By Ben Feuer, Photo by Gabriel Millos

So you picked your topic, you worked over your language until it's flawless, but your essay still doesn't have that 'spark'.  You have two choices -- continue to revise, or start over with a completely new idea.  Most people find that prospect so terrifying that they never even consider it, but it is a viable option.  Sometimes writers (particularly beginning writers) simply fail on their first effort.  It's not a personal shortcoming, it just reflects how challenging the process of essay writing really is.

How do you know if you're better off submitting what you have, or starting over?  There's no definitive answer, but there ARE some helpful things to consider.

Brainstorm Early and Often

How can you know you've written the right essay if you haven't even brainstormed what other topics you might choose to write about?  One of the reasons people find rewriting from scratch so scary is that they don't know what else to write about.  Having arrived at a topic they consider 'suitable', they immediately throw away every other idea they had.  This type of 'convergent' thinking is very unproductive when it comes to writing essays, or creative writing more generally.  Usually, what's needed are fresh new ideas -- even if they don't result in completely rewriting the essay, they can offer a new perspective on the essay you already have.

Written brainstorms should be one or two paragraphs long, and should focus exclusively on 'the story' -- what, who, where and a lot of why.  It's doubly important to write brainstorms when it's just you working on the essays alone, because it will force you to remember details you wouldn't have retained otherwise.

Use Your Readers Effectively

Whether they're professionals or friends, your readers play an important role in evaluating your essays.  They're the objective third parties you need to make the best decision.  That said, it is very possible to listen TOO closely to notes and get lost in the weeds.

The rule of thumb is this -- pay a lot of attention to the big picture of people's advice (How did the essay make them feel about you?  Did it inspire trust, confidence, affection?  Was it confusing or boring?) and take the little picture with a grain of salt.  You don't need to worry about whether 'that sentence makes you look weird'.  You need to worry about the overall impression the essay is making.  Consensus matters -- independent opinions are valuable (which is why, at Forster-Thomas, we have many layers of people read the essays!)

Another rule of thumb with readers -- the better they know you personally, the less useful they are.  They've already formed opinions about you -- when they read your essay, it's going to be with those opinions (and that knowledge) already in mind.

Have High Standards -- Good Isn't Good Enough

When it comes to a decision to rewrite an essay, often the final choice hinges on your personal taste and standards.  Too many people are willing to sign their name to 'just OK' essays, send them in and hope for the best.  

A better approach is to look at the process as a process.  You have a time limit, and a finish line, but there's no award for finishing first (although with certain schools, like Columbia Early Decision, there is an advantage to early submitters).  The prize goes to the strongest overall application.  So if you don't love your essay, and you still have time to try again, you should probably try again.  If worst comes to worst, you'll always have your old essay to fall back on.

Operating without a safety net is always intimidating, but in the end, your essays and your application will be better because of the extra effort you took.  Stay focused and don't give up on the process!  As they're fond of saying on The X-Files, the truth is out there ...