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With college essay season upon us, it’s once again evident that most students have never been taught how to meaningfully revise their writing. For most of these students, working on application essays is the first time someone has required them to write multiple drafts in order to clarify their thinking and views.

If you’re an educator who already requires students to substantially revise their writing, thank you for your work. However, you are the exceptions, and we, as educators, need to make thoughtful revision the rule.

Substantial revision needs to be required throughout a student’s education, not just for college admissions essays. Many students struggling to craft their essays also would say that it’s the first time they felt as if their voices were important.

This significance comes not only from the high stakes of the college applications, but because for many it’s the first time someone — a teacher, parent or counselor — is paying attention to what they write. The clarity of their thinking, or lack thereof, is finally being evaluated by mentors. Twelfth grade, however, is way too late.

Substantial revision means revising beyond grammar edits or awkward phrasing. Editing for content means engaging students in verbal or written dialogue and asking strategic questions that help them understand what, exactly, they’re trying to say.

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

Importantly, gaining a clear understanding of one’s own values — stemming from a consideration for nuance — is preparation for engaged citizenship. Learning to write clear and thoughtful essays helps students articulate their views and instills pride regarding their own words, ideas, values and opinions.

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

  1. Using empty language, or language with essentially no meaning. Empty words/phrases include “good,” “bad,” “thing,” or “a long time.” I suggest students use more specific language.
  2. Employing extreme language, or language that removes the possibility of nuance 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 that?”
  3. Including misunderstandings about general facts, historical events and/or literary interpretation. For example, a high school student claimed that the concept of feminism didn’t begin until 1920, the year American women won the right to vote. This stark misunderstanding undermined the student’s overall argument but provided me a channel to help the student better understand the context. I sent the student some historical references and asked: “What work do you think went into getting women the right to vote?”

True, editing and substantial revision takes time for both students and educators. I appreciate that when teachers are dealing with up to 35 students per class, preparing them for standardized testing and now adapting curriculum to a virtual format, requiring more drafts may feel like adding unnecessary weight.

Precisely because this school year isn’t like any other — because homecoming games, fall balls and rallies are canceled, and distance learning has turned lessons, lectures and grading topsy-turvy — we have time to help our students think about the meaning of their words.

We, as educators, need to use this time to pay closer attention to our students’ writing. As an application essay clearly demonstrates, knowing how to write effectively is a necessary skill for a student’s success. It also means the student is learning the need and appreciation for nuanced, accurate and thoughtful communication.

Let’s model that value by paying closer attention to our students’ writings and by asking them to carefully consider their written words. By holding 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 in the importance of their voices.


Meredith Joelle Charlson is an instructor for UC Berkeley Extension’s College Admissions and Career Planning Certificate Program. Over the last eight years, she has mentored more than 200 students applying to middle school, high school, undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as law and medical school.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent diverse viewpoints about California’s public education systems. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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