Note: I’ve written these “before and after” samples to give you an idea of how I approach editing. I keep all of my clients’ application essays completely confidential.
Before: “I would really take advantage of all of the incredible opportunities in the physics department at Princton University, including the research internships available there.”
After: “I am eager to take ‘Geodynamics’ with Professor Rubin and explore the connections between physics and biology as a summer intern in the lab of Dr. William Bialek.”
If you could take out “Princeton” and substitute any other school’s name, the praise and promises will ring false. Instead, take a few minutes to do some quick web research. For this revision, I Googled “Princeton Physics” and then found the name of an interesting advanced seminar (http://www.princeton.edu/physics/undergraduate-program/courses/). Then, I clicked on “Research” and navigated to a list of publications by a distinguished faculty member (http://www.princeton.edu/~wbialek/wbialek.html).
Before: “My extensive clinical experiences, my research experience and my volunteer work have all helped me become a more compassionate and informed person and will help me become a great doctor.”
After: “Shadowing pediatric oncologists in the ICU at the Duke Cancer Center, conducting research on genomic approaches to assessing colon cancer risk with Dr. Katharine Garman and volunteering with the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program have clarified my career goal: to be a compassionate clinician-researcher who provides evidence-based, patient-centered care.”
Again, specificity pays off. Any applicant could have written the first sentence; only one person could have written the second sentence.
Before: “As a child, I didn’t like going to school and didn’t do well in my classes until high school when I first took a chemistry class. Fascinated by the chemical reactions, I started to do experiments in a local laboratory and eventually developing a groundbreaking project that won second place at the national science fair.”
After: “Middle school was a struggle until I received a diagnosis of dyslexia and intensive instruction that brought my reading skills to grade level. I finally hit my stride in ninth grade when my chemistry teacher, Mr. Johnson, took me under his wing and introduced me to the world of experimental chemistry. After completing an independent study in materials science with Mr. Johnson during my sophomore year, I joined the laboratory of Dr. Alice Smith at Pacific University in my junior year and contributed to her research on the crystallization of amorphous metals. In my senior year, I conducted an independent study of the dislocation of bulk metallic glasses under Dr. Smith’s guidance which received second place in Chemistry in the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.”
The first version fell into the common trap of relating a personal experience or struggle that is meaningful to you without giving the personal details that will engage your reader. Why did you struggle in school at first? Who helped you recognize your passion? What was the topic of your winning science fair project? Walk your reader through your journey and illustrate it with personal details that only you could write.
Before: “In conclusion, my failure was an important step toward becoming a successful project leader. For example, the ability to understand each team member’s perspective is a critical skill needed for leaders to get things done. Therefore, my skills improved in many ways regarding leadership, from active listening and collaboration to stakeholder buy in and implementing programs for managing change.”
After: “Despite my initial reluctance to explore the reasons for our client’s hesitation, I worked hard in subsequent meetings to listen carefully to their concerns and be more open to change. Since then, I have focused on earning the client’s trust when designing and implementing effective programs for organizational development.”
When used carelessly, transitional phrases such as “In conclusion,” “For example” and “Therefore” actually disrupt the flow of ideas. The revised version makes it clear how the applicant addressed her weakness immediately and then learned from the experience to become a more responsive leader.