Please don’t write like this…

By Lee Shulman Bierer, College Admissions Strategies – Founder


As I read student essay after student essay this fall, I find that I’m often asking myself, in not such a polite tone, “what were they thinking?”  Grammar and usage mistakes are rampant and many students are clueless when it comes to writing a non-academic paper.

Here are some of the worst offenders:

  1. Incorrect grammar: Please remember that people are referred to as who or whom; only things are that. I see a lot of “She was the teacher that meant the most to me.” When it should be, “She was the teacher who meant the most to me.”
  2. Weak words to avoid: these are words that don’t help advance your thoughts. My vote for the most overused word in college essays is interesting – unfortunately, it is not interesting at all. I consider the word interesting to be the same as “um,” “like” and “you know” in conversation. They are meaningless fillers that don’t improve the writing or the conversation. Equally wasteful words include: unique (not really unique), truly, partake, in order to and really. Words and phrases that should only be used sparingly include: being that, that said, it, this, these, and those
  3. Passive voice: Here’s an example: It is much more pleasing (didn’t use the word interesting!) to read “Dr. Jeckyll mentored me” versus “I was mentored by Dr. Jeckyll.”
  4. Non-active verbs, also known as boring verbs: Active verbs are your friends: think creatively and use your senses when describing things. Think about how much more powerful is it to say “The line snaked around the corner” versus “we waited in a long line forever.” Try to create some imagery with your writing and you’re likely to keep your reader more engaged.
  5. Predictable clichés: I find clichés to be the worst offender of all. Cliches are common phrases or idioms that are so overused that they’ve become worthless and indicative of a lazy writer.

Please don’t use the following: “ X college offers a plethora of opportunities,” “outside my comfort zone,” “broaden my horizons,” “every cloud has a silver lining,” “I’m a people person,” “I’m a jack-of-all-trades,” “thinking outside the box,” “at the end of the day,” “take it to the next level,” “bursting your bubble,” “in the nick of time,” “you win some, you lose some,” “good things come to those who wait.”

And the biggest offender in college essays would be…. “I learned more from the people I met on my mission trip than they learned from me.”

Please don’t write that.


Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to: ;