Welcome to the College Prep Confidential Podcast
Aug. 13, 2021

CPC Episode #32 - Transform a Crappy College Essay into a Masterpiece with This One Skill

Are you a bad writer? An average writer? Here's how to transform yourself into a keyboard killer using one skill.  The one book you can read in 2 days which will transform your writing into greased lighting Use this free tool to tighten up your...

Are you a bad writer? An average writer? Here's how to transform yourself into a keyboard killer using one skill. 

  • The one book you can read in 2 days which will transform your writing into greased lighting
  • Use this free tool to tighten up your college essay
  • The one skill needed to upgrade a boring college essay into something college advisors can't put down
  • The one thing you want your writing to trigger inside the college advisor's body




Wooooooo! Back in the saddle. We’ve been off the air for a while. But We're back, for Episode 32, talking about transforming your college essay into an electrifying read, in an episode entitled, Transform a Crappy College essay into a Masterpiece with This One Skill.

You don't have to be a great writer. You don't even have to be a good writer. But if you learn this one skill, you'll level up all your writing, including your college essay. 

I learned this years ago from other writers. I use this tip for the books I write. And it always gets me good reviews on readability. I consider this so important, I've framed it on my wall. On my wall, I've got a framed copy of this quote by Ernest Hemingway...

“The first draft of anything is crap.”

Crap is a nice substitute for what Hemingway really said. You get the picture. Anyway, the point of this quote was learning the crucial skill of editing. 

Editing Definition

When it comes to writing, what is editing?

  • Cleanup
  • Clarity
  • Organization
  • Elimination
  • Reduction

Editing Overview

3 drafts of anything

  1. first draft is for you
  2. second draft is for the reader
  3. third draft/edit is for the naysayers. Proof, evidence, polish, everything ties together

Don't worry about being a good writer. Instead, be, or find a great editor.

Editing isn’t all about catching grammatical errors or checking for continuity. It’s intended to get the right message across and ensure that your audience 100% knows it.

Now I'd like to walk through an editing checklist I've built up over the last few years. I use it for books, blog posts, and other writing. If you use this checklist, you'll improve any first draft you write.

Editing Checklist

  • Spelling
  • Punctuation
  • Check for period, double space or single space, keep it consistent. Make sure all periods in the sentence have consistent number of spacing
  • Each transition should flow in a smooth manner and make a logical transition to the next thought or idea.
  • When this is complete, begin the process outlined in the book, “Strunk & White - The Elements of Style.”  This boils down to tactical editing. Make sure everything is written in the active voice. No passive voice, no hemming and hawing, get to the point. 
  • Editing at this point should be ruthless.  Talk the book out loud.  If you struggle or stall at any point, that particular part should be rewritten.
  • Walk away from your first draft for a few days. Then come back and read it. By doing this, you create an emotional distance, and you'll be more objective. Inconsistencies and awkward wording will jump out at you if you read it with fresh eyes.
  • Remove or rewrite filler adjectives. 
    • She was very scared of ghosts
    • Change it to "Ghosts scared her.
  • Remove negatives if possible.  I did not move slowly should be rewritten as “I sprinted”, or “I rushed”, or “I exploded forward”.  Stay with the active voice, and even better, the active positive or declarative voice.
  • Remove, slice and dice all the “to be” statements, such as I was, are, we were, etc.  Unless absolutely necessary, when you remove and rewrite these, the book flows extremely well. Example: I am hungry. Change it to, I'm starving. Less words and the second sentence hits harder.
  • “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” ― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft Remove any adverbs you can. Instead of, "She ran quickly", rewrite to something like "She sprinted" Or another weak adverb, she's really strong. Change it to, she's a powerhouse. You remove the weak adverb and create a visual of strength.
  • Remove redundancies. Absolutely essential should be essential. Currently today, is just today. future plans. Write this as plans. Plans are already in the future. Why say it twice?
  • Does your writing elicit an emotion or some sort of action? In a book about Adlai Stevenson called The World: The Life of Adlai E. Stevenson, John Kennedy talked about the power of action and emotion from speakers...
  • Trim long sentences. Break them up or rewrite them. Use the "breath test". If you takes you longer than one breath to read a sentence, it's too long. 
  • Paragraphs - I like to keep paragraphs limited to no more than 5 sentences. It gives white space which the reader likes. It's easier to scan, and it's easier to process than tall blocks of text.
  • The Borden 4 -
    This four-step formula was created by Richard C. Borden who was the Administrative Chairman of the Department of Public Speaking at New York University. He was also one of the nation’s most popular speakers and sales trainers and author.
    To give a great speech, Borden recommends that you imagine your audience shouting out these four emotional outbursts as you give your talk or write…
    • “Ho hum!”
    • “Why bring that up!”
    • “For instance?”
    • “So what?”
    • So here's how you'd use that. If you opened your writing with "Today I want to talk about my background." It would fail the Ho-Hum test miserably. Nobody cares. It doesn't inspire intrigue or curiosity. Instead, if you said, "My dog died suddenly when I was 10 years old, and it taught me a lesson about compassion." I'll stick around to read more. I've talked about this in a prior episode about opening lines. You must pass the Ho Hum Test
    • Next, if you make a statement such as, "I'm an introvert", the reader instantly asks, "Why bring that up?" you must either revise your statement, or immediately follow it up with something to answer "Why bring that up?" So I'd rewrite, "As an introvert, I learned a secret to small talk which I'll share in just a moment." Ok, so the reader will learn how you overcame shyness and a secret to connecting with people. I'll definitely stick around to read more of that.
    • Building on this, we'll answer the "For instance" question next. In your piece about being an introvert, you can say, "I overcame my shyness by leading conversations off with asking how the other person's day went, and following up with what they're working on. With this, you give two examples and keep the reader engaged, so it passes the "For instance" test
    • Finally, "So what", if you simply say you overcame shyness for conversations, it doesn't answer the "So What" test. But if you say, by overcoming shyness, I made more friends and improved my networking skills which helped me get a job, well now we've got something!!!
  • Once you can read the book out loud with no stalls, no pause, and no confusion, it is ready for the final draft.

