9 College Essay Style Tips

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9 College Essay Style Tips

  1. Wordiness and Repetition in College Admissions Essays

In college admissions essays, wordiness is by far the most common stylistic error. In most cases, students could cut one-third of an essay, lose no meaningful content, and make the piece much more engaging and effective.

Wordiness comes in many forms with many different names -- deadwood, repetition, redundancy, BS, filler, fluff -- but whatever the type, those extraneous words have no place in a winning college admissions essay.

In the brief sample above, all the words in yellow can be pared back or cut entirely. The near repetition of the phrase "the first times I set foot on the stage" entirely saps the passage of energy and forward momentum. The author is merely spinning his wheels.

Consider how much tighter and more engaging the passage is without all the unnecessary language: "Theater did not come naturally to me, and I felt remarkably self-conscious and nervous the first few times I set foot on stage in the eighth grade. My best friend had talked me into auditioning for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet."

  1. Vague and Imprecise Language in College Application Essays

Watch out for vague and imprecise language in your college application essay. If you find that your essay is filled with words like "stuff" and "things" and "aspects" and "society," you may also find that your application ends up in the rejection pile.

Vague language can be removed easily by identifying what exactly you mean by "things" or "society." Find the precise word. Are you really talking about all of society, or a much more specific group of people? When you mention "things" or "aspects," be precise -- what exact things or aspects?

In the sample above, the writer has created a passage that says very little. What endeavors? What abilities? What things? Also, the writer could be much more precise than "activity." The writer is trying to explain how basketball has made her mature and develop, but the reader is left with a painfully fuzzy sense of how she has grown.

Consider the greater clarity of this revised version of the passage: "Not only do I find basketball fun, but the sport has helped me develop my leadership and communication skills, as well as my ability to work with a team. As a result, my love of basketball will make me a better business major."

  1. Clichés in College Admissions Essays

Clichés have no place in a college admissions essay. A cliché is an over-used and tired phrase, and use of clichés makes prose unoriginal and uninspiring. With your essay you are trying to get the admissions officers excited about you and your essay topic, but there is nothing exciting about clichés. Instead, they diminish the essay's message and reveal the author's lack of creativity.

In the example above, the author is writing about her brother, a person who has had a major influence on her life (in response to essay option 3 on the Common Application). The author expresses her praise of her brother, however, almost entirely in clichés. Instead of her brother sounding like "one in a million," the applicant has presented phrases that the reader has heard a million times. All those clichés will quickly make the reader uninterested in the brother.

Consider how much more effective this revision of the passage is: "Throughout high school, I have tried to emulate my brother. He takes his responsibilities seriously, yet he is generous when dealing with the shortcomings of others. This combination of reliability and graciousness makes others turn to him for leadership. My own successes in high school are due largely to my brother's example."

  1. Overuse of "I" in First-Person Narratives

Most college admissions essays are first-person narratives, so they are obviously written in the first person. For this reason, the very nature of application essays raises a particular challenge: you are being asked to write about yourself, but an essay can start sounding both repetitive and narcissistic if you use the word "I" twice in every sentence.

In the example above, the writer uses the word "I" seven times in three sentences. Of course nothing is wrong with the word "I" -- you will and should use it in your essay -- but you want to avoid overusing it.

The example above can be rewritten so that instead of seven uses of "I" we have one: "Soccer has been a part of my life for longer than I can remember. Literally. My parents have photos of me crawling around as a baby pushing a ball with my head. My later childhood was all about soccer -- the community league at age four, and participation in regional tournaments by ten."

Don't worry too much about frequent use of "I" unless your essay starts to sound like a broken record. When you use the word multiple times in a single sentence, it's time to rework the sentence.

  1. Excessive Digression in Application Essays

Digression isn't always wrong in a college admissions essay. Sometimes a colorful aside or anecdote can help engage the reader and enhance the reading experience.

However, in many cases digression adds little to an essay other than extraneous words. Whenever you deviate from your main point, make sure the deviation serves a legitimate purpose in your essay. In the example above, the writer's mention of "other jobs" does not enhance his point about Burger King. If we delete the sentence highlighted in yellow, we have a much stronger passage: Although it wasn't academically challenging, I learned a lot from my job at Burger King because I was forced to negotiate some difficult personalities."

  1. Overuse of Flowery Language in Admissions Essays

Overuse of Flowery Language in Admissions Essays

Image by Allen Grove

When writing your admissions essay, be careful to avoid overusing flowery language. Too many adjectives and adverbs can ruin the reading experience.

Several of the later tips in this article are about using strong verbs. Read them. Strong verbs, not adjectives and adverbs, are what will make your admissions essay come to life. When an essay has two or three adjectives or adverbs in every sentence, the admissions folks will quickly feel like they are in the presence of an immature writer who is trying too hard to impress them.

