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How to Write College Essays 6 Grammar Rules You Should Break

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6 Grammar Rules You Should Break When You’re Writing Your College Essay

How to Write College Essays 6 Grammar Rules You Should BreakThe other day I told one of my students she could use contractions in her college application essay.

“You can do that?” she asked. “I’ve always been told not to use contractions.”

Like my student, you’ve probably been given a list of grammar rules to follow when you’re writing an English paper. But here’s the catch:

Your college essay isn’t an English paper. You’re telling a story. You’re writing in your own voice. You’ve got creative leeway.

Now to be fair, grammar rules are important. They help us clearly express what we want to say. They allow us to reach our reader in an effective way.

But it’s a big, creative world out there.

Look at me, for example. I wrote dialogue for soap operas. My characters didn’t avoid slang or contractions. If I wanted them to say, “Are you friggin’ kidding me, Alice? I’m outta here! I’m getting a divorce!”—they said that. I love how words sound and how I can combine them to make an impact. This is my style. The college essay is your style.

College Essay Writing Help 5 Grammar Rules You Should BreakSo welcome, creative traveler! You’ve landed in the territory of self-expression. This is where you get to tell your story. And to do that, I’m going to suggest you break a few rules.

6 Grammar Rules You Can Break While You’re Writing a Great College Essay:

1. Don’t  Use Contractions. Your essay should sound like you’re telling a story. It should be in a conversational tone. We all speak in contractions, so go ahead and use them. (Although, I avoid “would’ve” and “should’ve” because I think they’re too casual for college essays.)

2. Don’t  Use Sentence Fragments. Surprise! You might actually want to use a sentence fragment in your essay. A sentence fragment is short, so it’s like putting an exclamation mark on an idea. Think about using one when you want to emphasize a point. Here are three examples of sentence fragments:

I needed to find a new way to study. Because mine wasn’t working out.

The mountain was the tallest I’d ever seen. Which is why I knew I had to climb it

I finally remembered the answer. After the test had ended.

3. Don’t You Can Start Sentences With And, But and OrWant to start a sentence with a conjunction? Go ahead. In fact, you’ll be in good company. Here’s a quote from the Chicago Manual of Style, a guide that’s widely used in publishing:

“There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.”

4. Don’t End sentences with a preposition. We’ve been taught not to end sentences with prepositions, so we re-write our ideas to conform to this rule. For instance, when we want to say, “What space did you park the car in?” we change it to, “In which space did you park the car?”

This type of change often makes a sentence sound more formal. College application essays, though, should be more conversational, and that’s why ending sentences with prepositions is okay.

5. Don’t Use I. You probably know you should use “I” when you write your college essays. But it’s not always easy to write in the first person, especially if you’ve been taught not to voice your personal opinion. It can feel uncomfortable to make that transition.

How to write college application essay use I Are there places you disappear from your story?

You can disappear from your story if you write in the third person. For example, if you write, “A change in study habits was needed,” you’ve taken yourself out of the sentence. It feels like you’re a distant commentator, the outsider looking in. Put yourself back in your story. Use I. Instead, of saying, “A change in study habits was needed,” say, “I decided that I needed to change my study habits.” And don’t be haunted by the third person.

6. No one-sentence paragraphs. One-sentence paragraphs can be amazing.

Toss the notion that all your paragraphs have to be at least three to five sentences. Sure, some paragraphs will be that long. But if a one-sentence paragraph will make your point, provide a transition, or be part of your creative flow, go for it. Don’t go overboard—you’re not writing a poem—but if it works with the rest of your essay, one-sentence paragraphs can do amazing things.

So, traveler, you’ve arrived in the territory of self-expression. You’ve traveled here to tell your story. You’ll still follow some important grammar rules: you’ll use descriptive words, choose the active voice, and make sure your subject agrees with your verb. But it’s time to stretch those creative limbs. And if you’re still not sure breaking these grammar rules is the right way to go, just open up one of your favorite books, by any good author, and read a few paragraphs. Some grammar rules are meant to be broken. So go right ahead.

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sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, teaching students around the world how to master interview skills, write resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. I work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect with me on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.



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What the CIA and Romance Novels Taught Me About Writing (Part 2) Keep it Simple, Stupid

Guest blogger: Joanna Novins

Since I have over a decade of experience writing and managing analysis for senior US policymakers and another decade of experience writing novels, reviewing manuscripts, writing cover and catalogue copy for a publisher of commercial fiction, as well as blogging and tweeting, what I’ve learned about writing couldn’t possibly fit into a single blog. So I’ve decided to craft a series of posts with what I consider the most important lessons.

