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The passive voice is not a grammatical error, and there are even times when you will want to use it.

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If you are trying to emphasize the object of a sentence, you may want to put it in the subject position in a sentence. For example, let's say a beautiful year-old tree in your front yard was destroyed by lightning. If you write about the event, you probably want to emphasize the tree, not the lightning: "The old tree was destroyed by lightning last week. The lightning may be performing the action striking , but the tree is the sentence's focus.

Expletive constructions involve a couple of stylistic errors—they are wordy and employ weak verbs. Many but not all sentences that begin with "it is," "it was," "there is" or "there are" have expletive constructions. In general, an expletive construction begins with the empty word "there" or "it" sometimes called a filler subject. In an expletive construction, the word "there" or "it" is not functioning as a pronoun. That is, it has no antecedent.

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How to Write an Outstanding College Application Essay

The empty subject is then followed by the uninspiring verb "to be" is, was, etc. Phrases such as "it seems" produce a similarly uninspiring function in a sentence.


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The resulting sentence will be more wordy and less engaging than it would be if written with a meaningful subject and verb. Consider, for example, these sentences with expletive constructions:. All three sentences are unnecessarily wordy and flat. By removing the expletive constructions, the sentences become far more concise and engaging:.

Note that not all uses of "it is," "it was," "there is," or "there are" are expletive constructions. If the word "it" or "there" is a true pronoun with an antecedent, no expletive construction exists.


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  • For example:. In this case, the word "it" in the second sentence refers to "music. The following passage has no grammatical errors, but the expletive constructions weaken the prose:. The revision cuts just six words from the original, but those small changes create a much more engaging passage. Keep in mind why a college is asking for an essay: the school has holistic admissions and wants to get to know you as a whole person.

    Grades and standardized test scores will be part of the admissions equation, but the college wants to know what it is that makes you uniquely you. The essay is the best tool you have for bringing your personality and passions to life. An engaging style is essential for this task, and it truly can make the difference between an acceptance letter and a rejection.

    Share Flipboard Email. Allen Grove is an Alfred University English professor and a college admissions expert with 20 years of experience helping students transition to college. Updated September 20, Consider this brief example:. I have to admit that theater did not come naturally to me, and I remember that I felt remarkably self-conscious and nervous the first few times I set foot on the stage. Consider how much tighter and more engaging the passage is without all the unnecessary language:. Theater did not come naturally to me, and I felt remarkably self-conscious and nervous the first few times I set foot on stage in the eighth grade.

    My best friend had talked me into auditioning for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Although short, the follow passage is far from precise:.


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    • I like lots of things about basketball. For one, the activity allows me to develop abilities that will help me in future endeavors. Consider the greater clarity of this revised version of the passage:. Not only do I find basketball fun, but the sport has helped me develop my leadership and communication skills, as well as my ability to work with a team. As a result, my love of basketball will make me a better business major. Think about how many phrases in the passage below you've heard hundreds of times before:.

      My brother is one in a million. If given a responsibility, he never falls asleep at the wheel. Who others fail, he is not one to make a mountain out of a molehill. To make a long story short, throughout high school I have tried to emulate my brother, and I credit him with many of my own successes.

      What You Say Is Important. How You Say It also Matters.

      Consider how much more effective this revision of the passage is:. Throughout high school, I have tried to emulate my brother. He takes his responsibilities seriously, yet he is generous when dealing with the shortcomings of others. This combination of reliability and graciousness makes others turn to him for leadership. My own successes in high school are due largely to my brother's example. Consider the following passage from an application essay:.

      One Stop to an Admission Essay That Can Get You Accepted

      I have always loved soccer. I'm not exaggerating—my parents tell me I was pushing around a soccer ball before I could walk. I began playing in the community league before I was 4, and when I was 10 I began playing in regional tournaments. The example can be rewritten so that instead of seven uses of "I" there is only one:. Soccer has been a part of my life for longer than I can remember. My parents have photos of me crawling around as a baby pushing a ball with my head. My later childhood was all about soccer—the community league at age 4, and participation in regional tournaments by Consider the middle sentence in this short passage:.

      Although it wasn't academically challenging, I learned a lot from my job at Burger King. In fact, the job had rewards similar to several other jobs I have had during high school. The Burger King job, however, was unique in that I had some difficult personalities to negotiate. If the author deletes that middle sentence, the passage is much stronger.

      The game was spectacularly wonderful. I didn't score the defining goal, but I did manage dexterously to pass the ball to my amazingly talented teammate who adroitly kicked it between the goalie's desperately reaching fingers and the rigid frame of the right-hand corner of the goal. Compare the overwritten example above to this revision:. The game was close. I won't receive credit for our win, but I did pass the ball to my teammate who kicked the ball into the narrow space between the goalie's hands and the upper corner of the goal post.

      In the end, the victory was really about a team, not an individual. The revision focuses more on making a point, not melodrama. My brother is my hero. He is the person I owe the most to for my success in high school. He isn't aware of his influence on me, but he is nonetheless responsible for much of what I have accomplished. Here's the same idea expressed with stronger verbs:.

      More than anyone else, my brother deserves credit for my achievements in high school. I can trace my successes in academics and music back to my brother's subtle influence. Passive : The window was left open.

      You are left wondering who left the window open. Active : Joe left the window open. Now you know that Joe is the one performing the action. Passive : The ball was kicked into the goal by Wendy.

      Choose Your Test

      Wendy is the one doing the kicking, but she isn't in the subject position in the sentence. Active : Wendy kicked the ball into the goal. Note that the active form of the sentence is shorter and more engaging. The single most important part of your essay preparation may be simply making sure you truly understand the question or essay prompt.

      When you are finished writing, you need to make sure that your essay still adheres to the prompt. College essay questions often suggest one or two main ideas or topics of focus.