9 Tips for Formal Writing Style
The College Essay
The Style of Formal Writing
Your college application essay is a formal piece of writing. The purpose of formal writing is for it to be as clear, well-constructed, and unambiguous as possible. Formal writing is often the most difficult to write, but the easiest to read due to the information being presented in a format that can stand alone without further clarification. The following are strong recommendations that will enable you to write a strong and professional college application essay.
One quick thing, if you find yourself needing to take a break, consider playing a game like solitaire. Staying in a relaxed, fresh state will produce your best ideas and writing.
1. Use the active voice.
The active voice is used when the subject of your sentence performs an action to a direct object. In other words, (noun performing an action) + (action/verb) + (object receiving the action). The passive voice is used when the subject is the thing receiving the action and the thing doing the action appears as an indirect object near the end of the sentence. The formula for passive voice is (noun receiving action) + (action/verb) + (optional indirect object).
Take a look at these examples:
Active: Sasha (noun performing the action) ate (the action) an apple (object receiving the action).
Passive: An apple (noun) was eaten (the action) by Sasha (the optional indirect object).
The active voice is considered to be more direct and clear. Writers who choose to use the passive voice take away the agency of the noun performing the verb, making the sentence seem weak and convoluted. Compare these two sentences from the introduction of two college admissions essays:
I have been in numerous leadership positions: president of the student council, treasurer of Latin club, and captain of the soccer team.
There were numerous leadership positions taken on by me: president of the student council, treasurer of Latin club, and captain of the soccer team.
As you can see, the second example is in the passive voice and seems awkward and indirect. Clearly, the second sentence is the less clear and concise option. The passive voice is often used by people who try to avoid responsibility (e.g. “the lamp was broken,” instead of “I broke the lamp”). You are trying to showcase your achievements in your college essays, so make sure to take responsibility for them by using the active voice!
2. Use literal and concrete language.
Save flowery and abstract language for works of fiction. When writing a persuasive essay, you want to make sure you use very clear and direct language. This requires excluding any metaphors and similes, alliteration, hyperboles, litotes, and other literary techniques. You want your writing to be easily understood in a quick read-through—abstract language slows down the reader and makes your writing less succinct. Instead of trying to create a literary masterpiece, concentrate your attention on concrete examples that support your argument.
Also, avoid using vague language. You do not want to say something like, “I am great at a variety of things.” Broad statements like these will leave the reader wondering, “What things? What qualifies you as great?” Rather, you should use concrete and specific language. Write something closer to “I received the MVP award from my basketball team three years in a row,” which unquestionably demonstrates your achievement.
3. Be concise.
Wordy sentences are hard to follow. We recommend not including any sentences that are longer than two lines in your essays. As a rule of thumb, never say in 10 words what you can say in 5. This rule is applicable to paragraph length as well. Of course, one sentence is not necessarily better than four, but make sure that every sentence says something significant. Do not use any filler sentences. College admissions officers can detect BS instantly—they see it all the time.
4. Be careful with placement of descriptive words and phrases.
Make sure that you place adjectives and descriptive phrases as close to the noun that they modify as possible. Otherwise, your writing can become difficult to read or the meaning of the text can be misconstrued. Take a look at these examples:
- I will be applying to the University of Pennsylvania in the fall.
- In the fall, I will be applying to the University of Pennsylvania.
As you can see in the first example, the descriptive phrase “in the fall” seems like it belongs to “the University of Pennsylvania.” University of Pennsylvania is not a seasonal school. “In the fall” describes when the action will be performed, not when school is in session. It is much better to place “in the fall” closer to the verb that it modifies, “applying”—as shown in the second example—rather than after the prepositional phrase.
5. Do not use abbreviations or contractions.
This rule is important in any piece of professional writing. Contractions are only appropriate for conversational language and come off as lazy in formal writing. Similarly, abbreviations are often unclear (not everyone know what CCC stands for).
6. Avoid repetition.
You do want to rehash your points and support them in different ways. However, you do not want to repeat the same point over and over again using different language. If several of your sentences are saying the same thing, it will seem as though you were not capable of coming up with more material to write about.
You should also avoid repeating the same words in your writing. Take care not to use the same adjective in every paragraph to describe yourself or your situation. If necessary, feel free to use a thesaurus. The English language has more words than any other living language—use them!
7. Always try to put statements in positive form (do not put them in negative form).
This will make your language seem stronger as opposed to noncommittal and hesitating. If you use the word “not,” it must only be in cases of clear denial or antithesis. Take a look at these examples:
- I do not usually arrive late.
- I am usually on time.
- He did not think that going to the baseball game would be a good use of time.
- He thought that attending a baseball game would be a waste of time.
In each case, the second sentence is stronger. In the second pair of sentences, the idea “did not think” is ambiguous, since it implies that “he” was not thinking about the baseball game at all! Therefore, do not put in a negative form anything that can easily be written in the positive. Negative form ambiguity is one of the reasons that singular words exist to express negative phrases. Instead of “not honest,” we have “dishonest,” and instead of “did not have much confidence in,” we have “distrusted.” Dig your brain for similar words before committing to a non-committal sentence.
8. No exclamation marks outside of quotations.
Technically, the purpose of the exclamation point is to punctuate exclamations (e.g. “What a wonderful day!”) and commands (“Stop!”). Neither should be found in a college application essay, so strike these from your writing entirely.
9. Do not exaggerate.
If you use an obvious exaggeration, your reader will be on guard and begin to mistrust everything you say—including the rest of your self-reported qualifications. You are trying to obtain and secure your reader’s trust; do not blow it by overstating your points.
Hopefully these nine points will help you achieve a formal style in your college application essays. Once you begin attending college, you will be expected to adhere to this sort of style throughout your academic and professional career—so it is best to learn early.