Grammar and Punctuation

Admissions officers will evaluate your essay based on the ideas you present, as well as the tone and style you employ. They want to know that you can write well if your writing ability will help you thrive at their school. If your essay is riddled with grammatical mistakes, they will either think that you missed some important elementary school lessons, or that you’re just plain careless.

Don’t worry, we’re not going to waste time boring you with all the rules of grammar. By your senior year of high school, you should have a basic grasp of the English language. If you read your essay aloud enough times, you can probably catch most of your mistakes just by listening to how the sentences sound.

Give yourself enough time to pore over your essay multiple times. Make sure you take breaks between each reading so you’re looking at the essay with fresh eyes. It’s also essential to have a relative, teacher, college counselor, or friend who’s a good writer review your essay for any grammatical errors or typos you might have missed—as well as for tone and content. Here are some common mistakes:

Verb Tense

Is your essay in the present tense or in past tense? Do you shift back and forth between the two tenses without rhyme or reason? It’s a common mistake to start off in the present tense, drift into the past, then drift back to the present, without even realizing that you’re doing it. Shifting verb tenses will make you seem like a less reliable narrator. If you’re going to switch tenses, make sure you do it correctly.

Here’s an example of switching inappropriately:

I turn on the radio and hit the gas, back out of my driveway and head down my street, thinking with excitement about what it will be like to meet my grandfather for the first time. When I got to O’Hare Airport, I started to get nervous.

In this example, there is no reason to suddenly switch the past tense in the last sentence. It’s okay to recount a past experience using the present tense, but you have to stick with it.

Here’s an example of switching tenses effectively:

I often think about the drive to O’Hare to meet my grandfather for the first time. As I pulled out of my driveway and got onto the expressway, I was excited and nervous, but I had no idea of how much my life was about to change. Today, my views of the world are colored by the lessons my grandfather taught me.

In this example, a past event is used to reflect upon the narrator’s present views; the tense switches enrich your writing.

When discussing a work of literature, talk about the events that take place in the novel in the present tense; when talking about your experience reading it, use the past tense:

The first time I read The Great Gatsby, I related to Nick Caraway, an isolated dreamer who is trapped in a demanding reality.

Another common tense mistake is using the past perfect (“had,” plus the past tense of a verb) for no good reason. Don’t write, I had eaten dinner if what you really mean to say is I ate dinner. Use the past perfect when you want to show that an event that took place in the past occurred before another past event. For example:

I had eaten dinner by the time my mother got home that night.

Use the present perfect to show a link between past and present. It shows you still do something as opposed to it being completely in the past. For example:

I have played soccer all my life

If you want to show that an event or behavior came to end, stick with the past tense:

I played soccer all my life, until my mother fell ill.

Subject/Verb Agreement

A singular subject (such as puppy) requires a singular verb (plays); a plural subject (puppies) requires a plural verb (play). This is pretty easy, but it can get confusing when your subject is a collective noun (such as family, group, team, or class). A collective noun implies more than one person but is considered a singular and takes a singular verb:

The family hopes to find a house by the ocean.

Certain things that go together seem plural but are actually singular:

Peanut butter and jelly is my favorite sandwich.

Also, the words each, either, neither, everyone, nobody, somebody, and the phrase no one are singular and require a singular verb:

Nobody likes learning the rules of grammar.

Active vs. Passive Voice

When you revise your writing, ask yourself: who is performing the action? If you can’t answer this question, then chances are you are using the passive voice. Take a look at this sentence:

The citizens were not informed of the looming danger.

From this sentence, we know that the citizens weren’t informed, but we don’t know who failed to inform them. To turn a passive sentence into an active one, you need to name names and assign responsibility:

The police did not inform the citizens of the looming danger.

Use the active voice instead of the passive voice whenever possible. The passive voice makes your writing dull and listless; the active voice, which allows you to use strong, interesting verbs, makes your writing lively.

Look at your verbs: is the subject acting or being acted upon? Giving or receiving? Rewrite your sentences after you’ve figured out who’s doing the action, and insert the doer into the sentence.

Passive: I was given a drum set for my third birthday.

Active: My favorite aunt gave me a drum set for my third birthday.

Passive: Thanksgiving dinner was eaten in silence.

Active: We ate Thanksgiving dinner in silence.

Commonly Misused Words

There are countless words that students confuse and misuse in their writing. These errors aren’t fatal, but they’ll make your writing look sloppy.

Here are some examples:

It’s vs. Its

It’s is a contraction, meaning “it is.” Its is a possessive pronoun (The television series is in its final season). Possessive pronouns (his, hers, whose, its, ours, theirs, or yours) do not take apostrophes.

Use contractions like it’s sparingly in your writing. Some admissions officers perceive contractions as too informal for an application essay.

