By Beth Anne Spacht
September 4, 2013
Correct punctuation can save a person’s life. It can also save a student’s college essay. It took me four years as an English major to fully appreciate the nuances of proper grammar and punctuation. It only took one year (and 1,000 essays) as an admission officer to trust that some important idioms bear repeating. Don’t rely on spell check; proofread your work; think before you speak (or write).
Grammar is one of the fastest ways to make or break an otherwise strong piece of writing. So are inappropriate subjects, poorly constructed arguments, and impersonal responses that scream, “I gave up.” Now, I’m not implying that Admission Officers demand 100% perfection. We know that most of our applicants are only 17 years old! We don’t expect you to write about unusual life-altering experiences, but we do expect – or at least hope – that you will execute your essay in an effective manner that tells us something about you. Grammar and sentence structure are nothing without a unique style and voice.
So, how do you go about putting your best foot forward when it comes to telling your story?
Leave time to mull over the essay prompt in your mind.
Brainstorming is not overrated. There is a fine line between procrastination and thoughtful consideration, but if you choose not to devote any thought to your essay prompt, it will show. My suggestion is to find a comfortable space, open a blank page, and just start writing. Sometimes immersion therapy is the best way to overcome writer’s block.
Ask yourself, “What do I want this college to know about me?”
Take it from someone who has read everything from an accidentally uploaded Match.com letter, to a story about Uncle Johnny’s struggles with ED (no, not Early Decision…if only!). We want to know about YOU and your academic aspirations. Not Uncle Johnny. Not your love life. Once again, there is a fine line between personal and inappropriate. Try to strike a balance that allows us to get to know you, without making us feel like we’re a fly on your bedroom’s wall.
Show rather than tell.
I cringe at this line as much as the next person, but it does contain truth. Subtly reveal traits by writing about events or experiences in a well-crafted essay. Do not list traits in a string of sentences that only looks like an essay. Show how the subject of your essay:
INSPIRED YOU TO ACT
REVEALS SOMETHING ABOUT YOU
Remember, where you have been is important, but where you are going is even more significant. An admission officer expects to finish reading the essay having a good sense of who you are and what you will contribute. Drive your point home by crafting an effective conclusion.
Ask someone else to read your work.
Find a trustworthy friend, teacher, parent, neighbor, etc., and let them read your work! Sometimes we read a sentence over and over until we’re convinced that it sounds right. This can be a dangerous pitfall. Sharing your work with others is a wonderful way to proofread. It gives you a break from writing and delivers an outside perspective. Does you peer editor need clarification when reading your essay? Does your subject matter make them blush or feel uncomfortable? Have you effectively made your point? As you collect feedback, maintain a sense of integrity. Be sure your work remains your own.
Proofread, proofread, and proofread!
Once composed, set the essay aside for a day. Later, print it out (trust me on this one) and read it aloud.
• Have you tightened the language?
• Does it have a central focus?
• Does it flow well with smooth transitions?
• Look for grammar gaffes. Are there any glaring mistakes?
• Does it use passive voice? (Hint: It shouldn’t!)
Review, review, and review again. Show the admission office that you can write well, but don’t try to sound like someone you aren’t. If it sounds forced, chances are you probably didn’t enjoy writing your essay and we probably won’t enjoy reading it, either! Genuine voice trumps stylistic flare any day.
So, always remember:
Be mindful of the word count.
Don’t rely too heavily on a thesaurus.
Proofread your work. We really can’t stress this enough.
Happy writing and best of luck!
Senior Assistant Director of Admission
A Richmond alumnus (Class of 2007), Tom has been working and blogging for the Office of Admission since he graduated. He loves his alma mater and the city that shares its name.
Beth Anne Spacht
Beth Anne was a double major at Richmond (English and Latin American & Iberian Studies) and now enjoys helping prospective students discover the best of her alma mater.
The University of Richmond is a highly ranked liberal arts university offering an extraordinary combination of the liberal arts with law, business, leadership studies, and continuing education. The university is consistently named a best value in higher education by leading publications.