Essential Grammar Rules For Your College Apps
There’s significant variation, in terms of advice, on what grammar to use on your college essays and free-response sections. We’ve already covered what you could talk about in your essay and how your should frame it, so now let’s dive into the way you should speak to your experience.
Some think that a college essay should resemble an academic essay (don’t use the word “I” and only use formal language, for example) but in our opinion, that’s impractical. These topics are about you. You have to speak from personal experience.
The same idea goes for a conversational style. We think that an easygoing, non-stiff tone works best. In essence, be somewhat casual while still using correct spoken grammar conventions. Luckily, since college admissions officers get applications from around the world (and since students have vastly different ways of writing and speaking) they’re used to a variety of styles. There isn’t one correct way to do it, so long as it sounds like you.
Below, we provide some examples of ways to write casually without sacrificing grammar; these are also some of the most common mistakes we see. These rules are applicable for a college essay but can also be used elsewhere in your application—the key here is consistency. Your voice needs to sound the same across essays, free-response, and short answers, otherwise it’ll sound like someone else is writing it for you.
This one can generate some passionate dialogue (i.e., it’s a bit controversial) but we say go for it. Contractions are an important part of the spoken English language, and they instantly help readers get into a casual, conversational voice as they read the essays to themselves. Admissions officers may play an official role, but they’re people too. They like know that you’re confident and clear, and that you’re bringing them into the story instead of isolating them.
Take a look at these two sentences. Which makes you feel like you have a better connection with the writer?
- I do not have to provide an extra receipt, so I did not—and that is my mistake.
- I don’t have to give an extra receipt, so I didn’t—and that’s my mistake.
The shortened words of #2 help the language seem less stiff and ease the flow of the sentence. Since most people read out loud in their own voice, it reads more smoothly as a spoken, conversational sentence. It’s a small distinction, but an important one.
You won’t be able to use contractions for everything, especially if it sounds weird to do so. The best rule of thumb is to read out loud. When you’re tempted to make a contraction, do it. When it sounds weird or it sounds better to place emphasis on each word by separating them (That is my mistake), do that instead.
Focus on Active Voice
You may have heard this one before, because it’s also a tactic you’d use in more formal English. If you have never heard of this rule, in a nutshell:
- A sentence in passive voice takes the actor (the person or thing doing the action) and places it at the end of the sentence: “The ball was thrown by the boy.”
- A sentence in active voice takes the actor and places it at the front: “The boy threw the ball.”
Notice how the active sentence is shorter and clearer. Whenever you can ask the question: by whom? Or by what? That’s often a clue of passive voice. In the example above, the ball was thrown… by whom? The boy. So the boy is the actor and therefore should be the subject.
Occasionally, it won’t be very clear who the actor is. “He is under stress right now.” (by what? It might not be anything) “The racer was uninterested in running.” (by what? Unclear.) What if no actor exists? Sometimes passive construction doesn’t have an easy fix. There are better ways to create a more active sentence, though.
For example: “Right now, the stress affects him.” “The racer didn’t want to run.” In both cases, I chose a more active verb to show movement, instead of the “is (verb)” construction of passive voice. So beware of passive construction even when there’s no actor.
We also understand that sometimes passive voice is necessary. When you need to put focus on the object, not the actor, passive voice makes sense. For example, “I was led by the hand to the stage.” The essay is about you, so we don’t need to know who the actor (the hand-holder) is in this case. Just make sure that every sentence isn’t passive voice. Short, punchy, to-the-point language is a hallmark of effective casual writing.
Watch Your -Ings
In case you want to get into the details, here are the rules: a gerund is a word that adds “-ing” to a verb and uses it as a noun. “I enjoy swimming.” A present participle is a word that adds “-ing” to a verb and uses it as an adjective or part of a verb. “I’m playing soccer tonight.” But the more important point is to watch out for them, particularly the present participle. They can make sentences awkward and interrupt the flow. See the difference:
- “I enjoy swimming” (gerund) vs. “I love to swim”
- “I’m playing soccer tonight” (present participle) vs. “I play soccer tonight”
In both cases the new phrase implies action. Now, there are times when “-ing” makes sense: if the sentence sounds weird without it or if you are literally in the middle of doing something. “I’m doing my homework” makes sense because you haven’t yet completed it. Sometimes you’ll need an “-ing” to show that you were doing something when something else happened.
