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

Key Tips for Writing Your Personal Statement Essay

Start as early in the process as possible. The more time you have to write, the more revising you can do and thus, the better your essay will be. Also, procrastinating leads to unnecessary stress.

Brainstorm and make an outline before you begin. It’s amazing how many ideas you can come up with through effective brainstorming. Jot down aspects of your personality and strengths that you really want the admissions officers to know about. Crafting an outline will allow you to view the entire skeleton of your essay. Flaws in idea flow and organization will become visible.

Make your essay your own. Think about what you care about, sparks your interests, or motivates you, and then write about it. Don’t write about what you think admissions officers want to hear.

Don’t be common. Take a risk! Don’t write what everyone else is writing about. Read essays online, ask your friends what they are writing about, and then choose something completely different.

Allow your personality to shine. This is the only part of the application that allows admissions officers to see you from your own perspective. If you are generally a funny person, feel free to to sprinkle a few witticisms or silly metaphors in your essay, but don’t attempt to write an entire satire. Remember: the essay’s purpose is to convey your intelligence, passions, and strengths—not your sense of humor.

Stay focused. This is your chance to tell the admissions officers why they should accept you. They already have your activity sheet, so avoid making your essay read like a stale grocery list of your awards and accomplishments. Rather, choose one topic that really interests you, and write about it. Stick to the main theme throughout the whole essay. Even if the question is rather broad, your answer should be narrow. Through details and real examples, your writing will reveal your passions and personality.

Have fun! College admissions essays tend to lean more toward narratives and free-form writing rather than structured academic essays. They are meant to be written from the heart, so once you figure out what to write about (arguably the most difficult part), let the words flow.

Be specific, clear, and to-the-point.

Do not exceed the word limit.

Don’t plagiarize. This should go without saying, but don’t ever copy or tweak someone else’s essay. Even if you found it buried hundreds of clicks away from an initial Google search, admissions officers have literally read thousands (if not tens of thousands) of college admissions essays in their lives and more than likely will be able to spot plagiarism. Plagiarizing is simply unacceptable in America, and a plagiarized essay will be tossed in the trash.

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite! Don’t expect a flawless (or even good!) essay on your first try. The pressure will stress you out and probably contribute to a frustrating case of writer’s block. Don’t worry about trivial things you can clean up later, such as grammar or spelling. First, simply get your ideas off your head and onto paper. Then, a few hours or even a few days later, look at your work with “fresh eyes.”

Edit. Go through your entire essay a few times and Spell Check (manually after running it on the computer, for mistakes such as “they’re” vs. “their.”). Remove frivolous words such as “very,” “many,” and “interesting.” These words weaken your writing. Check for grammatical and punctuation errors. You may want to ask someone who hasn’t yet read your essay to proofread it for you, as they are more likely to catch mistakes. Even minor mistakes show a lack of care for quality in your work.

Ask a friend or teacher for an opinion. When you think you are finally done with this grueling process, find someone whose opinion you trust (a scholarly friend, an English teacher, a parent, etc.). Ask them what you can do to improve your writing, and accept their feedback gracefully. Listen carefully and consider their suggestions. In the end, it is your essay, so make sure it stays in your own voice.

Read your essay aloud. Yes, aloud. Not in your head. By reading an essay aloud, you will be able to pick up any phrases that sound awkward or wordy while noticing which areas don’t flow smoothly.

By: Andrea Schiralli