Affect vs. Effect

Affect is a verb, meaning “to influence”:

The death of my grandmother affected me deeply.

The word affect can also be used as a noun, but you will pretty much never use it (at least not in your application essay) unless you become a social psychologist.

Effect can be a verb or a noun. As a noun, it means “result”; as a verb, it means “to bring about”:

The presidential debates had an effect on the outcome of the election.

As president of student council, I effected significant change.

Appraise vs. Apprise

To appraise is to figure out the value of something:

After appraising the drawing, Richard informed Cynthia that her art was worthless.

To apprise is to give someone information:

In an urgent undertone, Donald apprised me of the worrisome situation.

Desert vs. Dessert

A desert is a place with sand and camels:

The cartoon character pulled himself across the desert, calling out for water.

A dessert is something sweet that you eat after dinner:

My favorite dessert is cookie dough ice cream.

Lose vs. Loose

To lose something is to misplace it or shake it off:

Michael tried to lose the hideous shirt his girlfriend had given him for Christmas.

Loose means movable, unfastened, or promiscuous:

The loose chair leg snapped off, and Doug fell to the floor.

Principal vs. Principle

The principal is the person who calls the shots in your high school:

Principal Skinner rules Springfield Elementary School with an iron fist, yet he still lives with his mother.

A principle is a value, or standard.

Edward, a boy of principle, refused to cheat on the test.

Eminent vs. Imminent

An eminent person is one who is well known and highly regarded:

The eminent author disguised himself with a beret and dark glasses.

An imminent event is one that is just about to happen:

When the arrival of the paparazzi seemed imminent, the celebrities ducked out the back entrance.

Lie vs. Lay

To lie is an intransitive verb; it describes an action being performed by something or someone. To lay is a transitive verb; it describes an action that needs to be done to something. The tricky thing to remember is that lay is also the past tense of the verb to lie:

Lie (lay, lain, lying)

Present tense: I lie down on my towel and soak up the sun.

Past tense: I lay down on my towel and soaked up the sun.

Lay (Lay, laid, laid, laying)

Present tense: I lay the pencil on the desk and try to focus on the question.

Past tense: I laid the pencil on the desk and tried to focus on the question.

Very Unique

Unique means “without like or equal.” There are no degrees of uniqueness; if something is unique, it is one of a kind.

Incorrect: My cousin has a very unique personality.

Correct: My cousin has a unique personality.

Ambiguous Pronouns

Writing is about communicating. Don’t make your reader guess the meaning of a pronoun. It should always be clear who “it,” “they,” “she,” “he,” “him,” or “her” is.

Consider the following sentence:

My dad met with the coach, and he told him that I was having health problems.

Who is he? Who is him? Instead, write:

My dad met with the coach, and he told the coach that I was having health problems.

Sentence Structure and Variety

The subject/verb sentence construction dominates most writing (I ate, We sang, The bird chirped). In order to avoid boring your readers to death, vary your sentence structure.

Undesirable: Her husband does not allow her to work. He does not allow her to take care of her baby. She longs to do something other than rest. Everyone says she is sick and must relax. She is trapped in her room. She begins to go mad.

Better: Because of her purported illness, everyone, including her husband, insists she rest instead of working or taking care of her baby. Trapped in her room, she begins to go mad.

By varying your sentence structure, you not only keep things lively but also you indicate to your readers which assertions are most important. They’ll instinctively understand that subordinated details (trapped in her room) aren’t as crucial as prominent points (she begins to go mad), and they’ll have a much easier time understanding your writing.

Also vary the length of your sentences. A varied rhythm to your words keeps your reader awake.


With only a limited number of words to get your point across, you want to be as concise as possible. Being wordy is failing to use only the words you absolutely need. If you see phrases in your writing such as being that or in regard to the fact that or just the fact that, you’ve fallen prey to wordiness. Here are some easy ways to keep your writing brief:

Avoid Unnecessary Definitions

Don’t waste precious space explaining the obvious:

We rushed to the emergency room, a bleak place where people who are sick or who have been in an accident wait until a doctor can see them.

There’s no need to define “an emergency room” as it speaks for itself:

We rushed to the emergency room.

It is and There are

Avoid starting a sentence with It is or There are:

Wordy: It is my father who makes the decisions in my house.

Better: My father makes the decisions in my house.

Wordy: There are some people who just don’t know when to stop writing.

Better: Some people just don’t know when to stop writing.

Wordy: It is to be expected that admissions officers care about grammar.

Better: Admissions officers are expected to care about grammar.

Wordy: There are many high school seniors who worry about getting into college.

Better: Many high school seniors worry about getting into college.

Personally and I think

You can leave out personally and I think because the reader knows the words on the paper are your beliefs:

Wordy: Personally, I think the Patriot Act provides the government with abusive police powers and methods to invade our privacy.

