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

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Lesson Four: Word Choice

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 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.”

Continue to Verb Tense

EssayEdge Extra: Trimming the Fat

The following 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, “to be.”

I believe 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, in summary.

Also 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 unique experience.

Hard 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 and caring.

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.

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