Lesson Four: Style andTone
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.
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.
EXAMPLES:(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.
EXERCISE #4: STRONG VERBS vs. WEAK VERBS
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
2. My newspaper article on the labor strikes __________ both praise and criticism.
c) was the recipient of
3. Once I joined the debate team, I __________ the opportunity to compete every weekend.
c) was exposed to
4. Samuel’s touchdown __________ the stadium crowd.
a) created much energy in
c) really energized
5. Woolf’s essay __________ my opinion of gender inequality.
b) made me take another look at
c) was challenging to
6. As Jessica drew near me, I __________ the baton and took off running.
c) was given
7. Once my mother had fallen asleep, I __________ the dolls on her nightstand.
c) set up
8. Chris and I __________ an educational project for first-graders in our community.
9. "Why didn’t you ask me before throwing it away?" Jason __________.
b) said angrily
c) started to yell
10. Mr. Franklin __________ that he was our true father.
a) let us know
b) told us
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.
EXERCISE #5: MAKING SENTENCES MORE ACTIVE
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.
- My brother taught me the principles of barbecuing.
- The former head chief gave the title to my father.
- The party wrecked the house and the guests let the cat loose.
- The house is a mess, the cat is lost, and Justin has stolen the car.
- Unfortunately, Gerald, the building superintendent, ruined my plan.
- No change.
- Lucy, who had been hiding in the bushes, threw the ball.
- Francesca’s father placed her on the first flight to Boston.
- No change.
- A feast had been created from nothing. This astounded me.
EXERCISE #6: PASSIVE-FREE WRITING
Write a 100-word essay on anything at all (preferably relating to your essay topic) without using any form of the verb "to be."
Continue to Transitions
Who Are You? The Most Important Question in College Admissions!
At my first college admissions meetings with students, I ask parents to identify nouns, adjectives, phrases, and short stories that will help me know something about their son or daughter. Usually, one parent takes the lead, calling out a rapid-fire list of words: "Brilliant, tough as nails in sports, hard-working, a team player." Then the other parent chimes in with more adjectives: "Caring, respectful, great with children." I like to hear from both parents because moms and dads often have unique perspectives on their kids. To get a little deeper, I might also ask, "What was your son (or daughter) like when he (she) was a little boy (girl)?" Or, "How do you think your daughter's (son's) friends would describe her (him)?"
I take notes on what the parents say, and when they are finished with their verbal offerings, I ask students if they want to add anything. After the meeting, I email the list of the words to the student and parents, so they can keep adding words.
This exercise is the beginning of a process to come up with word messages students want colleges to "get" about them as they fill-out applications, write essays and have interviews. Figuring out how to communicate about what makes you "you" is one of the most important parts of applying to college.
Why do this? Well, last year's Stanford application asked, "What five words best describe you?" As they complete the application School Report and Teacher Evaluation forms, high school counselors and teachers appreciate word lists to help them write about what makes students stand out. Just so you know, research suggests that knowing who you are is a first step in becoming a confident, effective adult.
A Word List Starting Point
Since I always encourage students to develop word lists, many ask me to provide examples of words that other applicant families have come up with. To give you some idea, here is a list of descriptive words and phrases I have collected over the years:
A: Academic, adventurous, an advocate, analytical, animal-lover, animated, articulate, artistic, assertive, astute, athletic, autonomous
B: Balanced, brilliant, business-oriented
C: Can-do attitude, capable, caring, cerebral, good with children, class clown, community service oriented, compassionate, competent, concerned about others, confident, conscientious, considerate, courageous, creative, curious
D: Daring, dependable, detail-oriented, diligent, disciplined, down-to-earth, driven
E: Empathetic, enthusiastic, an entrepreneur, ethical, an explorer
F: Fearless, a finisher, fitness-oriented, flexible, focused, a foodie, friendly, doesn't suffer fools, fun, funny
G: Generous, gentle, genuine, never gives up, goal-oriented, goes beyond what is expected, good natured, good with the elderly, gracious, grounded
H: Happy, hard-working, health-oriented, honest, humble, GREAT sense of humor
I: Imaginative, fiercely independent, inspirational, an intellectual, intelligent, interpersonal, involved
J: Jovial, joyful
K: Kind, has real know-how, knowledge-seeking
L: Good with languages, a leader, a fast learner, logical, loyal
M: Mature, mechanically oriented, methodical, modest, motivated, multi-lingual, musical
N: Natural, nonconformist
O: An "old-soul," optimistic, organized, original, outdoorsy, outgoing, his or her own person
P: Passionate, patient, persistent, poised, polite, popular, positive, has stage presence, a problem solver
Q: Quick, quirky
R: A reader, reliable, a researcher, resilient, resourceful, respected, respectful, responsible, a risk-taker
S: Scholarly, scientific, a self-starter, science-oriented, sensitive to others, sincere, sparkling, spiritual, a sponge for ideas, a sports nut, stands out from the crowd, social, strong-willed, studious, supportive
T: Take-charge person, talented, a natural teacher, a team player, techy, tenacious, deep thinker, thirsty for knowledge, loves to travel, trustworthy
U: Unafraid, unique, unpretentious, upfront
W: Willing to step up, worldly, beautiful writer
X: A xenophile (love of foreigners)
I encourage you to take a look at the words above and circle any that apply to you. If other words or phrases pop into your mind, write them down! Keep the list in an accessible place so that you can refer back to them summer/fall of your senior year, when you begin working on college application materials.
By the way, if you want to share your own special words with others, put them in the Comments Section below, or send them to my Twitter (@admissposs) or Facebook pages. I'll then post a running list on my website, www.adMISSIONPOSSIBLE.com
Follow Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/admissposs