Additional Editing

  1. Copy-bloater #1: THAT
    1. My personal biggest copy-bloater is "that." I use it often … and often when it's not needed.
    2. The story that we read …
    3. When you take "that" out, does it change meaning or ease of reading
    4. The story we read …
    5. Not at all. The word "that" bloats copy and must be hunted and destroyed.
  2. Copy-bloater #2: SOME OF THE and MANY OF THE
    1. Some of the copywriters … becomes Some copywriters …
    2. Many of the copywriters … becomes Many copywriters …
    3. But even better (and we'll revisit this in a future article) …34% of copywriters …
  3. Copy-bloater #3: The articles A, AN, THE
    1. You can highlight the benefits when … becomes You can highlight benefits when
  4. Copy-bloater #4: Auxiliary verbs like CAN and MAY
    1. You can highlight benefits when … becomes Highlight benefits when 
  5. Specificity
    1. consider these statements
      1. a) How To Get More Financial Aid
      2. b) How To Get $5,000 More in Financial Aid
      3. c) How To Get $5,281 More In Financial Aid
      4. Which one would you believe the most. The answer is a. Why? Because it's specific. It's down to a dollar amount. Statement a is too general. Statement B is more specific, but rounded. Statement C hits you right in the chest with exactness. So when editing, look for generalization and see if you can specify. If you're talking about a dog for example, think about what breed, what color, how big or small. Get specific. Your writing improves, and so does the reader experience.
  6. Eliminate words. When I spent a small fortune to go to an Orlando conference to meet some of the best writers in the world in 2017, I learned a simple trick. Go through your draft before it's ready to be final. See if you can eliminate words without dampening the impact. This means, can you remove any words, or sentences, and not have the meaning or impact affected negatively? If so, then cut it. Never say in 10 words what you can say in 3 words.

Editing quotes

  • "Write hot, edit cold" - Stephen King
  • "Write drunk, edit sober" - Ernest Hemingway
  • “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” ― Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” ― Stephen King
  • “Writing is a way of talking without being interrupted.” ― Jules Renard

Personal Story About Editing:

When I wrote my first book, and did one edit, I had my wife read it out loud. And she got stalled on certain sentences which I thought read clear. Instead of getting frustrated, I rewrote it so it flowed to a complete stranger. And because of that, people told me they couldn't put the book down. And it's all thanks to reading it out loud and finding the choke points.

Reading it out loud helps you find odd grammar, unnecessary words, and broken flow. Reading it out loud in your head is different than reading it out loud. Can you read the entire essay without getting bogged down, confused, or stopping?

Dual readership path

When you write, did you know people read your piece differently. For example, if you put your college essay in front of 10 people, some may read line by line, and some skim. We call this the dual readership path. So what you do to cater to both reader types is, break up the sections with sub heads. The second type of reader skims the subheads before reading the section. If the subheads draw them in, then they'll read the section.

Skimmers focus on:

  • Bolding
  • Underlining
  • Color
  • Font Size
  • Capitalization
  • Italics
  • Bullets/Numbered Lists
  • Boxes/Circles
  • Shading/Background Color

Oh, and here's a brilliant little trick I learned...

A reader should be able to read your essay title/headline and the subheads in order and be able to understand the story your telling in summary, as if they read line by line. This one blew me away. The subheads give the short story, highway marker version of your writing. So think about the dual readership path when your write your essay.

Software - Make it easier. It’s like having somebody watch your back all the time when you write

  • Hemingway-App
  • Pro Writing Aid

Writing is tough. so is college prep... And one of the edits for college prep is finding an expert to fine tune your plans. I put together a list of expert resources for you. Test prep, financial aid, and mindset. Go to cpcshow.com. That's c-p-c-show.com. Thank you for listening.