College Essay Style Tips

What You Say Is Important. How You Say It also Matters.

Hispanic boy studying on sofa
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You may have an amazing story to tell for your college application essay, but your writing is going to fall flat if it doesn't use an engaging and effective style. For your essay to truly shine, you need to pay attention to not just what you say, but also how you say it. These style tips can help you turn a bland and wordy admissions essay into an engaging narrative that improves your chances of being admitted.

01
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Avoid Wordiness and Repetition

Wordiness and Repetition in College Admissions Essays
Wordiness and Repetition in College Admissions Essays. Image by Allen Grove

Wordiness is by far the most common stylistic error in college admissions essays. 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.

Example of Cutting Wordiness

Consider this brief example:


I have to admit that theater did not come naturally to me, and I remember that I felt remarkably self-conscious and nervous the first few times I set foot on the stage. The first time I was on stage was in the eighth grade when my best friend talked me into auditioning for our school's performance of the play Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.

In this passage, four phrases can be pared back or cut entirely. The near repetition of the phrase "the first times I set foot on the stage" saps the passage of energy and forward momentum. The essay spins in place rather than taking the reader on a journey.

Revised Version

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.

Not only is the revised passage much more effective, but the author has cut 25 words. This may prove important as the writer tries to tell a meaningful story within the application essay length limits.

02
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Avoid Vague and Imprecise Language

Vague and Imprecise Language in College Application Essays
Vague and Imprecise Language in College Application Essays. Image by Allen Grove

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 specific group of people? When you mention "things" or "aspects," be precise—what exact things or aspects?

Example of Imprecise Language

Although short, the follow passage is far from precise:


I like lots of things about basketball. For one, the activity allows me to develop abilities that will help me in future endeavors.

The passage 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.

Revised Version

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."

In this case, the revision actually adds words to the essay, but the additional length is needed to clarify the point the applicant is trying to convey.

03
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Avoid Clichés

Clichés in College Admissions Essays
Clichés in College Admissions Essays. Image by Allen Grove

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.

Example of Clichés

Think about how many phrases in the passage below you've heard hundreds of times before:


My brother is one in a million. If given a responsibility, he never falls asleep at the wheel. Who others fail, he is not one to make a mountain out of a molehill. To make a long story short, throughout high school I have tried to emulate my brother, and I credit him with many of my own successes.

The author is writing about her brother, a person who has had a major influence on her life. However, her praise is expressed 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.

Revised Version

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.

This new description of the applicant's brother truly does make him sound like someone who is worth emulating.

04
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Avoid Overuse of "I" in First-Person Narratives

Overuse of "I" in First-Person Narratives
Overuse of "I" in First-Person Narratives. Image by Allen Grove

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.

Example of Overuse of First Person

Consider the following passage from an application essay:


I have always loved soccer. I'm not exaggerating—my parents tell me I was pushing around a soccer ball before I could walk. I began playing in the community league before I was 4, and when I was 10 I began playing in regional tournaments.

In this example, 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.

Revised Version

The example can be rewritten so that instead of seven uses of "I" there is only 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 4, and participation in regional tournaments by 10.

Many applicants aren't fully comfortable writing about themselves and highlighting their accomplishments, and they've also been trained by high school teachers not to use "I" at all when writing an essay. A college admissions essay, however, absolutely needs to use the word "I." In general, don't worry too much about frequent use of "I" unless it becomes excessive. When you use the word multiple times in a single sentence, it's time to rework the sentence.

05
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Avoid Excessive Digression

Excessive Digression in Application Essays
Excessive Digression in Application Essays. Image by Allen Grove

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.

Example of Excessive Digression

Consider the middle sentence in this short passage:


Although it wasn't academically challenging, I learned a lot from my job at Burger King. In fact, the job had rewards similar to several other jobs I have had during high school. The Burger King job, however, was unique in that I had some difficult personalities to negotiate.

The writer's mention of "other jobs" does not enhance his point about Burger King. If the essay isn't going to talk more about those other jobs, there's no reason to bring them up.

Revised Version

If the author deletes that middle sentence, the passage is much stronger. 


​Although it wasn't academically challenging, my job at Burger King forced me to negotiate some difficult personalities."

Note that this revision does more than cut out the digression. It also cuts and combines the first and third sentences to remove wordiness.

06
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Avoid Overuse of Flowery Language

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 (sometimes called purple prose). Too many adjectives and adverbs can ruin the reading experience.

Strong verbs, not adjectives and adverbs, 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.

Example of Flowery Language

Keep track of all of the adverbs in this short passage:


The game was spectacularly wonderful. I didn't score the defining goal, but I did manage dexterously to pass the ball to my amazingly talented teammate who adroitly kicked it between the goalie's desperately reaching fingers and the rigid frame of the right-hand corner of the goal.

The majority of adjectives and adverbs (especially adverbs) can be cut if the verbs (the action words) of the passage are chosen well.

Revised Version

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 kicked the ball into the narrow space between the goalie's hands and the upper corner of the goal post. In the end, the victory was really about a team, not an individual.

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

07
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Avoid Weak Verbs in Admissions Essays

Weak Verbs in Admissions Essays
Weak Verbs in Admissions Essays. Image by Allen Grove

For better writing, focus on using strong 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.

Example of Weak Verbs

The passage below is perfectly clear, but keep track of how many times the author uses the verb "is":


My brother is my hero. He is the person I owe the most to for my success in high school. He isn't aware of his influence on me, but he is nonetheless responsible for much of what I have accomplished.

Every sentence in this short passage uses the verb "to be." The writing has no grammatical errors, but it flops on the stylistic front.

Revised Version

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."

08
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Avoid Too Much Passive Voice

Too Much Passive Voice in College Application Essays
Too Much Passive Voice in College Application Essays. Image by Allen Grove

It can be difficult to learn to recognize passive voice in your essays. 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. (You are left wondering who left the window open.)
  • Active: Joe left the window open. (Now you 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.)

Example of Passive Voice

In this passage describing a dramatic moment in a game, the use of passive voice robs the passage of its dramatic effect:


As the goal was approached by the opposing team, the ball suddenly was kicked towards the upper right corner. If it wasn't blocked by me, the regional championship would be lost.

The passage is wordy, awkward, and flat.

Revised Version

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 than the original.

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.

09
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Avoid Too Many Expletive Constructions

Too Many Expletive Constructions
Too Many Expletive Constructions. Image by Allen Grove

Expletive constructions involve a couple of stylistic errors—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.

Example of Too Many Expletive Constructions

The following passage has no grammatical errors, but the expletive constructions weaken the prose:


It was a simple rule my parents made that got me interested in the trumpet: no television or computer time until I had practiced for half an hour. There were many days when this rule angered me, but when I look back it seems my parents knew best. Today I'll always pick up my trumpet before the television remote.

Revised Version

The author 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.

The revision cuts just six words from the original, but those small changes create a much more engaging passage.

A Final Word on Essay Style

Keep in mind why a college is asking for an essay: the school has holistic admissions and wants to get to know you as a whole person. Grades and standardized test scores will be part of the admissions equation, but the college wants to know what it is that makes you uniquely you. The essay is the best tool you have for bringing your personality and passions to life. An engaging style is essential for this task, and it truly can make the difference between an acceptance letter and a rejection.