Essay writing lesson 4: Style and Tone

Over the years, our editors have seen some amazing stories become dreadfully boring and some ridiculously dry topics transform into an exciting read. The culprit (or hero): writing style. Witness the advice of some admissions officers:

  • Use a conversational style and easy-to-understand language to project a genuine, relaxed image.

  • Make sure that your essay is readable. Don't make us work. Give your essay momentum-make sure that the parts work together and move to a point, carrying the reader along.

  • Don't bore us. More often it is the monotonous style, and not the subject matter, that makes these essays dull.

A large majority of the corrections made by our editors fall into one of five categories:

1.- Sentence variety

Many students think that the longer the sentence they write, the better the sentence. This is far from the truth. You do not need long, complicated sentences to show that you are a good writer. In fact, short sentences often pack the most punch. The best essays contain a variety of sentence lengths, mixed within any given paragraph. Try reading your essay out-loud, pausing at every period. Listen to the rhythm of your prose. Are all of the sentences the same length? If each of your sentences twists and turns for an entire paragraph, or you run out of breath at any point, break them up into smaller statements. You may also want to try a more methodical approach:


Once you have completed your essay, try labeling each sentence "short" (under 10 words), "medium" (under 20 words), or "long" (20 or more words). A nice paragraph might read something like M S M L M S. A dry essay would be S S S M L L L.

2.- 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."

    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.

    3.- Verb tense

    As you write your essay, remember to focus on verbs and keep adjectives to a minimum. Pumping your sentences full of adjectives and adverbs is not the same thing as adding detail or color. Adjectives and adverbs add lazy description, but verbs add action.

    Passive Tense

    Our editors find that one of the greatest weaknesses of admissions essays is their frequent use of the passive tense. For this mini-lesson you will learn why the passive voice should be avoided, how to identify it, and how to replace it with the preferred active voice.

    Overuse of the passive voice throughout an essay can make your prose seem flat and uninteresting. Sentences in active voice are also more concise than those in passive voice. You can recognize passive-voice expressions because the verb phrase will always include a form of to be, such as am, is, was, were, are, or been. The presence of a be-verb, however, does not necessarily mean that the sentence is in passive voice. In sentences written in passive voice, the subject receives the action expressed in the verb; the subject is acted upon. In sentences written in active voice, the subject performs the action expressed in the verb; the subject acts.


    (Passive) I was selected to be the tuba player by the band leader.

    (Active) The bandleader selected me to be the tuba player.

    (Passive) I will be prepared for college as a result of the lessons my mother taught me.

    (Active) My mother taught me lessons that will prepare me for college

    (Passive) I am reminded of her voice every time I hear that song.

    (Active) That song reminds me of her voice.


    Fill in the blanks using the most descriptive or active verb phrase.

    1. After working closely with my mentor, I __________ advanced techniques in oil painting.

    a) was beginning to master

    b) began to master

    c) mastered

    2. My newspaper article on the labor strikes __________ both praise and criticism.

    a) generated

    b) got

    c) was the recipient of

    3. Once I joined the debate team, I __________ the opportunity to compete every weekend.

    a) sought

    b) had

    c) was exposed to

    4. Samuel's touchdown __________ the stadium crowd.

    a) created much energy in

    b) energized

    c) really energized

    5. Woolf's essay __________ my opinion of gender inequality.

    a) challenged

    b) made me take another look at

    c) was challenging to

    6. As Jessica drew near me, I __________ the baton and took off running.

    a) grasped

    b) got

    c) was given

    7. Once my mother had fallen asleep, I __________ the dolls on her nightstand.

    a) put

    b) arranged

    c) set up

    8. Chris and I __________ an educational project for first-graders in our community.

    a) began

    b) started

    c) initiated

    9. "Why didn't you ask me before throwing it away?" Jason __________.

    a) hollered

    b) said angrily

    c) started to yell

    10. Mr. Franklin __________ that he was our true father.

    a) let us know

    b) told us

    c) revealed


    1) c; 2) a; 3) a; 4) b; 5) a; 6) a; 7) b; 8) c; 9) a; 10) c;

    Changing Passive Voice to Active Voice

    If you want to change a passive-voice sentence to active voice, find the agent in the phrase, the person or thing that is performing the action expressed in the verb. Make that agent the subject of the sentence, and change the verb accordingly. For many instances of the passive voice in your essay, you can follow these steps:

    1. Do a global search for the words "was" and then "were." These words often indicate the passive voice.

    2. Cross out the "was" or the "were."

    3. Add -ed to the verb that follows "was" or "were."

    4. If that changed verb does not make grammatical sense, it is an irregular verb, so change it to the simple past tense.

    5. Rewrite the sentence around the new active-voice verb.


    Change these sentences from passive voice to active voice, or note if no change should be made.

    1. I was taught by my brother the principles of barbecuing.


    2. My father was given the title by the former head chief.


    3. The house was wrecked by the party and the cat was let loose by the guests.


    4. The house is a mess, the cat is lost, and the car has been stolen by Justin.


    5. Unfortunately, my plan was ruined by Gerald, the building superintendent.


    6. The roof was leaking. It had been leaking all week.


    7. The ball was thrown by Lucy, who had been hiding in the bushes.


    8. Francesca was placed on the first flight to Boston. Her father put her there.


    9. "To be or not to be?" That is the question.


