Even the most talented writers make grammatical mistakes! Whether writing is a favorite pastime or a dreaded task, if you are a college applicant then you will have to compose essays. As such, we’ve compiled a list of grammar and writing style tips to keep in mind when you are creating your personal essay or supplemental essays.
Check for run-on sentences.
A run-on sentence occurs when two independent clauses (or complete sentences) are improperly joined. For example:
“Sheila wants to go to college she is working hard to attain her goal.”
You can correct a run-on sentence with a period or a semicolon:
“Sheila wants to go to college. She is working hard to attain her goal.”
“Sheila wants to go to college; she is working hard to attain her goal.”
You can also correct a run-on sentence with a comma and coordinating conjunction:
“Sheila wants to go to college, and she is working hard to attain her goal.”
On that note, avoid comma splices.
Put simply, a comma splice is essentially a run-on sentence that uses a comma as an accomplice (in its crime against grammar). Building on the example above, one might write:
“Sheila wants to go to college, she’s working hard to attain her goal.”
Or, to add a subtler example:
“Tomatoes aren’t actually a vegetable, they’re a fruit.”
Both can be fixed using the methods above.
Make sure it’s a sentence!
Sentence fragments occur when a piece of a sentence is missing (noun or verb) or if a complete idea is not expressed. Let’s use the following example:
“Writing is hard work. Which is why you have to keep practicing it.”
The second sentence is a fragment and can be easily fixed by joining it to the main clause:
“Writing is hard work, which is why you have to keep practicing it.”
Use serial commas consistently.
When listing items in a serial sequence, a comma before “and” is optional in the English language. However, omitting it can cause confusion. As a result, one may choose to include a comma after the penultimate item in a series, known as the Oxford comma, which we recommend. For example, the following sentence is grammatically correct:
“During the speech, she thanked her friends, the president and God.”
However, without the last comma, this sentence reads that the speaker’s friends are the president and God. The Oxford comma does not allow for this misperception:
“During the speech, she thanked her friends, the president, and God.”
Whichever approach you use, make sure to be consistent.
Get rid of dangling participles!
A participle is a word or phrase that looks like a verb, but acts as an adjective and modifies a noun.
A dangling participle occurs when the participle is not tied to a subject. First, let’s take a look at correct usage:
“A speeding train entered the tunnel.”
In this sentence, “speeding” is the participle and “train” is the subject. Another example:
“Speeding faster than a locomotive, the train entered the tunnel.”
Here, the phrase, “Speeding faster than a locomotive,” is a participle describing the noun, “train.”
Here’s an example of incorrect usage:
“Walking along the road, a tree blocked our way to school.”
The participle “walking along the road” is meant to describe the narrator. But instead, this dangling participle modifies the “tree” instead. To fix a dangling participle, make sure that the participle comes right before or after the noun that it is describing:
“Walking along the road, we noticed the huge tree had fallen and blocked our way to school.”
Watch for consistency of verb tenses.
Do not switch between verbs in the past, present, or future within a clause. For example:
“On Monday, the children walk to school, but rode the trolley home.”
“On Monday, the children walked to school, but rode the trolley home.”
Writing Style Tips:
Your writing should have a cohesive flow.
Each essay should have a main theme that you should build on throughout the essay. Try not to jump from idea to idea in an unrelated way, or you will lose your audience. A good exercise to do after you have written an essay draft is to see if you can summarize your main theme in one sentence.
Each paragraph should have its own idea.
There should be a main idea with supporting points in each paragraph.
Vary your word choice.
Make sure that you are not using the same word more than twice in a grouping of sentences. Varying your word choice is more interesting and allows you to choose words that convey more clearly what you want to express. Don’t be vague or choose large words out of the dictionary. Simple is better.
Vary your sentence length
There’s no firm rule governing the length of a sentence and in theory a great sentence could go on forever. However, take a pass through your writing and make sure that all your sentences are crisp, clear, and easy for your reader to digest. Going on too long often results in confusion.
Similarly, keep your reader engaged by varying the length of your sentences. Too many short sentences in a row make your writing feel choppy. It gets repetitive. It feels unsophisticated. People start to get annoyed. Do you see what I mean yet? On the other hand, too many long sentences can become soporific and difficult to follow, so for the sake of keeping you awake, I’ll spare you a demonstration and just ask you to imagine four sentences in row as long as this one. So, switch things up. And, while you’re at it, use sentence length to your advantage. Longer, flowing sentences like the one that I’m writing right now allows you to add details, probe your ideas thoroughly, and create interesting descriptions. Short ones make a point.
Always read what you have written aloud.
When you are editing, reading aloud often helps you to hear your syntax errors and grammatical mistakes in addition to seeing them. Most importantly, make sure that your writing sounds like you! It should be in your own voice.
Each college applicant has his or her own voice and ideas to convey in the personal statement and supplemental essays. Writing your truth and expressing a piece of who you are as a person and student may seem like a complicated and intimidating process. Here at Collegiate Gateway, we’re always happy to help!