Grammar Do’s, Don’t of College Application Essays

Serious college applicants spend a lot of time crafting and telling their stories in application essays. But it’s also critically important that the essay is well written as much as it is well planned, because a few spelling, grammar or style mishaps can give the reader a poor view of an otherwise amazing personal statement.

Just like you could spend months designing the perfect outfit for the prom but have it ruined by wrinkles or stains, you’ll want to make sure that your application essays are free from distracting elements that detract from what you want your audience to see of you.

As you edit your college essay, use this checklist to ensure you produce your best work.

— Write in active voice.

— Vary punctuation.

— Balance paragraphs.

— Don’t use contractions, slang or cliches.

— Don’t try to sound like Shakespeare.

— Don’t jump around chronologically.

Write in Active Voice

In English, many actions can be expressed in either passive voice or active voice. For instance, you can say, “I was accepted by NYU” (passive) or “NYU accepted me” (active).

[Read: How to Write a College Essay.]

While the passive voice has its place in writing, the active voice is usually more desirable on college applications. Not only is it more concise, but it also reads as more powerful and proactive.

Consider, for example, the difference in meaning between “I was offered an internship opportunity” and “I pursued an internship opportunity.” The active voice works better because it highlights the applicant’s take-charge attitude, an attribute that colleges value.

Vary Punctuation

A few less-common yet well-placed punctuation marks can give your application essay a sophisticated edge.

For example, consider adding a semicolon to connect two closely related sentences, a colon to introduce an explanation for a claim or a set of em dashes to enclose an important interruption within a sentence. The key is to not get carried away repeating the same mark too many times or using rarer marks where a simple comma or period would do the trick.

Before submission, check your essay for comma splices, the mistake that occurs when a comma is used to separate two full sentences.

Balance Paragraphs

Even though the content may be high quality, an essay containing some short paragraphs and some lengthy ones is visually unpleasing. Readers — admissions counselors, in particular — like to see relative uniformity, or balance, in writing. Because these individuals often skim hundreds of essays a day, coming across a particularly long paragraph can be daunting.

[Read: Tips to Finish Writing College Application Essays]

So, keep your paragraphs on the shorter end of the spectrum. Try to limit them to five to seven sentences each, or fewer if your sentences are long. Your paragraphs do not all need to be the same length, but you should avoid significant differences in length that could be jarring.

Don’t Use Contractions, Slang or Cliches

Avoid contractions like “don’t,” “it’s” and “they’re” in your essay because they will give your writing an informal feel. Instead, separate and write out the full words.

For this same reason, avoid slang and overused words like “cool” or “amazing” and replace them with longer and less-common words, such as “exhilarating” or “memorable.” Also, steer away from cliches, well-known expressions such as “the last straw” or “the light at the end of the tunnel.” Rather than using recycled language, try to express the idea in your own words.

Don’t Try to Sound Like Shakespeare

In response to the previous tip, students sometimes take formal language to an extreme, endeavoring to include as many four- or five-syllable words as possible in their essay. However, this is ill-advised because it will make your essay read as stuffy and unnatural.

[Read: College Essay Examples: How to Write Your Story.]

Your essay should sound like something you wrote, but have a few sophisticated words peppered throughout it. To that end, you may wish to consult a thesaurus a few times as you craft your essay or after you are finished. This step will help you to substitute common words for more elegant ones. However, you should not change so many words that readers would need a dictionary to make sense of your essay.

Don’t Jump Around Chronologically

In a college application essay, it is inevitable that you talk about the past (your experiences), the present (your interests) and the future (your goals). As you outline your essay, give some thought to how you will order these ideas.

Many students prefer to start with the past and progress chronologically toward the future. Others may start with the present, then discuss the past and end with the future. There is no right or wrong sequence; the order of events should match the type of narrative you want to tell.

However, jumping around too often — for example, from past to future to present within the same paragraph — could dizzy your reader. Therefore, it may be best to limit each paragraph to one general time frame.

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