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The college application essays can be challenging to write. After brainstorming some great ideas, you might ask yourself: how can I express everything I’ve experienced in only 650 words? It can be even more difficult to write the supplementary essays, which might ask you to demonstrate your interest in the relevant university in as little as 150 words.

The most successful college essays have a clear, clean and concise prose that effectively communicates your key points within the word limit. 

This article will teach you how to eliminate ineffective and clunky phrases that obscure your main ideas and make your writing unnecessarily wordy.

1. Outline your content

Before writing essays, it is helpful to outline your main points in 2-3 bullet points. It is not a wise idea to have a lot of key points, since that will only confuse your reader and complicate your writing. The college admissions committees typically read hundreds of applications per day, with only a couple of minutes spent on each application. While they are not likely to remember every detail of your application, your main narrative should leave them with a clear and strong impression.

A clear outline at the beginning prevents unnecessary tangents in your writing. As you edit the essays, check each paragraph against the essay outline: does this sentence contribute to one of the bullet points? If not, you can remove it.

2. Minimise the jargon

A common mistake is cluttering the essays with overly technical, fancy or verbose language.

To provide an example, let’s reword the initial sentence to: “A recurrent faux pas across student essays is to wield overly loquacious, embellished or orotund language in order to appear perspicacious.”

Both sentences convey the same meaning. However, which sentence is easier to read? I am assuming the first one.

Your college application essay should be heartfelt, which is difficult to achieve if it reads like a dictionary page. That doesn’t mean you should completely avoid using “difficult” vocabulary – especially if that’s your writing style! However, you should use all words intentionally.

In order to understand intentional writing, let us consider the synonyms “loquacious” and “talkative.” Merriam-Webster defines both words as “full of excessive talk.”

In the following sentence, what word would be more appropriate?

Never one to talk too much, Thomas was surprisingly talkative/loquacious that evening. 

Since the first part of the sentence mentions “talk[ing] too much,” using “talkative” in the second part would actually make the sentence repetitive. In other words, this is an example where the fancier word “loquacious” is a better fit!

3. Keep your sentences simple and direct

Successful sentences should be straightforward and succinct. Long sentences that contain several ideas may fail to deliver your key points. Your reader may get lost if you go off on too many tangents. To simplify your sentences, avoid excessive punctuation and cut long sentences in half. Let’s consider an example.

When Thomas decided to apply for college, he realised that writing the college essays is difficult, so he asked his friends for help, but they were also struggling, and he didn’t know who else to ask for help. 

This sentence contains several ideas. We know that (1) Thomas is applying for college, (2) he struggles with his essays, (3) he asked his friends for help, (4) Thomas’ friends are also struggling with their essays, and (5) Thomas didn’t know who to ask for help beyond his friends. The sentence is packed with ideas and punctuation. Let’s try splitting it up into shorter sentences and cutting down the commas.

When Thomas decided to apply for college, he realised that writing college essays is difficult. He asked his friends for help, but they were also struggling. He didn’t know who else to ask for help. 

Shorter sentences allow the reader to take a breather between each idea. In turn, this makes absorbing the content easier.

4. Avoid "fluffy" content

Fluffy content is any content that is overly general and/or redundant. Let’s consider the following example:

(1) I have always wanted to help people because I believe that doing the right thing is key for being a good person. (2) A lot of people probably don’t think about helping others, since they are too preoccupied with their own problems. (3) In our modern society, a lot of people get left behind because people are not willing to be selfless. (4) Spurred by this understanding, I decided to tutor students from low-income backgrounds. (5) These students came from very poor families. 

Firstly, this paragraph contains a lot of redundant and repetitive information. Sentences (2) and (3) convey the same information: people/society do not help others, as they are too focused on their own/self-centred problems. The solution here would be to either merge both sentences, or to completely remove one. Meanwhile, sentence (5) unnecessarily qualifies information already provided in sentence (4) — it is self-evident that students from low-income backgrounds come from poor families.

Additionally, this paragraph contains content that is overly general. In sentence (1) the writer states that they want to help people, but they never qualify how they want to help people or where this desire originates. Especially when it comes to college application essays, the majority of students will write in their essays about how they want to “help.” That statement does not demonstrate a unique or personal story. Instead of general overarching statements, consider personal experiences and specific anecdotes that will relay the equivalent sentiment.

5. Use the active voice

The majority of your writing should use the active voice. Passive voice sentences can be vague and tend to use more words, which will eat into your word limit.

In a sentence using the active voice, the subject performs the action. In a sentence using the passive voice, the subject receives the action. Let’s consider the following example:

Active: As part of the Student Council initiative, my team conducted a mental health awareness campaign. 

Passive: As part of the Student Council initiative, the mental health awareness campaign was conducted by my team. 

The first sentence is clear and straightforward. The reader immediately knows that the subject, the team, performed an action: conducting a mental health campaign. The second sentence is more roundabout and detached, shifting the focus away from the subject. As the college application essays are about you — the subject of your actions — you should use the active voice wherever possible.


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Author Tamara

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