Pwning the Personal Statement Part IIIA: Editing

This article is a continuation of Pwning the Personal Statement Part II: Writing the thing

Students often think that great admissions essays are built using the most impressive content and that the sum of the content builds a coherent story. Unfortunately, this often leads to essays with no vision and no story. These essays often confuse readers who may be impressed by the individual experiences, but have little insight into the person behind the story (i.e. you!). The best essays shine because the author has a vision for the story from the beginning, then selects the experiences that best tell that story, even if they’re not individually the most impressive.

So you’ve brainstormed and got yourself a first draft of your essay. You’re practically done, right? Wrong! Editing is extremely undervalued because students usually think their focus should be on fixing grammar, spelling, and flow. Yes, these are crucial, but they’re insufficient to develop a solid essay. The final draft of a well-polished essay rarely resembles its first draft. Major structural changes and even choices of examples often change to optimize the message.

Most of us approach writing our personal statement like we approach studying for an exam. Imagine that you have a big orgo exam coming up. Undoubtedly, if you spend 4 hours studying, you will do significantly better than if you study for 0 hours. But there’s only marginal improvement in how you do if you study 20 hours rather than 16 hours. Eventually your benefits for each hour diminish so much they’re just not worth the time. Many people don’t realize that writing your personal statement is not like that.

Starting the Process

Read over your essay and clean up any glaring grammatical or structural problems so you can focus on the important parts. Now become a devil’s advocate for yourself. If anything even has the slightest whiff of being inappropriate (joking or otherwise), boring, lame, over-hyped, nonsensical or some other tangent, it probably needs to be removed or replaced. Now start editing the meat of the essay with the following questions in mind:

  • What is my overall message?

  • How does this paragraph/sentence contribute to the overall message?

  • Does this paragraph/sentence make sense where it is and the way it is?

  • Can I replace this with something better that would achieve my goal more succinctly?

You’re going to go through multiple iterations of your essay – but how many should you do? Simple answer: at least 8-10. Real answer: it depends on how much of a change you’re making in each iteration! Often, only 20-40% of the original text from Draft 1 will be in the final product. If there’s more than that, you’re doing a bad job of editing. It’s not that you’re a bad writer, it’s just that real gold takes time to refine.

As you progress through these iterations, your focus will shift from larger structural issues and your choices of examples to issues about the flow of the essay. You should keep the following items in mind.

Not all bad sentences are valuable even when reworded

We’ve all been there in an essay. You’ve written this mess of words which was supposed to convey an added layer of depth to your idea but no matter how you rephrase it, it’s perpetually awkward. Some sentences just have no place in the essay. It’s tough, but often these sentences contribute very little and detract a lot. Simply excise them. You won’t miss them when they’re gone.

Editing is NOT like studying for an exam

Normally, we study with improvements in performance that look something like this:

So we assume essay writing is similar; Draft 1 came out pretty ok, and Draft 2 was a lot better. So by Draft 4, it’s twice as good and ready to go! Wrong. Your essay doesn’t even start improving substantially until iteration 4 or 5. The real curve for the quality of your essay looks something like this:

Sometimes you’ll have more steps in the curve (like titrating a polyprotic acid; each has its own phase of exponential growth before a temporary plateau) but working through the plateaus is well worth the work when you reap the rewards of exponential improvement. Most people stop writing their essay just as they approach the exponential improvement phase. If you don’t get to iteration 7 or 8, your essay still needs a lot of work. You instantly have an edge over most other premeds when you really dedicate to your personal statement like this, because most people just get too tired to keep going.

Editing is more than hitting F7 in Microsoft Word

How do you know when an edit is “done” and you can compile the changes into a new iteration? When there’s about as much (or more) red text than black text. This holds true more for the earlier iterations than the later ones, but you’re not ready to slow down with the red ink until you’re at least on your 6th or 7th iteration.

Is Draft 1 too early to be read by others?

Yes, and Draft 2 and 3 are too early to be read by others too. You need to get a really clear sense of what you want to say and how you want to say it. If you don’t, nobody else is going to be able to make sense of it either. Don’t let others read your essay and influence your voice until you get into the middle stages of editing.

Use diverse editors you respect

We wrongly assume that our friends and family are the best people to read our essay because they know us and can tell if we’re bringing out our best. This is another big way we shoot ourselves in the foot. The problem with your friends and family is that they know you (ironic, right?). This means they inadvertently have biases about about what’s good and what’s not, and about what makes sense and what doesn’t. The best advice you’re going to get on your essays is from somebody who doesn’t know you and says “When you talk about this experience, I don’t get it.” Take these comments very seriously because the adcom doesn’t know you either, so your essay needs to reach them very clearly. Friends and family should absolutely read your essays, but you should have an equal number of people read your essays whose ideas you respect but who don’t know you well personally. Examples include those people on your Facebook newsfeed who always get those intellectual discussions going… or people you know are in med school now.

The more diverse your sample size, the better. Ideally, you want to have people read your personal statement from each of the following categories:

  • Family (at least 1)

  • Close friends (at least 2)

  • Acquaintances or friends of friends who are unfamiliar with the stories your essays reference (at least 2)

  • Current medical students (at least 2)

  • Professionals (preferably people intimately familiar with the admissions process, but career advisers, co-op coordinators, or professional essay editors should suffice) (at least 2)

Ok, but what are you supposed to even ask them? Don’t give people an essay and say “tell me what you think.” Some people can work with open-ended tasks but most can’t. You need a specific set of questions and goals for your editors, including:

  1. Do you think the examples I use

    1. are interesting and unique?

    2. make sense?

  2. Does my essay adequately explain the importance of the examples or does it feel like too much chronology and not enough analysis?

  3. How far did you get before you got bored?

  4. Does the whole story of the essay make sense? Which parts stand out as being out of sequence or just not fitting in the essay?

  5. Given what you know about me and what I’ve done, can you think of any examples that might better illustrate the points I’m trying to make?

Your goal is to have them do a little grammar and syntax editing (especially in the final stages of editing) but mostly big-picture critiquing of your story and how you tell it.

Admit that it’s awkward to write about yourself

People will tell you when an example is stupid or doesn’t serve the purpose you think it does. If you hear that piece of advice from more than one person, toss it. Always get a second opinion before you amputate. But if you get two opinions that conflict, get a third.

It’s easy for us to get attached to our work, brushing off the weakness of examples or descriptions too easily. If someone tells you that an example doesn’t make sense, don’t brush it off by thinking “the person just doesn’t know me well enough to get the example.” Remember: the adcom doesn’t know you either. If something is nonsensical to a few people, you don’t want to risk it being nonsensical to the adcom – get ready to swallow your pride and take people’s advice about the parts of your essay that suck.

Go down both forks in the road

Sometimes you get to a point in your essay when you have to make a choice about which road you’ll travel. Do I portray myself as the kind, empathetic volunteer or as the bold leader unwilling to take no for an answer but who gets the job done in the end?

Entertain both ideas separately. Programmers will often “fork” their code, iterating down one path separately from another to see which they like better. Ultimately you’ll get a sense of where each one is going and then pick the one that most succinctly fits the original vision you created for your essay.

Putting it all together

Eventually you’ll end up with tens of edits from your own to those of others. Sometimes you may feel like you want to backtrack and go back to earlier examples that you removed. All of that is fine. The version that you ultimately select needs to stay true to the vision you want to convey. Once you’ve accomplished that and it makes you go “wow”, you know you’re getting close. You’ll never truly be finished, because it will never be perfect. But this is an area where the investment of the time will pay off. Starting the process early will ensure that even if it’s not perfect, it’s still ready to represent you to the adcom.

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