how to write college essays

Common College Essay Mistakes: Word Choice

Over the last couple of weeks, essay review season has really started to pick up at College Coach. We’re diving into drafts each day, providing both the big picture ideas and the small-scale tips to help students find success with their college application essays. Our past blog entries have focused more on the big picture: how to approach the “failure” prompt from the Common App; ways you can effectively use the Additional Information section; brainstorming through writer’s block. Today I want to focus on the smallest of issues with college essays: the words you choose to use.

Write Like You Talk

Most students who come into my office have normal vocabularies. There’s a big word dropped here or there in reference to an idea they’ve discovered in school—maybe it’s existentialism or photosynthesis or even spectrophotometer—but multi-syllabic mouthfuls are rare when I’m just chatting with a student about what he cares about and why, and that’s the way it ought to be. Imagine my surprise when I receive that student’s essay in my inbox and find that he suddenly has developed a vocabulary on steroids. Big words are stuffed into tiny sentences, adverbs are unnecessarily tacked on to adjectives, and the whole ordeal becomes monumentally, staggeringly, unreadable (see?). After you write your first draft, go back and read it out loud. Did you stumble over certain parts of your essay? Did the inclusion of a particular word feel unnatural to you? If you can’t speak it, you shouldn’t write it. The first part of keeping your voice is writing like you talk.

Drop the $5 Words

You’re going to have to fight the urge to “impress” your admission reader with the big words you’ve learned from your SAT practice. We’ve seen ‘em all, and we know both how they are commonly used and how they are commonly misused. Just last week, I was reviewing an essay for a student and found myself writing the following comment in the margins:

“Never use this word in any of your essays. It’s one of those words that nobody uses in conversation—ever—and yet it always seems to find its way into college essays.”

I sent the comment to my colleagues and asked them to guess the word my student had used. There were votes for plethora (4), myriad (4), amongst, whilst, moreover, nevertheless, and heretofore.  When was the last time you heard anyone use these words in conversation? When was the last time you saw them printed outside of an issue of the New Yorker? Unless you’re a college admission officer, the answer is probably never. Keep the big words to yourself, and stick with what you know. You’re more likely to make an impact using “obnoxious” than “obstreperous,” and nobody really knows what an abecedarian is, anyway.

Be Aware of Your Tone

With only 650 words to tell a college admission officer all about yourself, what you say directly is only slightly more important than what you say indirectly. Be careful using words that seem harmless but connote an immature or combative perspective. Instead of getting in a fight with your classmate, get in a debate. Your teammate’s idea wasn’t stupid so much as it was undeveloped. Rarely is it a good idea to say you hate anything (except Brussels sprouts—and even then, be wary of the vegetable connoisseur). In casual conversation, we can say all kinds of things that we can support with the context of the discussion. But in your self-contained 650 word essay, your context is entirely about your words, and you’re writing for someone who doesn’t know you. Before you press send on that essay, have someone take a look at it—especially someone who doesn’t know you very well—and ask what they’ve learned about you. If certain words or phrases send the wrong message, you’ll want to change them before they get into the hands of an admission officer.

When it comes to essay writing, your words are all you have. As with everything else in your application, make sure they represent you. That is, after all, what colleges are really looking for.

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Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College. Visit our website to learn more about Ian Fisher.