Wordy: I think the Patriot Act provides the government with abusive police powers and methods to invade our privacy.

Better: The Patriot Act provides the government with abusive police powers and methods to invade our privacy.

Two words are not better than one

Don’t use two words to say same thing:

I was happy and thrilled when my uncle told me he was visiting.

Choose the stronger word and delete the other. Similarly, you may have two sentences that say pretty much the same thing, just in slightly different ways. It’s tempting to use both, but decide which one is stronger and cut the other.


In every sentence, all of the different components must start, continue, and end in the same, or parallel, way. It’s especially common to find errors of parallelism in sentences that list actions or items. For example:

In the pool area, there is no spitting, no running, and don’t toss your half-eaten candy bars in the water.

The first two forbidden pool activities end in -ing (-ing words are called gerunds), and because of that, the third forbidden must also end in -ing. If you start with gerunds, you must continue with gerunds all the way through a list:

In the pool area, there is no spitting, no running, and no tossing your half-eaten candy bars in the water.


Using correct punctuation is vital to making your essay effec-tive. Misusing commas, semicolons, and other punctuation marks can give the admissions officers a bad impression, and it can even make parts of your essay unintelligible.

Although a few minor errors may not make a huge difference to your reader, a perfect error-free manuscript will make your application essay outstanding. You should know the basics, as listed here:


When you join two complete sentences with conjunctions such as and, but, or for, place a comma before the conjunction.

I want to go, but it is snowing.

If you’re unsure whether you need a comma, check to see if the subject changes over the course of the sentence. If it does, you need a comma:

The parrot squawks obscenities, and the dog eats nothing but steak.

If there is no subject following the conjunction, you don’t need a comma:

The parrot squawks obscenities and eats nothing but crackers.

Do not join independent clauses with a comma. Instead, use a period or a semicolon:

Incorrect: It is about to snow, we’d better not go.

Correct: It is about to snow; we’d better not go.

Correct: It is about to snow. We’d better not go.

Be sure to enclose parenthetical statements in commas:

My father, an avid skier, wants to move to Colorado.

Also use a comma to separate parts of a date or an address:

My niece was born in Morristown, New Jersey, on May 24, 2002.

Finally, be sure to separate items in a list with commas:

Correct: Chocolate pizza pasta and ice cream are my favorite foods.

Correct: Chocolate, pizza, pasta, and ice cream are my favorite foods.

Colons and Semicolons

Don’t use colons or semicolons if you are unsure of how they function in a sentence. The semicolon indicates a pause. It is stronger than a comma but weaker than a period:

My father has a wonderful sense of humor; nevertheless, he is a strict man.

The colon means “as follows”:

We learned five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

It should not be used to introduce a short list:

Incorrect: I went to the store and picked up: corn on the cob, hamburger meat, and beefsteak tomatoes.

Correct: I went to the store and picked up corn on the cob, hamburger meat, and beefsteak tomatoes.

A colon can also be used to introduce a single word or phrase, to show a close connection between the two parts, or to add dramatic effect.

There was only one problem with her theory: She had no proof.

Quotation Marks

Commas and periods always go inside the closing quotation mark:

“I ate too much,” said my little brother.

My little brother said, “I ate too much.”

The first word of a quotation is capitalized, but if you interrupt the quote don’t capitalize the first word of the continuation:

“Because of your rude behavior,” said Mr. Littell, “you can’t come on the class field trip.”

Exclamation Marks

Do not use exclamation marks to strengthen weak words. The exclamation mark should only be used for true exclamations or for commands (and never use more than one):

What a day!



Relying heavily on word-processing programs like SpellCheck or GrammarCheck can get you into trouble by lulling you into a false sense of security. For example, SpellCheck doesn’t detect if you use the wrong word; it only notices if a word is spelled incorrectly (and occasionally spell-checkers are wrong). So if you’re not careful, it’s easy to miss that you wrote the word compete when you meant to write complete.

Incorrect: I completed in twenty three gymnastics meats last year.

Correct: I competed in twenty-three gymnastics meets last year.

If you’re lucky, the admissions officers will be able to guess from the context what you are trying to say. But there is no reason to look careless.

Special Warning: Make Sure You Have the Correct College Name

Most admissions officers say their number-one pet peeve is when an applicant puts the wrong college name in the essay. It’s probably a good idea to know the names of the schools you are interested in!

SAT Subject Test: U.S. History
SAT Subject Test: Biology
SAT Physics
SAT Subject Test: Math Level 1
SAT Subject Test: Math Level 2
SAT Chemistry
ACT Test Center
SAT Subject Test: U.S. History Test Center
SAT Chemistry Test Center
SAT Subject Test: Biology Test Center
SAT Subject Test: Math Level 2 Test Center
SAT Subject Test: Math Level 1 Test Center
SAT Physics Test Center
New SAT Test Center
Mini SAT