Category Archives: College Essay Grammar

The Paragraph Ain’t Dead

Remember that paragraph you learned to write in middle school? The one with the topic sentence, 3 supporting sentences, and a concluding sentence? Well, guess what– it never died.

The proper paragraph is alive and well.

More importantly, it is ABSOLUTELY what you should be using to write your personal statements for college.

I know what you’re thinking– those kinds of paragraphs are so constraining. Hell, at least one person is eyeing this very blog post and thinking: “But you’re not following the paragraph rules! That last chunk of text only has one sentence in it!”

Well, sorry my friend, but I’m writing a blog post, not a personal statement. Nobody is grading me on this post and, certainly, nobody is going to keep me from furthering my education because of it. You, on the other hand, need to follow the rules.

We tend to forget about the paragraph sometime either late in high school or in college.

Teachers suddenly stop caring if you indent. Students with non-traditional essay formats begin to make good grades. You also have to cite stuff and, you know, it gets tricky to cite things and still maintain a rigid format. I get it.

But your personal statement for college is an academic pursuit.

Some rules can be bent, but not all of them.

For example, the first sentence doesn’t have to be the topic sentence. You can have more than 5 sentences. You can even leave off the concluding sentence occasionally. But other rules cannot be bent…

Here are your basic, personal statement ground rules of paragraphs:
  1. All the sentences should relate to the same idea.
  2. You should have at least 3 sentences in every paragraph.
  3. You should organize your sentences in some sort of logical manner.

If your paragraphs contain sentences that are not even related to each other… you’re in trouble.

If the paragraph starts with “I became passionate about ponies because of my dad” and ends “I hope to eat a lot of sushi in Paris”… you’re also in trouble.

If your paragraph, quite frankly, just doesn’t even make any sense… yeah, big trouble.

If you cannot follow those ground rules, please don’t contact me. Some essays are exhausting to edit. That said, if all you need is a little help, check out my editing services.

An Application Misspelling

A reader writes:

“Hi Maija!

I just came across your site when I searched for an LSE Sciences Po comparison, wish I came across it before I handed in my application. (One year MPA at Sciences Po).

I’m writing you because I have a dilemma. I made a deadly mistake on my Sciences Po application -miss-spelling the name of the institution! And I’m wondering if I should contact admissions and attempt to send a revised one. It’s been two weeks since the deadline and the website states the decision will be given end of June.

I’d be happy to provide more detail and really hope you can offer me some guidance!

Many thanks in advance,


Dear Misspelling:
Ah! I can imagine how nerve-wracking that must feel.
Unfortunately, there’s really not anything you can do. Since the deadline has already passed and it is already June, chances are that they have already reviewed your application and made a decision on it. At this point, you just need to wait and see what the decision was.
That said, assuming the rest of your application was well-written and without typos, it is highly unlikely that misspelling the name of the institution is going to be a major factor in their decision. If your background and essay are up to par, you should receive an offer of admissions.
University staff understands that most students send off many, many applications. While a single misspelling doesn’t look good, it is hardly the most important factor in your application.
Relax, breathe, and try to do something else while you wait for your admissions decision. As for the future, try to get a second pair of eyes to look over your admission essays in the future.


Looking for a second pair of eyes to review your application? I can help!

Grammar Quiz: A Nod to Some Grammatical Issues I See Frequently

I hardly consider a clickbait grammar quiz to be a good judge of whether or not you truly paid attention to your high school English teacher. English grammar is very, very complex! Moreover, I think that it’s under-emphasized in American high schools. (And one of these days I’ll probably write an entire post about that…)

Although many of my readers who contact me for help with their college personal statements are foreigners, I would say about 1/3 are native English speakers.

Regardless of nationality, this quiz touches on a few issues that I come across regularly, such as:
  • who VS whom
  • affected VS effected
  • that VS which
  • then VS than

Of course, a quiz like this makes things look simple. When I’m editing a personal statement, grammar is just the first of many things that I look at. Word choice, overall feeling, flow, and organization are also equally important.

Nevertheless, quizzes are fun! See if you can get a 25/25.

Starting A Formal Letter: College Essay Grammar

Starting a formal letter for a job or college application is difficult. It’s true.

Your teacher will tell you that the best thing to do is to address an individual. But unfortunately, that’s not always possible.

In fact, since college admissions essays are often written for a team of admissions representatives, there may not be a single person to address. So, what do you do?

Here are a few options to consider (along with my personal opinions about them).

Starting A Formal LetterTo Whom It May Concern
  • Very impersonal – while this may be considered as technically “correct” it shows very little thought
  • Outdated
cross-1769870_1920Dear Sir/Madam
  • Reads like a translation from another language
  • Impersonal yet gendered, making for an awkward feel
  • Outdated
Starting A Formal LetterDear Admissions Committee
  • Although impersonal, this allows you to avoid outdated and gendered terms while remaining vague about the letter’s recipients
check-1769866_1280Dear University of Minnesota
  • Although still impersonal, stating the university’s name at least lets the read know that this isn’t a mass letter that you sent to every job/school
  • Feels somewhat more modern
check-1769866_1280Dear Department of English Studies
  • Shows that it isn’t a mass letter sent out to every school
  • Shows that you understand which department you will be joining

Oftentimes, you can start your college essays directly, without addressing a letter to anyone. However, certain schools (like Sciences Po) ask specifically for a letter. Moreover, you will find the issue of starting a formal letter is a recurring issue when you start applying for jobs after graduation.


