Stylistic Tips: What to Avoid
Wordiness and repetition. More often than not, students can cut at least a quarter of their essays and lose no meaningful content. Avoid repetition, fluff, and verbal fillers—there is no place for excess in a piece which is meant to be as engaging and effective as possible.
Making your essays dramatic, boring, or impenetrable.
Vague language. Never use words like “stuff” or “things;” they are far too imprecise. Even writing “this aspect of society bothers me…” is too unclear. What “aspect” are you specifically talking about? Do you really mean society as a whole, or just one specific group? Be clear and remember that admissions officers are not mind readers.
Clichéd metaphors, similes, phrases, or expressions. For example, avoid: “He is one in a million,” and hackneyed terms such as “my global perspective” or “my potential as a future leader.” Clichés make essays sound uninspired and unoriginal—could you really not come up with a way to say something that hasn’t already been overused to the point of exhaustion? Clichés only show a writer’s lack of creativity. However, you can indeed put a spin on a cliché, making it your own. For example, instead of saying “When I looked at my crush, my heart skipped a beat,” you could write “When I looked at my heart, my heart skipped a beat or three.”
Overusing the first-person. Most college admissions essays ask you to write about yourself anyway, so they are obviously going to be written as first-person narrative. Overusing “I” is an easy mistake to make. More than once per sentence is generally too much. Instead of using “I” all the time, use different pronouns or simply omit them.
Example: I love eating desserts so I started baking classes on the weekends. In particular, I focused on chocolates, cupcakes, and tortes. I really enjoyed these courses, and they’ve added a lot to my life. → An obsession with desserts drove me to attend weekend baking classes, focusing on chocolates, cupcakes, and tortes. These courses were very enjoyable and added a lot to my life.
Going off on tangents. Not all information about a certain experience, event, etc. needs to be mentioned. If content is not related to your main point or serves a purpose, exclude it.
Excess expletive constructions. Expletive constructions usually begin with “there” or “it.” “There is/there are,” “it is,” “it seems,” and the like are usually unnecessary. In an expletive construction, the “there,” or “it” do not serve as pronouns (aka they have no antecedents, meaning that they do not refer to anything); rather, they are merely empty subjects followed by a conjugation of the trite verb “to be.” To keep sentences engaging, use meaningful subjects and verbs.
Example: There were two girls in class who had problems with math. → Two girls in class had problems with math.
Example: It is Monday that I get to see my teacher again. → On Monday, I get to see my teacher again.
Don’t overuse flowery language. Too many adjectives, adverbs, and pompous words can ruin the reading experience by creating a suffocating feeling. Rather, use strong verbs to breathe some life into your essay.
Example: He lovingly gazed into her eyes and paused for a brief moment. Then, he took her soft, delicate hand in his, and whispered, “Will you marry me?” → He gazed into her eyes and paused for a moment. Then, he took her hand in his and whispered, “Will you marry me?”
Weak verbs. Just as strong verbs can make an essay, weak ones will ruin them. It’s inevitable that you will often use the verb “to be,” but do not overuse it. When another verb is possible or preferable, opt for it. The example below, though grammatically correct, is stylistically lacking. Notice how the bland verb “is” is replaced by “deserves” and “trace.”
Example: My mother is responsible for shaping me into the person I am today. She is not aware of her influence on me, however. → My mother deserves credit for shaping me into the person I am today. Though unaware of her influence on me, I can trace my success back to her.
Unnecessary use of the passive voice. Using the passive voice—in other words, creating a sentence in which the object takes the position of the subject—is not grammatically incorrect, but over or unnecessary use makes essays wordy and confusing.
Example: The window was left open by Joe. (passive) → Joe left the window open. (active)
Example: The ball was thrown into the goal by Sally. (passive) → Sally threw the ball into the goal as hard as she could. (active)
Note that the aforementioned passive examples are awkward. While reading the sentence, the reader wonders who is performing the action and is left guessing until the sentence’s end. To avoid confusion, place the subject in the typical subject position, at the front.
However, sometimes you would actually prefer to use the passive voice. If the focus of the sentence is the object, rather than the action, you should use the passive voice.
Example: As it was hit by a baseball bat, the precious Fabergе́ egg shattered. (active) → The precious Fabergе́ egg shattered as it was hit by a baseball bat. (passive)