Many students think that the longer the sentence they write, the better the sentence. This is far from the truth. You do not need long, complicated sentences to show that you are a good writer. In fact, short sentences often pack the most punch. The best essays contain a variety of sentence lengths, mixed within any given paragraph.

Try reading your essay out-loud, pausing at every period. Listen to the rhythm of your prose. Are all of the sentences the same length? If each of your sentences twists and turns for an entire paragraph, or you run out of breath at any point, break them up into smaller statements. You may also want to try a more methodical approach:


Once you have completed your essay, try labeling each sentence “short” (under 10 words), “medium” (under 20 words), or “long” (20 or more words). A nice paragraph might read something like M S M L M S. A dry paragraph would be S S S M L L L.

Word Choice

Many students overlook the importance of word choice. There’s a lot more to choosing the right words than searching the thesaurus for long synonyms. Here are three key tips to follow when writing your personal statement:

1. Don’t Get Too Conversational. Slang terms, cliches, contractions, and an excessively casual tone should be eliminated from all but the most informal essays. The following excerpt gives examples of all four offenses:

You are probably wondering, what are the political issues that make this kid really mad? Well, I get steamed when I hear about my friends throwing away their right to vote. Voting is part of what makes this country great. Some kids believe that their vote doesn’t count. Well, I think they’re wrong.

In an essay like this one, in which you must show that you take things seriously, your language should also take itself seriously. Only non-traditional essays, such as ones in the form of narrative or dialogue, should rely on conversational elements. Write informally only when you are consciously trying to achieve an effect that conveys your meaning.

2. Don’t repeatedly start sentences with “I.” It is typical for the first draft of an essay to have many of the following type of sentence: I + verb + object, for example, “I play soccer.” If this kind of simple structure is used too many times in an essay, it will have two effects. First, your language will sound stunted and unsophisticated. Second, you will appear extremely conceited – imagine a conversation with someone who always talks about herself. The trick is to change around the words without changing the meaning. Here is an example:

Before: “I started playing piano when I was eight years old. I worked hard to learn difficult pieces. I learned about the effort needed to improve myself. I began to love music.

After: “I started playing piano at the age of eight. From the beginning, I worked hard to learn difficult pieces, and this struggle taught me the effort needed for self-improvement. My work with the piano nourished my love for music.

3. Don’t repeat the same subject nouns. When writing an essay about soccer (or leadership), do not repeatedly use the word “soccer” (or “leadership”). The repetition of nouns has much the same stunting effect as the repetition of “I” (see above). Look for alternative phrases for your subject nouns. For soccer, you might use vague synonyms (“the sport,” “the game”) or specific terms (“going to practice,” “completing a pass”). In the case of leadership, you could use phrases such as “setting an example,” or “coordinating a group effort.”

Extra: Trimming the Fat

There are many words and phrases that can usually be deleted from your essay without any loss of meaning. Just as an athlete needs to work off the fat in order to perform well, your writing needs to stay lean in order to pack more meaning into every sentence. Extra words rob your prose of energy by making your language convoluted and just plain fluffy (also known in some circles as “bull” or a stronger variant). The following phrases are especially fattening because they invite passive constructions, those that employ the verb, “to be.”

I believe that, I feel that, I hope that, I think that, I realized that, I learned that, in other words, in order to, in fact, it is essential that, it is important to see that, the reason why, the thing that is most important is, this is important because, this means that, the point is that, really, very, somewhat, absolutely, definitely, surely, truly, probably, practically, hopefully, in conclusion, in summary.

Also look for subtle redundancies of the “X and Y” variety. Only a few examples of the many are provided below. In each pair, the two words mean nearly the same thing — so why write both? Such redundancies show the reader that you are not thinking about what you are saying. And, the more cliched phrases make your essay sound like all of the others. Instead of resorting to these sinister twins, think of more precise language, words that really pin down your unique experience.

Hard work and effort, teamwork and cooperation, dreams and aspirations, personal growth and development, determination and diligence, challenges and difficulties, objectives and goals, worries and concerns, love and caring.