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3 Grammar Mistakes That Make Admissions Officers Cringe

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grammar mistakes OMG ur nvr gonna believe this but EA deadlinez r rly close. Srsly. And when you’re (not “your”) in a rush, it can be really tempting to write in shorthand, power through to the end, and kiss your essay “goodbye.” But as scary as the approaching deadline may seem, now is the BEST time to slow down, check your work, and avoid careless errors. After all, your early decision schools are likely your top choices. Hasty writing riddled with mistakes and abbreves isn’t going to cut it, and small errors can really start to add up in the eyes of an admissions officer.

“But, CEA,” you might be thinking, “what mistakes should I be looking for? How can I possibly comb through every word and weed out every error?” The truth, dear students, is that you may not be able to catch every last mistake, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try! (Note: use double negatives with caution.) Some mistakes are more damaging than others, so to help you prioritize, we’ve put together a list of the grammar faux pas to avoid at all costs. Plus, we’ve pointed out a few so-called “mistakes” that you can let slide without fear.

1. Basic Spelling Issues

There are a handful of little everyday words that people mix up all the time because they sound exactly the same (to, too, and two, for example). We totally understand how, when you’re quickly typing out a draft, you might type the wrong word without even thinking about it, but these are the kinds of errors that can make an admissions officer scratch their head. Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the most common mix-ups:

  • You’re vs. Your
    • You’re = the contraction form of “you are” (Example: You’re awesome!)
    • Your = the possessive form of “you” (Example: Your cat is awesome!)
  • It’s vs. Its
    • It’s = the contraction form of “it is” (Example: It’s a T-Rex!)
    • Its = the possessive form of “it” (Example: The T-Rex could not scratch its head.)
  • There vs. They’re vs. Their
    • There = a place that isn’t here (Example: My burrito is over there.)
    • They’re = the contraction form of “they are” (Example: They’re going to steal my burrito!)
    • Their = possessive form of “they” (Example: I am going to steal their nachos.)
  • Affect vs. Effect vs. Effect (a third weird one!)
    • Affect = generally used as a verb (Example: My healthy suggestions affected the school lunch options.)
    • Effect = generally used as a noun (Example: My attempt to make her laugh did not have its intended effect.)
    • Effect = used as a verb in very particular instances (Example: I’d like to become a doctor to effect change in my community.)

2. Capitalization

This is a tricky one! When should a word be capitalized and when should it just be treated like any other word in a sentence? Students have a lot of trouble with capitalization in their college essays because the rules for capitalizing certain academic disciplines, programs, majors, and degrees are not consistent. To help clear up the rules, remember these two simple tips:

  • Your major should only be capitalized in three (3) specific cases: (1) it is a proper noun (like languages or continents: English or East Asian studies), (2) you are referring to the specific name of the department, school or course (like the School of Engineering, the Department of History, or “Anthropology 101”), (3) it is the first word in a sentence. In all other cases, do not capitalize.
  • Degrees should only be capitalized when you refer to their full formal name, like Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Master of Arts, and so on.

3. Punctuation Problems

Hyphens, apostrophes, and quotation marks are some of the most commonly used – and easily confused – punctuation marks that come with their own sets of rules, so listen closely.

  • Hyphens (-) are the dash-like punctuation marks that help you combine individual words into longer threads (like “never-before-seen footage”). When you are combining words to form an adjective, they should be hyphenated when they come BEFORE the thing they are describing, but not when they come AFTER. For example: “I was a 17-year-old student,” BUT: “I was 17 years old.”
  • Apostrophes are used to make contractions, which combine two words (like you’re and I’m) and possessives, which demonstrate ownership. They are almost never used to make plurals SO DON’T DO IT. For example: “I like Beyoncé’s dance moves. They’re awesome.”
  • Double quotation marks are the American English standard for designating quotes. Periods and commas should go inside quotation marks. For example: As Beyoncé always says, “I woke up like this.” On the other hand, question marks should go inside the quotation marks if the question is part of the quote and outside if it’s not. For example: Who said, “Beyoncé isn’t flawless”?

4. Contractions and Informal Language

You may have heard that contractions are a no-no in formal writing, but we beg to differ. The whole point of the personal statement is for you to speak to admissions in your own voice. We say, use contractions where they feel natural. If you’d rather say “I’m” than “I am,” go for it. Of course, you still need to keep in mind that the person reading your essay is evaluating you, so your personal statement should not read like a string of text messages to your friend, but more like an email to a teacher who knows you very well. Informal language is also welcome when it comes in dialogue if it helps you capture the way a person speaks and acts. It’s all a matter of degree and deciding which risks are worth taking for the sake of your story.

As you edit, infuse your essay with vivid details.

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