How to Proofread

The key to proofreading is patience. Do not proof in a hurry. You’ll miss things, and then you’ll have to start over. The following seven tips are intended to help you proceed slowly and methodically.

1. Finish writing and formatting your essay first.

Proofreading should be the last thing you do, so that you have a chance to catch any errors you introduce along the way. If you’re writing different versions of your essay for different schools, proofread a finished version of each one. Format your essay before you proofread.

2. Run spellcheck and, if you have it, grammar check.

Spellcheck and grammar check are your first line of defense against errors. They’re necessary but not sufficient.

3. Print your essay.

You want to see exactly what the adcom will see: a printed page. Furthermore, reading your essay on the page instead of the screen can help you see it with fresh eyes.

4. Read out loud.

Read slowly, as if you’re on National Public Radio. Make sure that you vocalize only what’s on the page.

Not only does reading out loud force you to slow down, but it gives you two inputs—visual and aural—and thus increases your chance of catching a mistake.

5. Think about every single word and punctuation mark.

Proofreading requires mindfulness. You have to think about every character, or you’ll gloss over errors.

If you find yourself getting impatient or losing focus, take a break—you’re only wasting your time.

6. Underline or circle both errors and potential errors.

Should “chemistry” be capitalized? Should you use a hyphen in a compound like “dimly lit hall”? Should the question mark in the previous sentence go inside the closing quotation mark?

When you’re proofreading, you may find that you’re unsure if you’re looking at a mistake or not. Don’t interrupt yourself to find out. Circle the questionable item and move on. Look up the answer later.

For the record: “chemistry” should not be capitalized unless it’s part of the name of a specific class, like Chemistry 101. Don’t hyphenate compound adjectives formed with an adverb ending in “ly” plus a noun. Question marks go outside of quotation marks unless they are part of the quoted material.

7. Look for a different kind of error on each pass.

For example, you could look for capitalization errors on the first pass, comma splices on the second, apostrophe errors on the second, extra spaces on the third, etc. Check separately for each item in the Common Mistakes lesson.

8. Use your word processor’s find function to look for likely errors.

If you know that you might mix up “its” and “it’s,” search for every word that contains “it.” If you know you might have put double spaces after some sentences, search for two spaces and replace with a single space.

9. Proofread again and again and again, with breaks in between.

Four passes may sound excessive until you imagine how you’d feel if you sent in an essay with a typo. Don’t hurt your chances by making a stupid and avoidable mistake. You may want to proofread more than four times.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you catch an error or change anything, do another pass. You’re not finished until you can read through your essay at least twice without making a single correction.

Where to Find Answers

For basic primers on grammar and usage—how to use a semicolon, how to eliminate run-ons—I recommend the Purdue OWL.

For nitpicky questions—how to use hyphens in a phrase like “three- to five-hour hike,”—I recommend the Chicago Manual of Style. If you only want to use the manual for your personal statement, you can sign up for a free trial. Search the Q&A for questions not covered in the manual itself. You can also try Googling “Chicago style {query}.” Finally, you can check the AP Stylebook, or Google “AP style {query}”.

If you’ve found conflicting answers from reliable sources, choose the answer that you like best. The important thing is to be consistent throughout your application.

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