Lesson Four: Word Choice
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.
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
“I developed a new compassion for the disabled.”
In a better
“Whenever I had the chance to help the disabled, I did
In an excellent
“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.
Get Too Conversational.
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.
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 music.
“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
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,
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,
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
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
Continue to Verb Tense
From ESSAYS THAT WILL GET YOU INTO COLLEGE, by Amy Burnham,
Daniel Kaufman, and Chris Dowhan.
Copyright 1998 by Dan Kaufman. Reprinted by arrangement
with Barron's Educational Series, Inc.