The majority of adjectives and adverbs (especially adverbs) can be cut if the verbs (the action words) of the passage are chosen well. Compare the overwritten example above to this revision: "The game was close. I won't receive credit for our win, but I did pass the ball to my teammate who scored the winning goal. He received the praise for kicking the ball into the narrow space between the goalie's hands and the upper corner of the goal post, but the victory was really about a team, not an individual."

The revision focuses more on making a point, not melodrama.

  1. Weak Verbs in Admissions Essays

Whenever I teach good writing practices, I focus on verbs. Think about what you are trying to accomplish with your college admissions essay: you want to grab your readers' attention and keep them engaged. Lots of adjectives and adverbs often make prose seem wordy, fluffy and over-written. Strong verbs animate prose.

The most common verb in the English language is "to be" (is, was, were, am, etc.). Without doubt you will use the verb "to be" multiple times in your admissions essay. However, if the majority of your sentences rely on "to be," you're sapping your essay of energy. In the sample above, every sentence uses the verb "to be." The passage has no grammatical errors, but it flops on the stylistic front.

Here's the same idea expressed with stronger verbs: "More than anyone else, my brother deserves credit for my achievements in high school. I can trace my successes in academics and music back to my brother's subtle influence." The revision replaces the bland verb "is" with the more engaging verbs "deserve" and "trace." The revision also gets rid of the rather cliché idea of a "hero" and the vague phrase "much of what I have accomplished."

  1. Too Much Passive Voice in College Application Essays

Teaching students to recognize passive voice in their essays is one of the more challenging tasks I've faced as a writing instructor. Passive voice is not a grammatical error, but overuse can lead to essays that are wordy, confusing and unengaging. To identify passive voice, you need to map out a sentence and identify the subject, verb and object. A sentence is passive when the object takes the position of the subject. The result is a sentence in which the thing performing the action of the sentence is either missing or tacked onto the end of the sentence. Here are a few simple examples:

  • Passive: The window was left open. (we are left wondering who left the window open)

  • Active: Joe left the window open. (now we know that Joe is the one performing the action)

  • Passive: The ball was kicked into the goal by Wendy. (Wendy is the one doing the kicking, but she isn't in the subject position in the sentence)

  • Active: Wendy kicked the ball into the goal. (note that the active form of the sentence is shorter and more engaging)

In the example in the image above, the writer is narrating a dramatic moment in an important soccer game. The writer's use of passive voice, however, entirely robs the passage of its dramatic effect. The passage is wordy and flat. Consider how much more effective the essay would be if revised to use active verbs: "As the opposing team approached the goal, a striker kicked the ball towards the upper right corner. If I didn't block it, my team would lose the regional championship."

The revision is slightly shorter and far more precise and gripping. Again, the passive voice is not a grammatical error, and there are even times when you will want to use it. If you are trying to emphasize the object of a sentence, you may want to put it in the subject position in a sentence. For example, let's say a beautiful 300-year-old tree in your front yard was destroyed by lightning. If you write about the event, you probably want to emphasize the tree, not the lightning: "The old tree was destroyed by lightning last week." The sentence is passive, but appropriately so. The lightning may be performing the action (striking), but the tree is the sentence's focus.

  1. Too Many Expletive Constructions

Expletive constructions involve a couple of the stylistic errors outlined in this article -- they are wordy and employ weak verbs. Many (but not all) sentences that begin with "it is," "it was," "there is" or "there are" have expletive constructions.

In general, an expletive construction begins with the empty word "there" or "it" (sometimes called a filler subject). In an expletive construction, the word "there" or "it" is not functioning as a pronoun. That is, it has no antecedent. The word does not refer to anything, but is simply an empty word taking the place of the sentence's true subject. The empty subject is then followed by the uninspiring verb "to be" (is, was, etc.). Phrases such as "it seems" produce a similarly uninspiring function in a sentence.

The resulting sentence will be more wordy and less engaging than it would be if written with a meaningful subject and verb. Consider, for example, these sentences with expletive constructions:

  • It was the final goal of the game that determined the state championship.

  • There were two students at my summer camp who had severe psychological problems.

  • It is Saturday when I get to spend time at the animal shelter.

All three sentences are unnecessarily wordy and flat. By removing the expletive constructions, the sentences become far more concise and engaging:

  • The final goal of the game determined the state championship.

  • Two students at my summer camp had severe psychological problems.

  • On Saturday I get to spend time at the animal shelter.

Note that not all uses of "it is," "it was," "there is," or "there are" are expletive constructions. If the word "it" or "there" is a true pronoun with an antecedent, no expletive construction exists. For example:

  • I have always loved music. It is one of the most important parts of my life.

In this case, the word "it" in the second sentence refers to "music." No expletive construction exists.

For the example in the image above, we can quickly strengthen the language by removing the expletive constructions: "My parents made a simple rule that got me interested in the trumpet: no television or computer time until I had practiced for half an hour. This rule often angered me, but when I look back I know my parents knew best. Today I'll always pick up my trumpet before the television remote."

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