10 Tips for Better Essay Writing (2023)

Let’s take your writing up a notch–or two!

Ready to up your game in the writing department? Since you’re probably eager to show the adcom that you’ve got the “write” stuff and can relate your significant experiences and insightful ideas eloquently, these 10 tips are for you:

  1. Think about writing as a conversation on paper.

    It’s very common for people to tense up at the thought of writing their application essays. Unfortunately, writing when tense is likely to result in stiff and stilted prose. You’re likely to miss the flavor and colorful details that you need to make your essays pop in a compelling and memorable way. These details are in your head and would come naturally if you were telling your story to a colleague over lunch.

    Your essays are very important, of course, but your writing needs to sound natural and have some personality. That’s why we advise thinking of your essay as a “conversation on paper,” letting it flow in your own voice, not some foreign, formal tone you are borrowing as an Applicant to a Big-Name School. Don’t worry about overwriting at first – you will and that’s fine. Get everything down on paper that you want to say. The editing process comes later.

    A final suggestion: Before you begin, take a walk, stretch, and take some slow, deep cleansing breaths. These will help clear your head, relax, and jump start your writing.

  2. Vary your sentence structure and styles.

    Add interest to your writing by mixing simple, complex, and compound sentences. Don’t make all your sentences around the same length, either. Occasionally, write a very short sentence: “And that was the end of that job.” Or, “Suddenly, I knew what to do.” Occasionally, ask a question. Instead of, “I wasn’t sure what to do,” try, “What was I supposed to do?”

  3. Include useful transitions.

    Transitions offer logical links between paragraphs and between sections of your essay that introduce new ideas, adding to the reader’s enjoyment and ease of following your narrative. They tie one paragraph to the next through phrases such as “After this incident. . . ” or “To my surprise, six months later I learned that. . . ” Single words can also serve as transitions, such as “later,” “furthermore,” “additionally,” or “moreover.”

    When you are transitioning to a new topic, helpful transitions might include, “Unlike the formal atmosphere of my first office job, the atmosphere in the start-up I joined next was casual and loose.”

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  4. Write in clear, direct, straightforward language.

    Similar to our advice in Tip 1, avoid using “fancy” or overly sophisticated words in your essays. You’re not writing to impress the admissions staff with your hifalutin’ vocabulary, but to reveal yourself through your most notable achievements, formative experiences, and your vision for the future. If you’re using a word that is new to you, look it up and make sure you understand it and that it’s the right word for your purpose. While you don’t want to write in a style that is overly casual, a style that is natural and simply stated will be most effective and work to your advantage.

  5. If you are using the same word repeatedly, look for synonyms in a thesaurus.

    Here’s an example: Depending on the context, the word “training” might be switched to “coaching,” “sharpening,” “tutoring,” or “grounding.” Seeking alternatives to an otherwise overused word is another way to add variety to your prose (Tip 2). It is also good exercise for your brain, which will make you a better writer.

  6. Avoid the passive voice to tighten your writing.

    Compare the following sentences:

    • “During my sophomore and junior years, there was significant development of my maturity and markedly improved self-discipline towards school work.”

    • “During my sophomore and junior years, I matured and my self-discipline improved tremendously.”

    The first example uses twenty words; the revision, only thirteen.The shorter sentence not only reads better but gives you more room to offer the evidence that you really did mature and grow in self-discipline! As an aside, we do not recommend a wholesale excommunication of all passive voice. Sometimes it is necessary and sometimes, it works well stylistically. Use your best judgment for each situation.

  7. Think about your essay as a building where you are the architect.

    Your opening paragraph lays the foundation and introduces your storyline. That foundational opening should be attention-getting, setting a scene for your readers and placing them smack dab in the middle of an important moment in your life. With each additional paragraph you build on that foundation, adding new information and context so that readers appreciate the experiences you are sharing and how they shaped you. And within each paragraph, make every sentence and every word count.

  8. Avoid weak filler words.

    They are so easy to use, yet so utterly useless. They include words such as “rather,” “quite,” “somewhat,” “probably,” and “possibly,” as well as phrases such as “to make a long story short,” “needless to say,” and “to be honest.”

    Go on a search-and-delete mission for any of these words and phrases that flatten your prose. We predict that you’ll be delighted to see how cutting them strengthens your writing 1,000%.

  9. Beware of grammar check programs

    Grammarly is widely considered the best of the bunch in these programs and it does many things well. It will flag problems in spelling, punctuation, and grammar and alert you to awkward sentence construction. But as corporate communications trainer Elizabeth Danziger wrote on her Writamins blog, “Grammar checkers’ suggestions might tighten your document yet steal the flavor of your message.” She observes, “If Abraham Lincoln had run the Gettysburg Address through Grammarly, it would have offered suggestions like:

    Rewrite the sentence
    Choose a different word
    Rephrase sentence
    Choose a synonym

    “A grammar checker cannot intuit the flow and style of your whole document and determine if the stylistic problems it sees are essential to the message you are trying to convey,” Danziger cautions. Grammar checkers also lack “cultural awareness,” offering identical advice to everyone. So, use with caution. Benefit from the way these programs can catch outright errors, but protect your unique writing voice.

  10. Read and reread Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.

    Failing to follow basic writing rules may make you appear sloppy, casting doubts about your communication skills – two things you want to avoid at all costs when trying to make a good first impression.

    This gem of a book can help you avoid these errors. It remains a classic because it succinctly offers basic rules of grammar, punctuation, composition, and style. Available in paperback, this indispensable writer’s tool is only 85 pages long.

Ensure that your essays display your communication skills at their best–without you going cross-eyed reviewing them over and over and over. Check out our admissions consulting and application services to see how Accepted can critique and polish your essays till they shine.

But don’t take our word for it, read what our clients have said about Accepted.

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For 25 years, Accepted has helped applicants gain acceptance to top undergraduate and graduate programs. Our expert team of admissions consultants features former admissions directors, PhDs, and professional writers who have advised clients to acceptance at top programs worldwide including Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Columbia, Oxford, Cambridge, INSEAD, MIT, Caltech, UC Berkeley, and Northwestern. Want an admissions expertto help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!

Related Resources:

  • Five Fatal Flaws to Avoidin Your Applications, a free guide
  • 4 Tips for Highlighting Your Strengths in Your Application Essays
  • Identifying the Ingredients of a Winning Essay
  • 7 Simple Steps to Writing an Excellent Diversity Essay
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