In my previous post, I talked about writing for policymakers, book buyers, and college admissions officers. I stressed that they’re busy people facing a lot of choices and that it’s important to hook them with the first line. But once you’ve hooked them, it’s equally important get your point across clearly and concisely.

Keep it Simple, Stupid (K.I.S.S.)

I spent a great deal of my career working with the military and while I’m useless with a gun, grenade, or a compass, I’ve adopted the military adage “Keep it Simple, Stupid (KISS)” as my mantra when it comes to writing.

In my experience working with writers the more formal education you’ve had, the more difficult it becomes to keep your writing simple. Why is it more difficult? Because schools use the length of writing assignments as a measure of student progress. Indeed, one of the requirements to advance from elementary school to middle school is the ability to write a five-paragraph essay. By the time you’ve graduated from middle school, you’ve probably mastered the five-page report and are on your way to writing ten-pagers. As a senior in high school, you’re regularly knocking out 15 and 20 page reports.

You’re probably proud of your ability to write long papers.

And you should be. Writing longer papers means you know how to develop a thesis, research it, organize facts and ideas, and marshal them into a complex argument. Not to mention the discipline of planting your butt in a chair and getting it done. You’re probably also proud of your ability to use longer and more sophisticated words. After all, the ability to use longer, more sophisticated “SAT” words demonstrates that you’re not only well-read, but also able to grasp more nuanced concepts.

Now, all of a sudden, the college admissions officers want you to write short?  

Don’t panic. Writing longer words and sentences doesn’t make you a better writer any more than reading longer books makes you a better reader.
Consider the power of the shorter sentence:

  • I shot the sheriff” is better than, “I assassinated the local constabulary with an explosive projectile launched from a metal tube.”
  • Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” has more impact than, “To be honest Scarlett, I’ve had it up to my eyeballs with your whining, your manipulative behavior, and your incessant mood swings, so I’m leaving and it’s high unlikely I’ll be returning anytime soon.”
  • And this brief exchange between Bridget and Darcy from the film Bridget Jones’ Diary speaks volumes: “Wait a minute…Nice boys don’t kiss like that.”  “Oh, yes, they fu**ing do!

So how do you write short? Lose the padding!

  • If an adjective or adverb doesn’t make your sentence stronger, delete it.
  • If a modifying clause states the obvious (“as a high school senior applying to college”) drop it
  • If there’s a word that makes your point clearer (oncologist vs. doctor, gun vs. explosive metal tube) define it.
  • If a shorter word or sentence makes your point more powerful, do it.

Read the other posts in this series:
Part 1: The Hook
Part 3: Beware Disconnected Ideas

Joanna NovinsBefore turning her hand to writing commercial fiction, multi-published author Joanna Novins spent over a decade working for the Central Intelligence Agency. She does not kill people who ask her about her previous job, though she came close once with an aging Navy SEAL who handed her a training grenade despite warnings that she throws like a pre-Title IX girl. Joanna understands the importance of telling a great story, whether it’s about manufacturing solid propellant missiles, happily-ever-after, or how to present yourself.  She has extensive experience working with writers of differing skill levels, from senior intelligence analysts and published authors to aspiring authors and high school students. Joanna holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was awarded a bachelor’s degree with honors in history from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.



College Admissions Essays: Finding Your Authentic Voice

If you walked up to your friends and said  “What’s shakin, bacon?” instead of “Hi” would they laugh? Would they wonder what alien abducted their friend, or whose voice you borrowed?

There are lots of ways to say hello: “Hi, How are you, How ‘ya doin’, Yo, Peace, Hey, What’s up…” the list is almost endless. How do you say “Hello”? Whatever way you say it, it’s your own, because you’re speaking in your own voice. And that’s important to remember when writing your college admissions essay. Write in your own voice. Your authentic voice.

How do you know if you’re writing in your authentic voice?

Here are four tips:

1. Read your essay out loud: If it reads easily , you probably have a good handle on your voice. Take note of places you stumble and work on those.

2. Is your writing style too formal? If your essay has a lot of formal language like “thus” and “however” take another look and make sure it’s necessary. If not, choose less formal words. If some of your sentences feel stiff when you read them out loud, try changing the sentence structure around and then read it again.

3. Is your writing style too casual? It is possible to be too casual. Remember, you’re writing your college admissions essay for an adult to read. This isn’t a text message to your bff.

4. If you’re having trouble finding your authentic voice: Try writing a mock letter to a friend who doesn’t know you very well. It can be about anything: school, your friends, what you do for fun, what the dog did yesterday.  Be the narrator and explain what that part of your life is like. As you write, you’ll find you start using more of your authentic voice.

Your college admissions essay needs to reflect you, and who you are. One important way to do that is to write in your own voice.

I’m outta here.