    10. A feast had been created from nothing. I was astounded.



    1. My brother taught me the principles of barbecuing.

    2. The former head chief gave the title to my father.

    3. The party wrecked the house and the guests let the cat loose.

    4. The house is a mess, the cat is lost, and Justin has stolen the car.

    5. Unfortunately, Gerald, the building superintendent, ruined my plan.

    6. No change.

    7. Lucy, who had been hiding in the bushes, threw the ball.

    8. Francesca's father placed her on the first flight to Boston.

    9. No change.

    10. A feast had been created from nothing. This astounded me.


    Write a 100-word essay on anything at all (preferably relating to your essay topic) without using any form of the verb "to be."

    4.- Transitions

    Applicants often ignore transitions to their own detriment. A good essay must use transitions within paragraphs and especially between paragraphs to preserve the logical flow of the essay. An essay without good transitions is like a series of isolated islands; the reader will struggle to get from one point to the next. Use transitions as bridges between your ideas. As you move from one paragraph to the next, you should not have to explain your story in addition to telling it. If the transitions between paragraphs require explanation, your essay is either too large in scope or the flow is not logical. A good transition statement will straddle the line between the two paragraphs.

    You should not have to think too much about how to construct transition sentences. If the concepts in your outline follow and build on one another naturally, transitions will write themselves. To make sure that you are not forcing your transitions, try to refrain from using words such as, "however," "nevertheless," and "furthermore." If you are having trouble transitioning between paragraphs or are trying to force a transition onto a paragraph that has already been written, then this may indicate a problem with your overall structure. If you suspect this to be the case, go back to your original outline and make sure that you have assigned only one point to each paragraph, and that each point naturally follows the preceding one and leads to a logical conclusion. The transition into the final paragraph is especially critical. If it is not clear how you arrived at this final idea, you have either shoe-horned a conclusion into the outline, or your outline lacks focus.

    If you are confident in your structure, but find yourself stuck on what might make a good transition, try repeating key words from the previous paragraph and progressing the idea. If that doesn't work, try this list of common transitions as your last resort:

    If you are adding additional facts or information:

    as well, and, additionally, furthermore, also, too, in addition, another, besides, moreover

    If you are trying to indicate the order of a sequence of events:

    first of all, meanwhile, followed by, then, next, before, after, last, finally, one month later, one year later, etc.

    If you are trying to list things in order of importance:

    first, second etc., next, last, finally, more importantly, more significantly, above all, primarily

    If you are trying to connect one idea to a fact or illustration:

    for example, for instance, to illustrate, this can be seen

    To indicate an effect or result:

    as a result, thus, consequently, eventually, therefore,

    To indicate that one idea is the opposite of another:

    nonetheless, however, yet, but, though, on the other hand, although, even though, in contrast, unlike, differing from, on the contrary, instead, whereas, nevertheless, despite, regardless of

    When comparing one thing to another:

    In a different sense, similarly, likewise, similar to, like, just as, conversely.


    Connect the following sentences using an effective transition, when needed. (In some cases, the two sentences will be able to stand without a transition.)

    1) Ordinarily, I took my responsibility seriously and would write down classmates' names to preserve the silence and decorum of the school environment.

    When a different teacher walked in, a teacher known to punish too hard and painfully, I decided to save my friends from his hard strokes, and I erased all the names.

    2) Despite the windy conditions and below freezing temperatures, I could not tear myself away from the awe-inspiring beauty of the cosmos.

    Despite the frustration and difficulties inherent in scientific study, I cannot retreat from my goal of universal understanding.

    3) But the sadness with which she responded, stating, "He died when he was a baby," convinced me that it was true.

    It affected me as nothing ever would again.

    4) Finishing the test in an unspectacular six minutes and five seconds, I stumbled off the erg more exhausted than I had ever been. That night, I went home and caught a cold.

    Had I followed my survivalist and rationalist instincts, I would have quit rowing then and there;

    5) Immediately, I realized that I must dedicate my life to understanding the causes of the universe's beauty.

    The hike taught me several valuable lessons that will allow me to increase my understanding through scientific research.

    6) After my grandfather's death, I began to understand and follow his sage advice.

    I pulled out a picture of my grandfather and me at Disneyland.

    7) Often, she had to work from dusk to dawn living a double life as a student and a financially responsible adult.

    My mother managed to keep a positive disposition.

    8) In addition to working and studying, she found time to make weekly visits to terminally ill and abandoned children in the local hospital.

    My mother developed the value of selflessness.

    9) My mother made me learn Indonesian, the official language of our country.

    Also, she wanted me to develop interests in various academic and extracurricular fields.


    1) However; 2) Similarly; 3) The shock of this revelation at such a tender age; 4) That was three seasons ago. 5) In addition; 6) To cope with his passing; 7) Despite the burdens she faced; 8) From her experiences during college; 9) My mother did not only want me to have a broad knowledge of languages.

    5.- Essay clichés

    Top 10 Essay Clichés

    According to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, a cliché is "a trite phrase or expression," "a hackneyed theme, characterization, or situation," or "something that has become overly familiar or commonplace." The last thing you want in your essay is any of the above. Clichés make your writing appear lazy, your ideas ordinary, and your experiences typical. Arm yourself with the list below and eradicate these and other clichés from your writing.

    1. I always learn from my mistakes

    2. I know my dreams will come true

    3. I can make a difference

    4. _________ is my passion

    5. I no longer take my loved ones for granted

    6. These lessons are useful both on and off the field (or other sporting arena)

    7. I realized the value of hard work and perseverance

    8. _________ was the greatest lesson of all

    9. I know what it is to triumph over adversity

    10. _________ opened my eyes to a whole new world

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