Don't "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.
Show, 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 the difference:
In a mediocre essay: "I developed a new compassion for the disabled."
In a better essay: "Whenever I had the chance to help the disabled, I did so happily."
In an excellent essay: "The next time Mrs. Cooper asked me to help her across the street, I smiled and immediately took her arm."
The 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.
Don't 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:
You 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.
In an 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.
Don't 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 also 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:
Before: "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 music.
After: "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.
Don't 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."
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