College App Essay Tip: Use the Active Voice

Flickr user Fibonacci Blue

Are you struggling with how to write your college application essay? Don’t worry! Many do. Quite a few students have to brainstorm to determine just what they want to write about and once they settle on a topic, the problem lies in HOW to write it. A major tip is to use the active voice. Here’s why:

What is Active Voice?

There are two versions of “voice”: Active Voice and Passive Voice. Active voice is when the subject comes first, with the verb afterwards. In other words, the subject performs whatever action the verb is describing. Passive voice, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Here are examples:

Active: My cat ate the mouse.

Passive: The mouse was eaten by my cat.

Active: Sandy cooked dinner last night.

Passive: Last night, dinner was cooked by Sandy.

Active voice is much more direct and to the point than passive tends to be. You understand what the sentence is about right at the beginning and can quickly form the rest of the sentence around the subject.

Active also tends to be very clear. There’s no question as to what the sentence is exactly about, making it much easier to read from start to finish. Passive voice can become long winded, vague, and wordy.

Why Use Active Voice?

It’s Clearer

Active voice allows your college application essay to be clear from start to finish. The school’s admissions department has thousands of essays to get through and while you may not want to go for “simple writing,” you definitely want to go for easily understandable.

It Can Make Experiences Easily Relatable

College essays tend to be about personal experiences. Using a passive voice, while great for some scientific or other formal papers, can make for a very difficult read when it comes to this topic. You want your story to flow so they can understand your experiences with you. The reader is able to quickly grasp what you’re going for without having to determine just what the sentence is about.

It’s Less Wordy

You also tend to have a word limit to your college application. With how wordy you can get with a passive voice, you could easily reach that limit without being able to fit in your entire story or point of the essay. However, you don’t want to go the other route and use passive voice in order to hit the minimum word count (for the reasons listed above).

Why Passive Voice Won’t Really Work

Passive voice really works best on scientific or more formal documents. Though it can be a useful tool if you’re trying to bring attention to a specific action rather than the subject.

Most people talk and write in active voice every day, making it easily understandable and much nicer on the eyes. Passive voice may sound “more intelligent” because it is wordier, but it really is a voice for specific writing projects only. Active voice allows you to get to the point of your essay quickly while saying less. Plus, the admissions department will thank you.

The “By Zombies” Trick

If you’re ever confused whether or not you’re using the active voice, use the “By Zombies” trick. If you can end the sentence with “by zombies” then it’s in the passive voice, and you should rewrite it. For example:

Passive: I’m proud to say the tire was changed…by zombies.

Active: I’m proud to say I changed the tire…by zombies.

The second example doesn’t make grammatical sense because it’s in the active voice. Use the active voice to escape the zombies.

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Hilary Cairns

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