March 8, 2015

Powerful Personal Statements: Part 5 - How to Revise

Lyn Jutronich

Your page isn’t blank any more, but you may not be very happy with what you’ve written.  Basically, your room isn’t guest-ready just yet – it doesn’t look the way you really want it to and the way you may have imagined it in your head.  Most likely, your essay is also too long (5300 characters goes by quickly). You’re going to have to move stuff around and probably get rid of some beloved knick knacks and potentially even an armchair or two.

1. The quintessential tome for editing prowess is Strunk and White, Section III.  
You should read it now before trying to revise your essay, and you will instantly become a better editor.

2. Read through your draft with one goal:  to get rid of “junk words.”  These are extra words or phrases that humans tend to use because -- well, we just do -- but that don’t really add anything but characters to your essay.  Not only do junk words take up precious space, but also they make writing weaker in general.
Get rid of all of the following:

  • Adverbs: “very,” “really,” “actually,”
  • Any words that imply you’re lying: “To be honest,” “Honestly,” “in all honesty”
  • Any words that specify that you are the one writing: “In my opinion,” “personally,” “I think”
  • Any words that hedge: “sort of,” “kind of,” “somewhat,”

There are others, but these are the most flagrant offenders.

3. Now, read your draft aloud, making notes on anything that just doesn’t sound right or that you stumble on.  Record yourself and play it back if you want.  Particular pitfalls to look for and fix are:

  • Passive voice, including “There are” and “It is” (especially for those of you with research backgrounds, because for some reason passive voice is the norm in research papers).
  • Redundancy.
  • Long, awkward sentences, especially those with medical or research jargon.
  • Negative words and phrasing, and any sentences or stories that might make someone think you’re a jerk or judging other people (especially judging people in the medical professions, like doctors you shadowed or nurses you worked with as a volunteer).
  • Paragraphs that are too long and therefore cause the reader to lose interest in the middle.
  • Grammar issues in general (get out that Elements of Style book!). You might need an English major friend or teacher to help here.
  • Flow: are the details and stories in the right order? Is your essay easy to follow and understand?
  • Phrases that tell and don’t show (you do need SOME of these, but you will find many more that you don’t need).

4. Read it aloud again, and again, and again; every time you make changes.  Be like a chef tasting his food as he prepares it, adding a pinch of salt, thickening the sauce, deciding not to add more mushrooms. Don’t be afraid to make major changes – deleting whole paragraphs because they just don’t work, moving your conclusion to your introduction because it’s the strongest part.

5. If possible, once you’ve done a few iterations, have someone else read it aloud to you, paying special attention to words or sentences THEY stumble on or that just don’t sound like what you intended them to sound like.   But be careful, because people like to try to be helpful and will most likely give you lots of suggestions on how to change your essay, what to add, what they think is missing, how THEY would write it.  Most of the time suggestions from friends and parents (and/or any person other than an editor or has experience with editing medical school personal statements) just make the essay different, not better.  Sometimes, well-meaning feedback can even make the essay worse by inserting someone else’s writing style and point of view.  Too many chefs spoil the stew!

6. My last bit of advice on revising is to know when to put down the red pen.  You can edit a personal statement forever, changing one word here, adding a comma there.  But at some point, the soup is cooked.  Extra revisions are just that: extra.  They just make the essay different but not better.

So call it a day, know that you’ve done your best, and submit!