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: