what they write. The clarity of their thinking or the lack of it is ultimately assessed by mentors. However, the twelfth grade is far too late.

Substantial revision means revising beyond grammar changes or cumbersome phrasing. Editing content means engaging students in an oral or written dialogue and asking strategic questions that will help them understand what exactly they are trying to say.

In doing so, students learn to communicate with accuracy and maturity whether for an application essay (which is more important than ever as colleges are dropping requirements for SAT / ACT scores) or for a report on “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Editing doesn’t take away her voice; it gives them one.

It is important that a clear understanding of one’s own values ​​- based on the consideration of nuances – is the preparation for a committed citizenship. Learning to write clear and thoughtful essays helps students articulate their views and makes them proud of their own words, ideas, values, and opinions.

I’ve found the following are the most common pitfalls:

  1. Using blank language or language that has essentially no meaning. Empty words / phrases include “good”, “bad”, “thing” or “a long time”. I suggest that students use a more specific language.
  2. Use extreme language or language that eliminates the possibility of nuances such as the words “always”, “never”, “only”, “all”, and “completely”. If a student writes, “I was the only dancer in the group who was skilled and motivated,” then I might ask, “How do you know?”
  3. Including misunderstandings about general facts, historical events, and / or literary interpretation. For example, one high school student claimed that the concept of feminism didn’t begin until 1920, the year American women were given the right to vote. This strong misunderstanding undermined the student’s general argument, but provided me with a channel to help the student better understand the context. I sent the student some historical references and asked, “What work do you think has helped give women the right to vote?”

Editing and extensive revision takes time for students and educators. I appreciate that teachers dealing with up to 35 students per class preparing them for standardized tests and now adapting the curriculum to a virtual format may need more drafts to add unnecessary weight.

Precisely because this school year is not like any other – with homecoming games, fall balls, and rallies being canceled and distance learning turning lessons, lectures, and assessment upside down – we have time to help our students ponder the meanings of their words.

We as educators need to use this time to pay more attention to our students’ writing. As an application essay clearly shows, knowing how to write effectively is a necessary skill for a student to succeed. This also means that the student learns the need and appreciation for nuanced, accurate and thoughtful communication.

Let’s model this value by paying more attention to our students’ writings and asking them to carefully examine their written words. By keeping students to higher standards of clear and considered communication, we can inspire our students to have confidence in the power of their own words and the meaning of their voices.


Meredith Joelle Charlson is a lecturer in the College Admissions and Career Planning Certificate Program at UC Berkeley Extension. In the past eight years, she has looked after more than 200 students applying for middle schools, high schools, bachelor’s and master’s programs, as well as law and medicine.

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