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 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.

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 Faberge egg shattered. (active) →  The precious Faberge egg shattered as it was hit by a baseball bat. (passive)

By: Andrea Schiralli

Types of College Application Essays

Though some schools (e.g., Wake Forest, UChicago, Brown) will have their own bizarre essay prompts, most college essays can be grouped into a type, the most common being:

The Personal Statement: The first essay prompt in the Common App is a perfect example of an essay that asks students to write about themselves. It goes: “Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”

When responding to this prompt, choose an experience or activity that played an important role in your life but that does not appear somewhere else on your application. For example, if your transcript and extracurriculars include a lot of orchestra classes and music prizes, do not write about playing the violin. Remember, the whole point of the essay is to show admissions officers a side of you that the rest of your application does not reveal. Show that you are multidimensional human being!

Your Favorite Activity: Choose an activity you are passionate about—be it a sport, random hobby (e.g. stamp collecting), or extracurricular activity (e.g. volunteering, hiking on weekends).

When responding to this prompt, think about what you do in your free time. Why is whatever you choose to write about your favorite activity? How do you feel when you are engaged in it? Show that you have a deep passion for something and that you have an intellectual understanding of it.

Why School?: This essay prompt specifically asks you why you want to spend your prime youth years at the college in mind. The prompt may ask: “Why is this college a good fit for you?” or “Tell us about your career goals and plans you may have for your studies.” This essay allows you to show your interest in the school and why you are a good fit.

When responding to this prompt, it is crucial to do a lot of research into the school and into the specific program you are applying to. Is the major or academic program unique from how it is typically offered at other colleges? Is there a specific course or curricula requirement which you’re itching to take? Does the department boast prominent researchers, some of whose work interests you enough to consider joining their team? Check out the website for your major’s department to get clues. Browse the college’s clubs listing and see if anything interests you. Is there an intramural sport you would like to join? Or an international club? By mentioning specific aspects of the university that appeal to you, you show that you put a good amount of thought into your application decision. So, be specific.

Here, you also want to show that if admitted, you would make positive contributions to the school community. Play upon your strengths. Are you a talented pianist who wants to join the school orchestra? Do you want to serve as a peer tutor in any subject(s)? Do you bring a fresh cultural perspective to the table? What would the school gain in accepting you?

Intellectual Curiosity: You may be asked to describe an idea, experience, or work of art that has been important to your intellectual development. When responding to this prompt, think about what some of your favorite subjects are. What do you enjoy reading up on in your free time? Is there a particular novel or academic text that  has inspired you to think differently? If so, how has it affected the way you see the world?

By: Andrea Schiralli

College Admission: Essays

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