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Grammar and Writing Style Tips

Even the most talented writers make grammatical mistakes! Whether writing is a favorite pastime or a dreaded task, if you are a college applicant then you will have to compose essays. As such, we’ve compiled a list of grammar and writing style tips to keep in mind when you are creating your personal essay or supplemental essays.

Grammar Tips

Check for run-on sentences.

A run-on sentence occurs when two independent clauses (or complete sentences) are improperly joined. For example:

 “Sheila wants to go to college she is working hard to attain her goal.”

You can correct a run-on sentence with a period or a semicolon:

“Sheila wants to go to college. She is working hard to attain her goal.”

“Sheila wants to go to college; she is working hard to attain her goal.”

You can also correct a run-on sentence with a comma and coordinating conjunction:

“Sheila wants to go to college, and she is working hard to attain her goal.”

On that note, avoid comma splices.

Put simply, a comma splice is essentially a run-on sentence that uses a comma as an accomplice (in its crime against grammar). Building on the example above, one might write:

“Sheila wants to go to college, she’s working hard to attain her goal.”

Or, to add a subtler example:

“Tomatoes aren’t actually a vegetable, they’re a fruit.”

Both can be fixed using the methods above.

Make sure it’s a sentence!

Sentence fragments occur when a piece of a sentence is missing (noun or verb) or if a complete idea is not expressed. Let’s use the following example:

 “Writing is hard work. Which is why you have to keep practicing it.”

The second sentence is a fragment and can be easily fixed by joining it to the main clause:

 “Writing is hard work, which is why you have to keep practicing it.”

Use serial commas consistently.

When listing items in a serial sequence, a comma before “and” is optional in the English language. However, omitting it can cause confusion. As a result, one may choose to include a comma after the penultimate item in a series, known as the Oxford comma, which we recommend. For example, the following sentence is grammatically correct:

 “During the speech, she thanked her friends, the president and God.”

However, without the last comma, this sentence reads that the speaker’s friends are the president and God. The Oxford comma does not allow for this misperception:

“During the speech, she thanked her friends, the president, and God.”

Whichever approach you use, make sure to be consistent.

Get rid of dangling participles!

A participle is a word or phrase that looks like a verb, but acts as an adjective and modifies a noun.

A dangling participle occurs when the participle is not tied to a subject. First, let’s take a look at correct usage:

“A speeding train entered the tunnel.”

In this sentence, “speeding” is the participle and “train” is the subject. Another example:

“Speeding faster than a locomotive, the train entered the tunnel.”

Here, the phrase, “Speeding faster than a locomotive,” is a participle describing the noun, “train.”

Here’s an example of incorrect usage:

“Walking along the road, a tree blocked our way to school.”

The participle “walking along the road” is meant to describe the narrator. But instead, this dangling participle modifies the “tree” instead. To fix a dangling participle, make sure that the participle comes right before or after the noun that it is describing:

“Walking along the road, we noticed the huge tree had fallen and blocked our way to school.”

Watch for consistency of verb tenses.

Do not switch between verbs in the past, present, or future within a clause. For example:

“On Monday, the children walk to school, but rode the trolley home.”

The fix:

“On Monday, the children walked to school, but rode the trolley home.”

Writing Style Tips:

Your writing should have a cohesive flow.

Each essay should have a main theme that you should build on throughout the essay. Try not to jump from idea to idea in an unrelated way, or you will lose your audience. A good exercise to do after you have written an essay draft is to see if you can summarize your main theme in one sentence.

Each paragraph should have its own idea.

There should be a main idea with supporting points in each paragraph.

Vary your word choice.

Make sure that you are not using the same word more than twice in a grouping of sentences. Varying your word choice is more interesting and allows you to choose words that convey more clearly what you want to express. Don’t be vague or choose large words out of the dictionary. Simple is better.

Vary your sentence length 

There’s no firm rule governing the length of a sentence and in theory a great sentence could go on forever. However, take a pass through your writing and make sure that all your sentences are crisp, clear, and easy for your reader to digest. Going on too long often results in confusion.

