You don’t have to be a literary genius to write a successful college admissions essay. You do, however, have to master the basics of grammar. While a missing comma or run-on sentence won’t earn you an immediate rejection, the fact is that admissions officers pay a lot of attention to grammatical and stylistic convention. Making mistakes, misusing idioms, or just plain clunky writing will appear sloppy and tarnish admissions officers’ impressions of you. On the flip side, making sure to adhere to some simple rules of writing and rhetoric is an easy way to polish up your application and impress your readers – and prepare for college-level writing!

Below, Collegiate Gateway has developed a list of some of the most common missteps, and explained how to fix them:

Fewer vs. Less

Don’t be embarrassed if you didn’t realize there was a difference – this is one of the most common mistakes out there, and one you probably hear people make all the time. For example, the sentence, “There were less people at the party than we were expecting” is actually incorrect. The rule is this:

If you are describing a countable entity, such as pebbles, people, or poems, use “fewer.”

Ted has written fewer poems since he got a real job.

If you are describing a non-countable entity, such as sand, soil, or sunlight, use “less.”

There is less sunlight in the living room than in the kitchen.

Note: When determining whether something is countable, ask yourself if the thing in question could be considered a unit. For example, the English language considers dollars (a unit of currency) to be countable, but money (the broader concept of wealth) to be uncountable. So you have fewer dollars in your bank account, but less money.


Vary Your Word Choice

This is more of a stylistic issue, rather than a grammatical mistake. Nonetheless, repeatedly using the same word or phrase to refer to something is rarely a characteristic of good writing, especially when you use the same word multiple times in one sentence. This is particularly true when it comes to names:

Colgate is my first choice. I first visited Colgate last fall, and fell in love with Colgate because of Colgate’s rigorous academics and outgoing student body. 

To fix this, just come up with other words that could refer to Colgate, such as “campus” or “university,” and substitute. You can also use “it” (but not too much), or simply write around the need for any word whatsoever:

 Colgate is my first choice. I first visited campus last fall, and fell in love with its rigorous academics and outgoing student body.


Dangling Participles

First things first: a participle is a form of a verb that is used to indicate a past or present action, and that can also behave kind of like an adjective. For example:

 Lying on the beach, I fell asleep staring at the clouds.

In the above, “lying on the beach” is a participle that modifies “I;” the speaker is the one lying on the beach, falling asleep, and staring at the clouds. A dangling participle occurs when the participle latches onto the wrong subject, creating a confusing, sometimes nonsensical meaning:

 After festering in the basement for months, my sister finally threw the potatoes in the trash. 

The intent of this sentence is obviously to describe the potatoes as festering in the basement. Grammatically, however, it is the sister, now presumably among the ranks of the undead, who has been festering in the basement for months.


Punctuation Within Quotations

This one is actually deceptively difficult, as the rule changes depending on the punctuation.

a) Commas and periods (that is to say, full stops) are pretty straightforward: they always go inside the quotation marks.

 “Alice,” she said, “dinner’s on the table.”

 My favorite line in all of Hamlet is: “to be or not to be.”

b) The rules for question and exclamation marks, however, are a little trickier, but ultimately logical: if they are part of the quoted material, they belong inside the quotes. Otherwise, they go outside. For example:

“Where shall I sit?” she asked.

But –

I can’t believe she said “your scarf is so ugly”!

c) Now, to add to the complexity, colons and semicolons are always placed outside the quotation marks. An easy way to remember this rule is that it’s the opposite of commas and periods:

I liked three things about his new book, “My Father’s Dusty Cardigan”: the style, the characters, and the plot.

The Split Infinitive

The infinitive form of an English verb has the word “to” in front of it: “to eat,” “to sleep,” “to dream,” “to wake,” and so on. When you split the infinitive, you stick a word in between “to” and the verb. Generally, it’s best not to do this. For example, what if Shakespeare had written, “to be or to not be”? Not as nice, right? The same applies to more common examples.

I decided to not run for office.


I decided not to run for office

I wanted to quickly run during the race.


I wanted to run quickly during the race.


It is worth noting that this is not a hard-and-fast rule, and there are a few notable exceptions;  “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” for example, sounds much better than “to go boldly.” The same would be true of “I decided to politely decline her offer,” versus “I decided to decline politely her offer.”  When you find yourself in a grey area, let your ear decide.

The Runaway Sentence

Though they might not technically be run-on sentences (see below, under “Comma Splice”), we’ve all written a sentence or two that just sort of, well, runs away from us.

Burdened by too many commas, semicolons, ands, buts, and all manner of other unnecessary clause-creators (which, that, and who) these colossal clunkers are just plain difficult for your reader to get through. The best way to tell if a sentence is too long is to try reading it aloud – if you have to pause to take a breath, your sentence is probably too long. Another good rule of thumb: keep your sentences to around 30 words (or exactly the length of this paragraph’s first sentence).


The Comma

The comma may seem simple, but there are innumerable ways to mess up its usage. Truly, we could’ve written an entire blog three times the length of this one on comma misuse alone. But in the end, nobody wants to read that. Here are some of the more common mistakes.

Missing Comma

You must use a comma after parenthetical phrases or appositives – material that’s self-enclosed in a sentence, but not wholly essential to its meaning. The following sentences are all missing a comma. See if you can figure out where:

My father, who was a very thrifty man never spent more than five dollars on a pair of pants. 

Virginia Woolf, author of “To the Lighthouse” and many other novels is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.

Commas belong after “man,” and “novels.” A good way to check for these is to read the sentence out loud; often, commas belong where you naturally pause.

The Comma Splice

Though it sounds oddly menacing, “comma splice” simply means linking two independent clauses with a comma. It’s also known as a run-on sentence. And it’s incorrect. Here’s an example:

We’re going to the beach, put on some sunscreen.

This could be resolved correctly in a number of ways. Usually, replacing the comma with a period, dash or semi-colon, is a pretty good bet:

We’re going to the beach. Put on some sunscreen.

We’re going to the beach – put on some sunscreen.

We’re going to the beach; put on some sunscreen.

How do you decide which to use? Read aloud, then make a decision that best suits the context, tone and style of your piece.

Note: This mistake tends to crop up around the word “however,” as people have a tendency to treat the word as equivalent to “but.” But that’s also incorrect.

 I’m good at basketball, however I’m not good enough to play in college.

This could be fixed in two ways:

 I’m good at basketball, but I’m not good enough to play in college. 

I’m good at basketball. However, I’m not good enough to play in college.

While we’re on the topic of independent clauses, it is also worth noting that you must put a comma before “and” or “but” when introducing an independent clause. For example:

I wanted to write the novel, but I ran out of time.


There are, of course, exceptions to these rules; “I came, I saw, I conquered,” for example, is an excusable comma splice. Not to mention that everything that William Faulkner ever wrote contains run-on sentences. In general, the best thing you can do as you write and revise your admissions essays (or really, anything you write) is to read your work aloud. Generally, if something sounds right, it is.

For further help with these or any other challenges (grammatical or otherwise), contact us at