Four: Style andTone
Thesaurusize.The second trap into which many students
fall is thinking that big words make good essays. Advanced
vocabulary is fine if it comes naturally to you, and when
used correctly in an appropriate context. After reading
thousands of essays, admissions officers know which students
have come up with difficult words by themselves and which
have looked them up in a thesaurus.
don’t tell. Too often, an essay with an interesting
story will fizzle into a series of statements that "tell"
rather than "show" the qualities of the writer. Students
wrongfully assume that the reader will not "get it" if they
do not beat to death their main arguments. Thus, the essay
succumbs to the usual clichés: "the value of hard work and
perseverance" or "learning to make a difference" or "not
taking loved ones for granted" or "dreams coming true" or
"learning from mistakes." Such statements are acceptable
if used minimally, as in topic sentences, but the best essays
do not use them at all. Instead, allow the details of your
story to make the statement for you. An example helps elucidate
a mediocre essay:
"I developed a new compassion for the disabled."
a better essay: "Whenever I had the chance to help
the disabled, I did so happily."
an excellent essay: "The next time Mrs. Cooper asked
me to help her across the street, I smiled and immediately
took her arm."
first example provides no detail, the second example is
still only hypothetical, but the final example evokes a
vivid image of something that actually happened, thus placing
the reader in the experience of the applicant.
Get Too Conversational. Slang terms, clichés, contractions,
and an excessively casual tone should be eliminated from
all but the most informal essays. The following excerpt
gives examples of all four offenses:
are probably wondering, what are the political issues
that make this kid really mad? Well, I get steamed when
I hear about my friends throwing away their right to
vote. Voting is part of what makes this country great.
Some kids believe that their vote doesn’t count. Well,
I think they’re wrong.
essay like this one, in which you must show that you take
things seriously, your language should also take itself
seriously. Only non-traditional essays, such as ones in
the form of narrative or dialogue, should rely on conversational
elements. Write informally only when you are consciously
trying to achieve an effect that conveys your meaning.
repeatedly start sentences with "I." It is typical for
the first draft of an essay to have many of the following
type of sentence: I + verb + object, for example, "I play
soccer." If this kind of simple structure is used too many
times in an essay, it will have two effects: your language
will sound stunted and unsophisticated; you will appear
extremely conceited -- imagine a conversation with someone
who always talks about herself. The trick is to change around
the words without changing the meaning. Here is an example:
"I started playing piano when I was eight years old.
I worked hard to learn difficult pieces. I learned about
the effort needed to improve myself. I began to love
"I started playing piano at the age of eight. From the
beginning, I worked hard to learn difficult pieces,
and this struggle taught me the effort needed for self-improvement.
My work with the piano nourished my love for music.
repeat the same subject nouns. When writing an essay
about soccer (or leadership), do not repeatedly use the
word "soccer" (or "leadership"). The repetition of nouns
has much the same stunting effect as the repetition of "I"
(see above). Look for alternative phrases for your subject
nouns. For soccer, you might use vague synonyms ("the sport,"
"the game") or specific terms ("going to practice," "completing
a pass"). In the case of leadership, you could use phrases
such as "setting an example," or "coordinating a group effort."
to Verb Tense
Extra: Trimming the Fat
following words and phrases can usually be deleted
from your essay without any loss of meaning. Just
as an athlete needs to work off the fat in order
to perform well, your writing needs to stay lean
in order to pack more meaning into every sentence.
Extra words rob your prose of energy by making
your language convoluted and just plain fluffy
(also known in some circles as "bull" or a stronger
variant). The following phrases are especially
fattening because they invite passive constructions,
those that employ the verb, "to be."
believe that, I feel that, I hope that, I think
that, I realized that, I learned that, in other
words, in order to, in fact, it is essential
that, it is important to see that, the reason
why, the thing that is most important is, this
is important because, this means that, the point
is that, really, very, somewhat, absolutely,
definitely, surely, truly, probably, practically,
hopefully, in conclusion, in summary.
look for subtle redundancies of the "X and Y"
variety. Only a few examples of the many are provided
below. In each pair, the two words mean nearly
the same thing -- so why write both? Such redundancies
show the reader that you are not thinking about
what you are saying. And, the more clichéd phrases
make your essay sound like all of the others.
Instead of resorting to these sinister twins,
think of more precise language, words that really
pin down your unique experience.
work and effort, teamwork and cooperation, dreams
and aspirations, personal growth and development,
determination and diligence, challenges and
difficulties, objectives and goals, worries
and concerns, love and caring.
to Verb Tense