Similarly, keep your reader engaged by varying the length of your sentences. Too many short sentences in a row make your writing feel choppy. It gets repetitive. It feels unsophisticated. People start to get annoyed. Do you see what I mean yet? On the other hand, too many long sentences can become soporific and difficult to follow, so for the sake of keeping you awake, I’ll spare you a demonstration and just ask you to imagine four sentences in row as long as this one. So, switch things up. And, while you’re at it, use sentence length to your advantage. Longer, flowing sentences like the one that I’m writing right now allows you to add details, probe your ideas thoroughly, and create interesting descriptions. Short ones make a point.

Always read what you have written aloud.

When you are editing, reading aloud often helps you to hear your syntax errors and grammatical mistakes in addition to seeing them. Most importantly, make sure that your writing sounds like you! It should be in your own voice.

Each college applicant has his or her own voice and ideas to convey in the personal statement and supplemental essays. Writing your truth and expressing a piece of who you are as a person and student may seem like a complicated and intimidating process. Here at Collegiate Gateway, we’re always happy to help!

Grammar Tips For Last-Minute College Essays

You don’t have to be a literary genius to write a successful college admissions essay. You do, however, have to master the basics of grammar. While a missing comma or run-on sentence won’t earn you an immediate rejection, the fact is that admissions officers pay a lot of attention to grammatical and stylistic convention. Making mistakes, misusing idioms, or just plain clunky writing will appear sloppy and tarnish admissions officers’ impressions of you. On the flip side, making sure to adhere to some simple rules of writing and rhetoric is an easy way to polish up your application and impress your readers – and prepare for college-level writing!

Below, Collegiate Gateway has developed a list of some of the most common missteps, and explained how to fix them:

Fewer vs. Less

Don’t be embarrassed if you didn’t realize there was a difference – this is one of the most common mistakes out there, and one you probably hear people make all the time. For example, the sentence, “There were less people at the party than we were expecting” is actually incorrect. The rule is this:

If you are describing a countable entity, such as pebbles, people, or poems, use “fewer.”

Ted has written fewer poems since he got a real job.

If you are describing a non-countable entity, such as sand, soil, or sunlight, use “less.”

There is less sunlight in the living room than in the kitchen.

Note: When determining whether something is countable, ask yourself if the thing in question could be considered a unit. For example, the English language considers dollars (a unit of currency) to be countable, but money (the broader concept of wealth) to be uncountable. So you have fewer dollars in your bank account, but less money.


Vary Your Word Choice

This is more of a stylistic issue, rather than a grammatical mistake. Nonetheless, repeatedly using the same word or phrase to refer to something is rarely a characteristic of good writing, especially when you use the same word multiple times in one sentence. This is particularly true when it comes to names:

Colgate is my first choice. I first visited Colgate last fall, and fell in love with Colgate because of Colgate’s rigorous academics and outgoing student body. 

To fix this, just come up with other words that could refer to Colgate, such as “campus” or “university,” and substitute. You can also use “it” (but not too much), or simply write around the need for any word whatsoever:

 Colgate is my first choice. I first visited campus last fall, and fell in love with its rigorous academics and outgoing student body.


Dangling Participles

First things first: a participle is a form of a verb that is used to indicate a past or present action, and that can also behave kind of like an adjective. For example:

 Lying on the beach, I fell asleep staring at the clouds.

In the above, “lying on the beach” is a participle that modifies “I;” the speaker is the one lying on the beach, falling asleep, and staring at the clouds. A dangling participle occurs when the participle latches onto the wrong subject, creating a confusing, sometimes nonsensical meaning:

 After festering in the basement for months, my sister finally threw the potatoes in the trash. 

The intent of this sentence is obviously to describe the potatoes as festering in the basement. Grammatically, however, it is the sister, now presumably among the ranks of the undead, who has been festering in the basement for months.


Punctuation Within Quotations

This one is actually deceptively difficult, as the rule changes depending on the punctuation.

a) Commas and periods (that is to say, full stops) are pretty straightforward: they always go inside the quotation marks.

 “Alice,” she said, “dinner’s on the table.”

