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By our guest writers EssayEdge. The Harvard educated admissions essay editors.

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Lesson Four: Verb Tense

As you write your essay, remember to focus on verbs and keep adjectives to a minimum. Pumping your sentences full of adjectives and adverbs is not the same thing as adding detail or color. Adjectives and adverbs add lazy description, but verbs add action.

Passive Tense

Our editors find that one of the greatest weaknesses of admissions essays is their frequent use of the passive tense. For this mini-lesson you will learn why the passive voice should be avoided, how to identify it, and how to replace it with the preferred active voice.

Overuse of the passive voice throughout an essay can make your prose seem flat and uninteresting. Sentences in active voice are also more concise than those in passive voice. You can recognize passive-voice expressions because the verb phrase will always include a form of to be, such as am, is, was, were, are, or been. The presence of a be-verb, however, does not necessarily mean that the sentence is in passive voice. In sentences written in passive voice, the subject receives the action expressed in the verb; the subject is acted upon. In sentences written in active voice, the subject performs the action expressed in the verb; the subject acts.

Examples:  (Passive) I was selected to be the tuba player by the band leader. (Active) The bandleader selected me to be the tuba player.

(Passive) I will be prepared for college as a result of the lessons my mother taught me. (Active) My mother taught me lessons that will prepare me for college

(Passive) I am reminded of her voice every time I hear that song. (Active) That song reminds me of her voice.

Exercise #4: Strong Verbs Vs. Weak Verbs

Fill in the blanks using the most descriptive or active verb phrase.

1. After working closely with my mentor, I __________ advanced techniques in oil painting.

a) was beginning to master

b) began to master

c) mastered

2. My newspaper article on the labor strikes __________ both praise and criticism.

a) generated

b) got

c) was the recipient of

3. Once I joined the debate team, I __________ the opportunity to compete every weekend.

a) sought

b) had

c) was exposed to

4. Samuel’s touchdown __________ the stadium crowd.

a) created much energy in

b) energized

c) really energized

5. Woolf’s essay __________ my opinion of gender inequality.

a) challenged

b) made me take another look at

c) was challenging to

6. As Jessica drew near me, I __________ the baton and took off running.

a) grasped

b) got

c) was given

7. Once my mother had fallen asleep, I __________ the dolls on her nightstand.

a) put

b) arranged

c) set up

8. Chris and I __________ an educational project for first-graders in our community.

a) began

b) started

c) initiated

9. “Why didn’t you ask me before throwing it away?” Jason __________.

a) hollered

b) said angrily

c) started to yell

10. Mr. Franklin __________ that he was our true father.

a) let us know

b) told us

c) revealed

Answers:

1) c; 2) a; 3) a; 4) b; 5) a; 6) a; 7) b; 8) c; 9) a; 10) c;

Changing Passive Voice to Active Voice

If you want to change a passive-voice sentence to active voice, find the agent in the phrase, the person or thing that is performing the action expressed in the verb. Make that agent the subject of the sentence, and change the verb accordingly. For many instances of the passive voice in your essay, you can follow these steps:

1. Do a global search for the words “was” and then “were.” These words often indicate the passive voice.

2. Cross out the “was” or the “were.”

3. Add -ed to the verb that follows “was” or “were.”

4. If that changed verb does not make grammatical sense, it is an irregular verb, so change it to the simple past tense.

5. Rewrite the sentence around the new active-voice verb.

Exercise #5: Making Sentences More Active

Change these sentences from passive voice to active voice, or note if no change should be made.

1. I was taught by my brother the principles of barbecuing.

__________________________________________________________

2. My father was given the title by the former head chief.

__________________________________________________________

3. The house was wrecked by the party and the cat was let loose by the guests.

__________________________________________________________

4. The house is a mess, the cat is lost, and the car has been stolen by Justin.

__________________________________________________________

5. Unfortunately, my plan was ruined by Gerald, the building superintendent.

__________________________________________________________

6. The roof was leaking. It had been leaking all week.

__________________________________________________________

7. The ball was thrown by Lucy, who had been hiding in the bushes.

__________________________________________________________

8. Francesca was placed on the first flight to Boston. Her father put her there.

__________________________________________________________

9. “To be or not to be?” That is the question.

__________________________________________________________

10. A feast had been created from nothing. I was astounded.

__________________________________________________________

Answers:

1. My brother taught me the principles of barbecuing.

2. The former head chief gave the title to my father.

3. The party wrecked the house and the guests let the cat loose.

4. The house is a mess, the cat is lost, and Justin has stolen the car.

5. Unfortunately, Gerald, the building superintendent, ruined my plan.

6. No change.

7. Lucy, who had been hiding in the bushes, threw the ball.

8. Francesca’s father placed her on the first flight to Boston.

9. No change.

10. A feast had been created from nothing. This astounded me.

Exercise #6: Passive-Free Writing

Write a 100-word essay on anything at all (preferably relating to your essay topic) without using any form of the verb “to be.”

Continue to Transitions

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.

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