More help with college essay grammar and writing:
Read more of my blogs about College Admissions topics.
The US College Personal Statement
The Five-Point Resume Check
Five Ways to De-Stress before a College Interview
Sciences Po: 4 Tips for Writing Your Motivation Letter


Structural Essay Mistakes: College Essay Grammar

One of my ongoing projects is reviewing college essays. Sometimes people contact me through my website for edits. Other times, I review applications (for admissions) for McDermott scholars at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Unfortunately, the more essays I read, the more disappointed I become in seeing the same errors repeated over and over again.

Here are 3 common structural essay mistakes that I have seen while reading students’ college essays:

1. Explaining your intelligence

As an answer to the question “Why should we accept you?,” students often say:

Because I am smart.

Okay– nobody ever writes it exactly that way (I hope). Clearly, this is bragging and provides no evidence of actual intelligence. But this is the way it is normally said:

In 2015, I was student council president. Then, later in the year, I joined the Academic Super League. After that, I was awarded a prize for my volunteering. Then, I did other incredible things.

Boring… am I right?

Listing your accomplishments in a college essay is boring… and bragging. A resume is for listing accomplishments, but an essay is for telling a story so that we learn about you as a person.

2. Banking on your diversity

Students often explain that they should be accepted:

Because I am from India, and I will contribute to the diversity of your school.

Being an international student does not give you an advantage over other students. The U.S. accepts over 74,000 international students per year. So don’t waste your word count bragging about your nationality.

Even U.S. students often say:

I will contribute to the diversity of your school.

Of course, colleges do want to promote diversity. But your passport alone won’t do that. Neither will the fact that your parents were immigrants. Or the fact that you are lesbian.

Instead, it is best to talk about how you will bring diversity. Maybe you will teach Hindi to fellow students, for example, or create an LGBTQ pride day on campus.


3. Talking too much about yourself

I am this. I am that. I have this. I did that.

Okay, so we know this essay is about you, but– just mix it up. Find another way to start all of your sentences besides with the word “I.”

The high school dance club was created by me.

Note that not starting a sentence with the word “I” is not a request that you re-word it in the passive tense. The active tense (“I started the high school dance club”) is nearly always a better choice than the passive tense anyways.

So don’t just re-arrange your sentences to avoid starting with “I” –re-structure your essay to tell a story about more than just yourself.


By fixing these three structural essay mistakes, you will find yourself with a much, much better product. And, of course, a much better chance of being admitted to the school of your choice.


More help with college essay grammar and writing:
Read more of my blogs about College Admissions topics.
The US College Personal Statement
The Five-Point Resume Check
Five Ways to De-Stress before a College Interview
Sciences Po: 4 Tips for Writing Your Motivation Letter

Conditional Verbs: College Essay Grammar

Maybe you are lucky enough to have an awesome English teacher who edits your college essays. Or, maybe you were exceptionally good at English grammar and are an expert when it comes to conditional verbs. However, for most people, this is a tough question:

Should I use the first or second conditional for my essays?

International students applying to programs at Sciences Po often send me their personal statements to review. In the process, I have noticed that students (regardless of nationality) often make the same mistake over and over again with conditional verbs.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. Beware of second conditional verbs

Oftentimes students send me college essays written in the second conditional.

That means that they use the words would and could.

The second conditional is used to talk about an imaginary, or unreal situation in the future. For example:

If I were accepted to Harvard, I would work really hard.

In this sentence, you being accepted to Harvard is an imaginary future– it hasn’t happened yet and it’s unlikely that it ever will. If it were to happen, then you would hypothetically work really hard. However, it probably will not happen.

The feeling is not very optimistic. Consider this:

If I were accepted to the program, I could learn many things.

Again, this suggests a doubt– that you might not be accepted. It also suggests that even if you are accepted, you might not learn many things.

Saying that you “could” learn many things indicates that the opportunity will be there, but maybe you won’t be prepared to actually study and take advantage of it.

2. Use first conditional verbs

In general, you should use the first conditional for college essays. The first conditional is much more optimistic as it is used to refer to a future in a real situation. For example:

If you accept me at Harvard, I will work very hard.

Here’s what you’re saying: getting accepted is a real possibility, and if it happens then you will definitely work very hard.

Even though in reality you cannot know what the future will actually bring (ie. perhaps you’ll get accepted to Harvard and then fail out), you should opt for positivity in your college essays.

Even if you do not use an “if clause,” you should still use the future tense because the “if” part is essentially implied. For example:

I will be able to take genetics classes with the finest professors.

is always better than

I would be able to take genetics classes with the finest professors.

because with the second sentence we are left wondering– why the doubt?

3. Don’t worry– it’s not pretentious

Last of all, don’t worry about the first conditional sounding too pretentious. It’s not.

It’s still the conditional.

You’re not saying that you will be accepted to the school, you’re just saying that you know with confidence that if you are accepted then you will X and Y and the opportunities will be Z. In other words, you are confident that going to this school will be a good choice.

Want more in-depth information on conditional verbs? Eduction First has a great post about it. 

More help with college essay grammar and writing:
Read more of my blogs about College Admissions topics.
The US College Personal Statement
The Five-Point Resume Check
Five Ways to De-Stress before a College Interview
Sciences Po: 4 Tips for Writing Your Motivation Letter