Again, as before, vary up your structure. If this is something you use a lot, write a first draft and then hit Command/Control+F to find all the places you use it. If it’s a lot, find other ways to convey your ideas using strong verbs.
The Pronoun Problem
This one’s a common but easily fixable problem. Whenever you use a pronoun, it should have a clear antecedent, which is just a fancy word for whatever the pronoun refers back to. So: “My sister swam in a race, and she placed third.” The antecedent for “she” is your sister.
In the case of “I,” the antecedent is already pretty clear. But it’s easy to confuse the reader by not making it clear who’s who:
- “My friends Ashley and Tamra decided to skip the event because she couldn’t miss her sister’s birthday.” (whose sister? Ashley or Tamra?)
- “Once the schools start teaching and the students come back from summer break, they need help with their studies.” (Who is they? The schools or the students?)
In the second example, the answer might seem obvious, but you still have to make it clear. This might add a little awkwardness to a sentence: “My friends Ashley and Tamra decided to skip the event because Tamra couldn’t miss her sister’s birthday.” It’s repetitive. But, now it’s also understandable. To put your reader at ease, you have to make it abundantly clear what you mean. You should never confuse the admissions officer.
One other common problem is a mismatch between antecedent and pronoun. For example, “Every time a student takes a test, they have to use their memory.” “A student” is singular, “they” is plural. You could change “they” to “he or she” or you could change “A student” to “students.” This can make construction a bit awkward, but again it’s more jarring if it looks like you don’t know the rule.
Don’t Use “You”
As we said, feel free to use “I” or “we” in your college essays. This is your story, so tell it. But it would be very rare for you to have a reason to address the admissions officer directly, unless you are somehow writing a note to a specific person. The same is true with imperative construction, a.k.a. telling someone to do something. “Please accept me!” Even though the word “you” isn’t used, the sentence directs the action to the admissions officer.
In the case of the sentence above, there are a bunch of reasons why you shouldn’t say it (don’t beg to be accepted, tell them why you deserve to be selected instead). From a grammar perspective, it takes the reader out of whatever story or anecdote you’re sharing. They expect you to write about yourself, not tell them what to do. Imperative implies an authority that you just don’t have.
It’s easy to fix this problem:
- “Please look at my attached resume for more details.” (implied: You, please look at my resume.)
- “My resume is attached for more details.”
It’s just an easier way to convey information with being overly invasive.
Proofread A Ton
For each rule we could tell you about, there are a million more that might or might not help you, depending on your own unique style. The best way to strike a conversational tone is to pretend you’re saying it to someone else, write it down exactly as you said it, and then clean it up. That might be harder for visual learners who aren’t used to processing information in an auditory way, but it comes with practice.
You could even say an entire paragraph out loud and then use talk-to-text to transcribe it, then fix your content as you go. Again, this doesn’t work for everyone, but try it out. Once you’ve got a draft, read it out loud to yourself a couple of times. Make sure it flows nicely and makes sense in your voice.
Then, because you’re presumably not an expert in English and grammar yet, you need to show it to someone who does. An English or history teacher. A friend of the family. Someone else at school who excels at writing. Ideally, you’d show it to a few people. The more eyes on this essay, the more you’ll understand how others read and interpret it. When someone reads your essay in their voice, how do they say it? What do they hear? If it helps, have someone read the essay out loud back to you to make sure you haven’t structured anything in a confusing way.
CollegeVine offers a ton of essay-writing and application resources. Once you’ve got a good draft going, a specialist can do a Rapid Essay Review. Be sure to check out the College Application Guidance Program where you’ll be paired 1:1 with an Admissions Consultant who will help you navigate the complex college admissions process from creating a school list to producing stand-out college application essays.
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