 My favorite line in all of Hamlet is: “to be or not to be.”

b) The rules for question and exclamation marks, however, are a little trickier, but ultimately logical: if they are part of the quoted material, they belong inside the quotes. Otherwise, they go outside. For example:

“Where shall I sit?” she asked.

But –

I can’t believe she said “your scarf is so ugly”!

c) Now, to add to the complexity, colons and semicolons are always placed outside the quotation marks. An easy way to remember this rule is that it’s the opposite of commas and periods:

I liked three things about his new book, “My Father’s Dusty Cardigan”: the style, the characters, and the plot.

The Split Infinitive

The infinitive form of an English verb has the word “to” in front of it: “to eat,” “to sleep,” “to dream,” “to wake,” and so on. When you split the infinitive, you stick a word in between “to” and the verb. Generally, it’s best not to do this. For example, what if Shakespeare had written, “to be or to not be”? Not as nice, right? The same applies to more common examples.

I decided to not run for office.


I decided not to run for office

I wanted to quickly run during the race.


I wanted to run quickly during the race.


It is worth noting that this is not a hard-and-fast rule, and there are a few notable exceptions;  “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” for example, sounds much better than “to go boldly.” The same would be true of “I decided to politely decline her offer,” versus “I decided to decline politely her offer.”  When you find yourself in a grey area, let your ear decide.

The Runaway Sentence

Though they might not technically be run-on sentences (see below, under “Comma Splice”), we’ve all written a sentence or two that just sort of, well, runs away from us.

Burdened by too many commas, semicolons, ands, buts, and all manner of other unnecessary clause-creators (which, that, and who) these colossal clunkers are just plain difficult for your reader to get through. The best way to tell if a sentence is too long is to try reading it aloud – if you have to pause to take a breath, your sentence is probably too long. Another good rule of thumb: keep your sentences to around 30 words (or exactly the length of this paragraph’s first sentence).


The Comma

The comma may seem simple, but there are innumerable ways to mess up its usage. Truly, we could’ve written an entire blog three times the length of this one on comma misuse alone. But in the end, nobody wants to read that. Here are some of the more common mistakes.

Missing Comma

You must use a comma after parenthetical phrases or appositives – material that’s self-enclosed in a sentence, but not wholly essential to its meaning. The following sentences are all missing a comma. See if you can figure out where:

My father, who was a very thrifty man never spent more than five dollars on a pair of pants. 

Virginia Woolf, author of “To the Lighthouse” and many other novels is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.

Commas belong after “man,” and “novels.” A good way to check for these is to read the sentence out loud; often, commas belong where you naturally pause.

The Comma Splice

Though it sounds oddly menacing, “comma splice” simply means linking two independent clauses with a comma. It’s also known as a run-on sentence. And it’s incorrect. Here’s an example:

We’re going to the beach, put on some sunscreen.

This could be resolved correctly in a number of ways. Usually, replacing the comma with a period, dash or semi-colon, is a pretty good bet:

We’re going to the beach. Put on some sunscreen.

We’re going to the beach – put on some sunscreen.

We’re going to the beach; put on some sunscreen.

How do you decide which to use? Read aloud, then make a decision that best suits the context, tone and style of your piece.

Note: This mistake tends to crop up around the word “however,” as people have a tendency to treat the word as equivalent to “but.” But that’s also incorrect.

 I’m good at basketball, however I’m not good enough to play in college.

This could be fixed in two ways:

 I’m good at basketball, but I’m not good enough to play in college. 

I’m good at basketball. However, I’m not good enough to play in college.

While we’re on the topic of independent clauses, it is also worth noting that you must put a comma before “and” or “but” when introducing an independent clause. For example:

I wanted to write the novel, but I ran out of time.


There are, of course, exceptions to these rules; “I came, I saw, I conquered,” for example, is an excusable comma splice. Not to mention that everything that William Faulkner ever wrote contains run-on sentences. In general, the best thing you can do as you write and revise your admissions essays (or really, anything you write) is to read your work aloud. Generally, if something sounds right, it is.

For further help with these or any other challenges (grammatical or otherwise), contact us at www.collegiategateway.com/